The best Mexican dish in America
Greetings from the Mile-High City! I’ve been traveling this week and despite my best intentions, I’m not going to have time to get out a full newsletter before my afternoon obligations kick in. My plan right now is to get out a full newsletter early next week, then back to a regular schedule for Friday’s newsletter. Then I get fired. I have lots of travel coming up and don’t want this to happen again, so if you are interested in guest-editing an issue of Snack Cart, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I do want to include a follow-up to a story I mentioned last week. Short version: Two white women opened a pop-up breakfast burrito spot and gave an interview where they talked about stealing ideas from old mexican ladies in Baja. Backlash, counter-backlash, restaurant shuts down. It’s mostly over, we would be remiss not to list to Gustavo Arellano’s opinion. Arellano literally wrote the book on Mexican-American food. He points out that the overarching narrative is a bit racist. Cooking is about ripping off ideas and no one has done that more than Mexicans. Why do we assume these poor, helpless Mexicans need our help? Did they ask us for it? He mostly criticizes the women in Portland for not sticking to their guns.
I’ve been thinking about Arellano a lot this trip. His book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America is the best thing about food I’ve read in the past few years. Food writing has an awful lot of sameness to it. You’ve got your traditionalists, your “woke” writers, neo-Bourdains, whatever it is Vice does. Lots of pieces about why fast food is actually good.
Arellano is different. There’s no one writing quite like him anywhere in the country. When we are obsessed with concepts of authenticity, we forget that most food ventures are real people just trying to get by or make a quick buck. He writes about Mexican food and Mexican-Americans with no pretension or condescension. He writes the same way about gabachos.
It was in his book that I learned the burrito was invented in America, and that most of the super-large supermarket Mexican food chains we think of as peak inauthentic were actually created by Mexican-American families. It was through Arellano that I came to believe that Mexican-American regional cuisine deserves just as much respect as whatever Rick Bayless is serving.
If you want to read one thing this week to be smarter about food, read this article by Arellano from Westword, Denver’s alt-weekly. In it, he argues that Denver is actually home to the best Mexican-American dish in the United States. He’s talking about this thing:
The Mexican Cheeseburger at Original Chubby’s. I’ll quote Arellano quoting himself:
Brace yourselves, folks: underneath that Syracuse Orangeman-hued chile lies the structure of a burrito—a flour tortilla containing refried beans, your choice of meat, and a grilled hamburger patty, almost extant in shape. On top of this is the chile: flecked with pork, spicier than the competition, smothered completely over the burrito until it's little more than a beached whale over a viscous, spicy sea. The flour tortilla itself is cooked well until it becomes firm, almost crispy, so you can slice off a chunk of Mexican hamburger and it won't flop around on your fork as it enters your mouth. The patty sits in the center, well-done, its beefiness absorbing the pork fat of the chicharrones and the lard of the refried beans. When you order one, the Chubby's staff serves it on a cardboard plate, then puts another plate on top and staples them together, to ensure not a drop of the ambrosia spills and wastes.
I've had puffy tacos in San Antonio that produced visions of grandeur, glorious bowls of the green in Hatch, fabulous taco pizzas in Minnesota, and gargantuan Mission burritos in San Francisco, but the Mexican hamburger is the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience, a monument to mestizaje. The tortilla is wholly indigenous; its flour version, the legacy of Spain. The focus on green chile places the Mexican hamburger firmly in the Southwest; its gravy, the legacy of Tex-Mex. The hamburger patty, of course, is wholly American—but even that has a German past. This fugue is pure rascuache, the Mexican concept of creating beauty from seeming crap. And the taste? Heavy, thick, yet Chubby's Mexican hamburger at its best retains all the flavors of its distinct parts. No added salsa is necessary—amazingly, underneath all that heartiness, the chile comes through and zaps every cell of your body into attention.
Let the Baylessistas scream—this is a dish as Mexican as the Templo Mayor, as American as the Washington Monument, as Chicano as George Lopez.
Chubby’s was my first stop when I landed. I ordered the Mexican Cheeseburger. It arrives just as he describes. It’s just as gloriously gloopy. I didn’t see God, but then again, the specialness of this dish seems to come from its thesis statement. It was cooked by what looked like Mexican guys in the back. Three ancient and cranky white people ran the counter. The line featured all types, and I shared a table outside with a middle-aged black guy who was absolutely housing a series of crunchy tacos.
We’re in a weird and scary place in America. We’re fighting over the identity of our country. A lot of the times, that also means we’re fighting over identities: ours and others. That fight seems to be between sweeping groups: urban liberals, virtuous DREAMers, Trump voters. But we know these labels don't make sense even as we use them. It’s easy for liberals like me to look at the broad and racist generalizations opponents of immigration make and overlook the ones we sometimes make about the very people we are supporting. Like, say, about who can cook what. I’m not equating this with whatever racist and monstrous crap Jeff Sessions does tomorrow, but we won’t arrive at our glorious mestizaje future if we don’t treat people as people, not groups.
I love reading Gustavo Arellano because he never stops pointing this out. He never stops calling out our bullshit about ‘isms’ and identities. It’s why his book about tacos helped me think about race in America more deeply than I had before. Arellano never stops saying that on both sides, we’re all people. Even if the other side is a bunch of pendejos.
However we resolve our current politics, we’ll need more of that. So read more Gustavo Arellano. And in the meantime, the best Mexican dish in the country is a cheeseburger in a burrito covered in melted cheese and chili sauce.