I opened up a press release today and saw it glaring out at me like a typo: "upscale tacos."
What? Were they Fulbright scholars? Do they have erudite British accents? Do they own a set of Prada luggage? Do they bear little pinky fingers which they extend while sipping Dom? Do they only fly first class?
Or is it that they speak English as a first, rather than a second language? Are their tortillas a more copacetic white flour, rather than those peculiar, nubby corn dealios? And naturally, there will be no offal or secondary cuts, right? And all white breast meat chicken. But maybe just put some huitlacoche or a squash blossom on top. You know, for authenticity's sake.
We Americans are obsessed with tacos. We eat about 50 billion burgers a year (three burgers a week for every person) but we also eat about 5 billion tacos and 5 billion burritos. Taco Bell has begun delivery services because making a run for the border is too much to ask when a taco attack strikes. We'll take ours whilst sitting on the couch, thanks.
Still, there are few cuisines which suffer from the notion that it must be cleaned up, modernized, upscaled, high-ended, or whitewashed more than Mexican. Upscale BBQ? No thanks— we prefer it out of a blackened pit smoker out in the back yard; plates and napkins will be totally superfluous. Soul food? If it's upscaled, chances are it's ruined — we'll take ours "down home"-style. Pizza? If it's been yuppified, it's ripe for snubbing and finger pointing. But we will take extra cheese, please. Eastern European is only any good if your grandma made it. Fine Italian can work, but we're wary— really all we want is some all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatballs with an extra handful of cheese. Hold the barely cooked prawns, will ya?
But tacos teeter in a special no-mans land. We like them, sure, but don't get too exotic. Don't put any brains in there or tongues or any other foreign stuff. And you are gonna wash your hands, right?
Meanwhile the term "Street Food" has been so well adopted by the culinary world at large it's practically its own brand. But actual Mexican street food, potentially the oldest, (with a pedigree dating back to pre-Hispanic times) if not most pervasive street food, is the most maligned in the lexicon. Travel to any Mexican city, or even any American city with a large Mexican population (including our own) and watch Americans flood restaurants with prices on tacos fully three and four times the price of street vendors. Meanwhile, Mexican families are lined up on the street eating better food for a buck.
Open any mainstream travel book and warnings about ways to avoid shitting your pants all begin with the street food (or at the very least, they're trying to allay the average tourist's fears about shitting their pants after eating the street food).
Tacos and Mexican food seems to be the only cuisine where the term "upscale" gets lobbed around wholesale, like a preemptive platitude. Don't worry, the word seems to say. These tacos are the safe, clean ones.
Just as tacos can suffer on the other end of the scale with an obsession around "authenticity," no taco ever benefitted from "upscaling," unless you like less flavor for more money (though many people seem to enjoy nothing better). Even the lowest-brow taco chain there is lost its bet on trying to go "upscale". A menu item from that debacle: "One-Percenter Taco": Lobster, garlic butter, red cabbage slaw, and pico de gallo on crispy fry bread.
Suddenly, running for the border sounds like grand inspiration.