Food Trucks

Gustavo Arellano on Houston's Inherent Insecurity and Insultingly Racist Food Trucks

Gustavo Arellano -- a.k.a. "Ask a Mexican!" himself -- doesn't shy away from having strong opinions or expressing them. It's what has made Arellano into a popular columnist, author and public speaker over the years and what's bringing him to Houston on November 15 to kick off the University of Houston's lecture series, Food for Thought.

The free talk starts at 5 p.m. and will explore everything from how salsa overtook ketchup as the country's favorite condiment in the 1990s to why Taco Bell matters from a historical and cultural perspective. Afterwards, Arellano plans to consume large quantities of Tex-Mex food -- the subject of his most recent book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America -- at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe.

And perhaps while he's there, Arellano will get a small taste of the reason Houstonians were so incensed to have been left off his recent list of the 5 American cities most influential in the development and spread of Tex-Mex food. Although Arellano made it up to us in a follow-up post, he remains a bit mystified as to the hysterical (or "impassioned," depending on your perspective) responses he received from Houstonians after the list was published at our sister paper, the OC Weekly.

In a recent talk at the University of Texas San Antonio, Arellano related the story of discovering Houston's penchant for extreme agitation and anxiety when we are left off any national lists of any kind.

"So I put Dallas [at number three on the list of most influential cities] and figured there'd be no controversy," Arellano told the audience. "Oh my Lord, the people from Houston had a fit. And I love Houston, but I got in nasty, nasty fights with those folks from Houston because they were like, 'How dare you give Dallas [that spot]."

"It was a real scandal," Arellano finished. When Texas Monthly interviewed him about the list and the ensuing "scandal," Arellano said that he sort of understood the rivalry between Dallas and Houston -- but to his Californian eyes, there was more to it than that.

"The people from Houston got insanely mad," says Arellano. "But the people from Dallas didn't give a damn. So I think what that shows is just the inherent smugness of the people from Dallas and then the inherent insecurity of the people from Houston."

(Again, some people may call our "insecurity" perhaps "pride and misplaced anger." At least, I do. And as a lifelong Houstonian, I can't say I disagree entirely with Arellano's assessment.)

Despite this, Arellano is excited to get back to the Bayou City, although he admits that he doesn't typically eat Tex-Mex while he's here.

"I always try to get barbecue or whatever Mexican restaurant a friend of mine takes me to," says Arellano. "But he's proudly from Nuevo Leon, so he hates all Tex-Mex. He says that's not real Mexican food," hearkening back to Part One of yesterday's interview with Arellano in which he questioned whether or not "authentic" in relation to Mexican and Tex-Mex food was even a discussion worth having.

Instead, says Arellano, he ate at Tampico the last time he was in Houston...and loved it. Don't expect to find him at any of our gourmet food trucks, however.

"I find it telling that mainstream society didn't accept these taco trucks until non-Mexicans started running them," says Arellano. "It cracks me up and infuriates me to no end. It's insulting and it's racist."

You also won't find him dining at Taco Bell, as much as he respects the impact the fast food chain has had on propagating Tex-Mex food on a national basis. He's not necessarily a fan of Taco Bell's new "master chef" Lorena Garcia nor the Doritos Locos tacos that have been like late-night catnip to weed-addled drive-thru connoisseurs.

"I think it's interesting that Taco Bell couldn't find a Mexican chef," Arellano says of Garcia, which is certainly one of the tamest criticisms lobbed against the Venezuelan chef. "But I understand where Taco Bell is coming from. On one had, you have the Doritos Locos tacos so they're getting that crowd -- and on the other you have the Cantina menu."

"You can't keep serving the same thing again and again and again," says Arellano. But is any of it really considered Tex-Mex anymore, or has Taco Bell finished its job of spreading the Tex-Mex gospel across America?

That and many more questions are yours to ask Arellano on November 15 when he comes to the University of Houston. There will be a book signing following the lecture as well as ample opportunity to pick Arellano's brain at El Real afterwards -- he plans on inviting his fans on Twitter and Facebook to share the meal with him.

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Katharine Shilcutt