"This plasticware is on point."
Oscar Diaz cuts through a huarache, his one-liner sharper than his white plastic knife, which is now bent after digging into the thick, chewy masa. Diaz runs the kitchen at Jose and Sons, the premier Mexican-Southern restaurant in downtown Raleigh, owned by brothers Charlie and Hector Ibarra, who grew up in Raleigh.
But on this Monday night, we are seated in a booth at the more modest El Taco Market on New Bern Avenue. We're here to talk tacos—not Instagram them or critique them and then Yelp about it. We're here to discuss the insanely trendy idea of them.
Diaz regularly pops in for the tripe tacos, but today, a strip of blue painter's tape covers the word "tripa" on the Spanish menu board. El Taco Market owner Jacobo Ferrer says his supplier switched up the product, and he isn't pleased with the current offerings. He'd rather suspend the tripe until he finds a better purveyor. Diaz seems disappointed. The two chefs have a longstanding appointment to trade cooking tips—a tripe technique for an octopus recipe.
Faced with this offal absence, we settle for other staples on the Spanish menu board. A huarache with a hefty smear of refried beans, topped with strips of grilled beefsteak. A chorizo quesadilla, its crumbly meat outshined by a grand corn tortilla and stretchy Oaxacan cheese. And, of course, three standard tacos: al pastor, barbacoa, and chicken.
"It's nostalgic coming in here," Diaz says of El Taco Market, "but it's kind of funny. It's a Mexican-American nostalgia."
A culinary school dropout, the Chicago-born chef has worked in fine dining in Las Vegas (including a stint under Michelin stars) and Los Angeles. He often jokes that his parents didn't leave the small town of Villa Hidalgo in Jalisco, Mexico, just so their American-born middle son could sling tacos for a living. But you can imagine how often Diaz, as a chef and as a Mexican-American, gets asked where to get the best, or even worse, the most authentic tacos.
That's not a horrible thing to ask someone. And it's not that Diaz never offers a helpful suggestion. But it makes him uneasy, as if the simple foods of his youth have become a gimmick. It's symptomatic of a dissonance in the American obsession with tacos: the adoration of a dish from Mexico and the desire to master it, to become the experts, to find the best.
It is common practice for food writers and enthusiasts to seek out places where they perpetuate the idea of discovery and adventure, as in a recent News & Observer article that followed two prominent white chefs to their favorite Raleigh taquerias, reducing the experience to a "quest" rooted in "taco obsession."
Diaz says he doesn't want to be "a hater," but he has a problem with this sort of thing. The perspective of that story, and many others like it, is strictly that of the eater—who usually happens to be a white dude.
"If someone else writes the history book about you, that's what is remembered," he says. "If we don't start controlling the narrative, someone else is. And then we become spectators of our own culture."
Taqueros are supporting characters in our communities. What we know about our neighbors is what we know about their food. It's a beautiful lens, sure. But even when "discovery" comes with the best intentions, it can fail to truly represent a culture and the authentic voices of people who have historically been denied the opportunity to speak.
"My parents, when they got here, they didn't know anybody," Diaz says. "They didn't know the language. So they thought, 'We're going to try to make the least noise possible. Keep our head down. Stay low to the ground. Work work work.' When you grow up one generation removed from that, it's like, OK, maybe I just got hit by a car, but I won't say anything. Walk it off. Go home and drink some Sprite, the Mexican cure-all!"
Diaz grew up at a time when tacos weren't trendy, and the only person lauding them on television was mega-restaurateur Rick Bayless, a white man who has built his career on bringing traditional Mexican foods to American palates. Was there ever a dearth of Mexican cooks and restaurant owners doing this themselves? No. But, as Diaz notes, Bayless made it fashionable—and expensive. Meanwhile, it took decades for the likes of chef Enrique Olvera (Cosme in New York, Pujol in Mexico City) to be considered a true magician at a flattop grill in a fine dining setting.
"Growing up, you don't see many people who look like you spotlighted," Diaz, thirty-four, says. "Your identity is kind of hidden. It's not that I feel like no one else should make tacos. But maybe we should be the ones speaking out more for our own culture."
It's this recognition that Diaz and other first-generation chefs, cooks, and immigrants wish the food-obsessed would consider.
North Carolina has one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country, with migrants from Latin America steadily arriving. But the Ibarras and Diaz represent a Southern-born Mexican-American culture in Raleigh, one that's changing the palates of gringos everywhere. It doesn't have to be someone's abuelita doing the cooking to make it authentic.
"Now, it's us vatos locos over here, and we have an opportunity," Diaz says, referring to himself and the Ibarras. "We no longer have to do what people think they want us to do."
The chef-driven menu at Jose and Sons combines flavors from its proprietors' multi-faceted upbringings as first-generation immigrants, using Southern ingredients with Mexican techniques. The menu reads as a subtle history lesson, with braided corn husks on grilled cobs reminding diners that the popular ingredient is rooted in indigenous cultures on both sides of the border.
Diaz hopes North Carolina's diversity will eventually be represented as it is in Los Angeles, where cultures are so melded that everyone—Mexican, Korean, white, black—is an Angeleno. In L.A., Korean-American chef Roy Choi became famous for his bulgogi beef cheek tacos, a product of his upbringing. Rick Bayless didn't have anything to do with it.
Diaz is inspired by Ray Garcia, Esquire's 2015 chef of the year, who runs Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria in Los Angeles. With ingredients like foie gras butter and black garlic, Garcia, a Mexican-American, has elevated not just the taco but also his Latino cohort. TV chef Ted Allen wrote of Garcia's influence, "Latin Americans are not just rocking the line but also running the show with confidence and style."
To Diaz, this sort of acknowledgement feels belated, but it gives him hope that recognition will come to the hidden chefs in North Carolina's taquerias. El Taco Market doesn't get much love in the press. I haven't seen it reviewed anywhere beyond Yelp. Perhaps its Spanglish name and its second menu, which caters to a more 1980s American palate—with a $4 burrito special and a drive-thru window—aren't "authentic" enough. Which leads this gringa to ask Diaz the dreaded question: What is authenticity, here at El Taco Market?
"My uncle always told me that the sign of a good taquero is his salsas," he says. "And Jacobo's are amazing."
Ferrer laughs when I call him to verify the ingredients he uses in his salsas. Diaz had convinced me that the neon orange one included beer—the tangy aftertaste had a delicious, acetous bite to it. Ferrer, whose family modified some recipes when it took over the business two years ago, swears that I'm tasting the habanero and that absolutely no beer is used in his recipe. He's secretive about his salsas: Diaz's favorite is made with pure chili pepper and oil, like a chili oil at a Szechuan restaurant. It packs a ton of heat.
Ferrer says ninety percent of the menu is his own invention. He kept the gringo menu because of the regular drive-thru customers it brings. He knows he represents a transition in Southern demographics. He has adopted Spanglish as his second language, and he welcomes collaborating with Diaz.
"This is not a competition," Ferrer says. "I may not be a trained chef, but we care about the same thing. We're in this together."
"I like to see food from the minds of people who grew up in the culture," says Diaz. "What do they want to create that reminds them of their grandmother? Or of what they learned on the line? That won't necessarily be more authentic, but it will be more appropriate for our culture, as opposed to being obsessed with a culture and then becoming the voice of it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Taco Trap"