Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself: Alta California cuisine challenges expectations of Mexican food

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

Los Angeles was raised drinking horchata instead of milk. It was nursed back to health with menudo and caldo, snacked on chicharrón and Takis, feasted on birria and cochinita pibil. On holidays, it made tamales by the hundreds in a packed kitchen and, during the summer, ate fruit covered in Chamoy and Tajín. Los Angeles is, despite all the modern anti-immigrant rhetoric in America, a child of Mexico. Every other street corner sells tacos, frutas and hot dogs; the best burritos are cradled in plastic baskets and served inside of tiny shacks. While Los Angeles is a melting pot of many cultures, the Latinx influence is impossible to ignore — its name, ​Los Angeles, ​even bleeds green, red and white. It is one of the most unique places in the country both because of its strong Mexican influence and undeniable metropolitan growth.

​In the age where ​“Chef’s Table” ​amasses millions of viewers and Instagram food pages reel in millions of followers, the culinary world has never garnered as much interest and exposure as it does now. More and more middle-class individuals are willing to spend $400 on a prix fixe meal at Los Angeles meccas like Providence and Vespertine. Ingredients, culture and storytelling have never been as closely interconnected as they are right now on menus throughout Los Angeles. However, there is an element of the culture that is lacking: a part of L.A. so essential, yet so barren in the culinary world. If the people of Los Angeles are so willing to explore the food world around them, why has the country closest to us been so ignored in the rise of high-quality, culturally-based restaurants?

Generally, the average price of a meal depends on the type of cuisine. And for cuisines belonging to cultures the United States implicitly opposes, these prices are significantly lowered. Between the stratification of immigrants in lower-income areas forced to create cheaper food for the community, or the American expectation that “a good taco should never be over $2,” the food of most ethnic minorities in the U.S. is significantly less expensive than French, Italian or Japanese food. This is certainly true in L.A., where dollar tacos are abundant (and delicious). And while there’s nothing wrong with dollar tacos, the idea that “ethnic” food should be cheap is partially informed by an American bias — one that says some countries are simply not worth as much as others.

Los Angeles is positioned at a particularly unique intersection of Mexican food privilege: most of the fresh goods used in Mexican cuisine are available in bulk, and the strong Mexican presence in the city welcomes all varieties of food. The streets of Los Angeles smell of mole from Oaxaca, fried shrimp from Jalisco and roasted pork from the Yucatán. Bakeries overflow with pan dulce, and chile-coated tamarind sneaks its way into chain supermarkets. There is an abundance of Mexico in the sprawling areas of Los Angeles.

Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos, Carlos Salgado from Taco Maria, Eduardo Ruiz from Corazon y Miel and Ray Garcia from Broken Spanish all know about this abundance of culture in Los Angeles. They’ve lived in it for most of their lives. Using masterful techniques and high-quality ingredients, these chefs are combining the city of Los Angeles and the country of Mexico into a new genre of Mexican food: They’ve created Alta California cuisine.

By introducing gourmet, Mexican-inspired dishes, these chefs are combating (intentionally or unintentionally) our expectations of Mexican cuisine by creating food made by the immigrant experience, but still served on a fine dining level. Those who experience Mexican food in this way will begin to form new associations with the country, replacing images of cheap tacos with delicately fried chicharron and squid ink tortillas. For many, dining at an Alta California restaurant doesn’t feel like eating at a taco stand — because it’s not. It is redefining the expectations of Mexican food, forming new classics from expertly crafted traditions.

Alta California cuisine is for individuals who might scoff at a taco stand but will pay $200 for a dinner at Broken Spanish. It is for the foodies that will drive 10 miles in L.A. traffic to purchase a single taco adorned with sea urchin. It is for the people who have seen Mexican culture through a lens muddled by political propaganda and freezer section burritos. It is for the people who have a superficial understanding of Mexico but have never understood its culture. It is for the people who are willing to experience something new, something connected to history, something connected to another human being. Alta California strips away the platitudes of Mexican food and serves it instead as a person cooking their passions for another person — a fundamental and universal gesture of community.

In a world of nacho cheese-flavored taco shells and Cheeto-crusted everything, it is important to recall the merits and power of quality Mexican cuisine. Mexican culture is inextricably intertwined with Los Angeles; the city was nurtured into maturity in the shadow of Mexico. For too long, El Ranchito was the only exposure to Mexican cuisine, serving up massive platters of comforting classics like enchiladas, tacos and burritos. For too long, Taco Bell has stood in the limelight with their Mexican-inspired menu, a monolithic representation of a country with dozens of states and hundreds of unique subcultures. For too long, the street taco has been the closest dish to authentic Mexican food in Los Angeles and the rest of the nation. This city has the power to change all that.

Christina Tiber is a junior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.