San Diego's New Taco Movement
The taco is San Diego’s next big thing. Please mess with my taco.
Taco purists are freaking out. Much like the burger and mac ’n’ cheese before it, the humble border-town classic has new, fancy friends. Four-star chefs are fussing with it. This makes taco purists use their sad emojis. “Don’t co-opt our street food!” they scream. Tacos are meant to be eaten without regard for utensils, manners, or hygiene. “It’s like putting Banksy in the Louvre!” The taco is not, never has been, a vessel for your culinary school frippery.
Smacks a microgreen out of a chef’s hand.
For decades, we were stuck with burgers boasting frozen meat pucks, white lettuce, and never-aging bread. Then In-N-Out used real, fresh food and legions followed them into the better-burger biz: Burger Lounge, Five Guys, Shake Shack, Smashburger, Fatburger, Habit, etc.
For decades, Mexican food in San Diego meant three rolled tacos at one of the ’bertos. Alberto’s, El Albiertos, Humberto’s, you name it. Sure, aficionados had their own favorite carts and hovels, like Las Cuatro Milpas in Barrio Logan, where “Mom” and her sisters make fresh tortillas in a shallow pool of simmering grease as you order them. And the legendary El Indio sells lard in buckets. That’s pretty hardcore. But Old Town has always been known more for its satellite-dish-sized margaritas than its culinary prowess.
Most San Diego diners loved the hell out of their burritos in to-go bags, but opted not to support more ambitious, refined Mexican cuisine (R.I.P. El Vitral, Frida, Venga Venga).
The taco is the gateway drug that’s changing that. It’s a comfy, familiar vessel that helps gringos overcome their aversions to trying next-level Mexican cuisine.
Bull Taco famously made a name for itself when, at their tiny snack shack on the San Elijo surf campgrounds, they started putting foie gras and lobster in tacos—served by towheaded surf punks. Three years ago, a couple of La Jolla brothers opened Puesto, with the idea to do for tacos what In-N-Out did for burgers. Downtown, Blind Burro started “Taco Fights,” inviting the city’s best chefs to go taco-to-taco to the death. Tacos Perla is serving crickets as a topping, and City Tacos is catering to the specialty-diet crowd in North Park. Now two of San Diego’s biggest chef stars—Javier Plascencia and Trey Foshee—have opened Bracero and Galaxy Taco, respectively. Next year, famed white-man Mexican chef Rick Bayless will open Red O near UTC.
What?! White people doing tacos? Isn’t it bad enough that Elvis stole rock ’n’ roll from black culture?! Internet forums are bullet-ridden with debates about “authenticity.” “The taco won’t stand for gringofication!” they scream.
The irony is that Foshee, a serious student of culinary history and techniques, is cooking closer to authentic Mexican food than many Spanish-speaking taco shops. Even in Tijuana, most kitchens’ industrial tortillas are made from genetically modified corn. Foshee sourced the best heirloom, non-GMO corn, bought a masa grinder, and makes his tortillas fresh daily. That’s the way Mexican food is done in the home: from scratch.
But let’s not try to justify gringofication, or adjudicate on whether or not the taco has jumped the shark. Authenticity is a bogus pursuit, championed mostly by pompous, precious aesthetes and exclusionary, elitist tools. At this point in culinary history, every food is bastardized. The bánh mì? That’s not Vietnamese. It’s French-Vietnamese, mixing Vietnam’s love of pickled veggies with France’s tradition of liver pâtés (proliferated in Vietnam during the French colonization). The burger is from Germany. General Tso’s chicken? American.
If Mexico wants to take an American hot dog and wrap bacon around it, god bless them. If Indonesia wants to douse a Big Mac with sambal, go Indo!
I’m glad the “better” taco movement is here. It’s not necessarily better, but it sure as hell is exciting. Please, mess with my taco. Give me higher-quality ingredients, non-Mexican ingredients—put ramen in it, for all I care. This tinkering with the tired, stale, “authentic” version of the taco will help Mexican-food chefs finally get the attention and creative recognition this region should have given them a long time ago.