Ugly Delicious Episode 2: Tacos


Tacos are delicious, but can they also be political? In Ugly Delicious recap episode 2, David Chang and friends explore just how complicated tacos can be.

For this Ugly Delicious recap episode 2 tacos opens in Los Angeles. David Chang (chef) along with his food writer friends Peter Meehan, Jonathan Gold, and Gustavo Arellano are in search of the city’s best tacos. Out of all the taco places, how do you pick where to stop? They recommend looking for words on the menu that you don’t understand, lots of varieties of fresh salsa, and homemade tortillas.

Stopping at late night food trucks and little food stands, they start a conversation about tacos that gets surprisingly deep. For so many people, tacos are fast, cheap food. Maybe its what you eat after a night of drinking, or it was a staple in your college diet along with ramen. But according to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA, “a taco is culture, history, migration, resistance, politics.” That’s a lot to fit in a tortilla.

Ugly Delicious Tacos,, Season 1, episode 2, photo provided by Netflix

Jonathan Gold, LA Times Food Critic, complains that fast food like Del Taco and Taco Bell have given Americans this false sense that Mexican food is simple, cheap, fast, and just a bunch of variations of the same few ingredients- tortilla, meat, cheese. He says that these places have made food “completely separated from the culture that produced it” and took the soul out of the food.

Contrast that with the food actually being made in Mexico.  Peter Meehan, food writer, visits Mexico with Rosio Sanchez and Rene Redzepi. Rosio’s Mexican parents were immigrants to the US and now she cooks Mexican food in Copenhagen. She trained under Rene who runs a Michelin star Mexican restaurant in Copenhagen. Together they have travelled to Mexico for inspiration.

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We watch as they sample ultra-fresh and unusual ingredients. They bite a crisp starfruit which actually has a flavor, unlike so much starfruit in the US. They scoop out the white flesh of an annona- a fruit that apparently tastes like vanilla and almond pudding. They learn that, if you soak fresh-cut pineapple in salt water for a minute, it will remove the astringency and burn.

Peter also visits with Eduardo Garcia, chef of Michelin Star restaurant Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City. He extols the Central De Abastos- the largest open market in the world. He says it has its own police force and transportation system and it is in a helicopter overview of this massive market that you get a sense of the wealth of fresh ingredients that are grown in Mexico.

Back with Rosio, Peter visits a small village for a traditional meal. Everything needed is grown right there. They pick annatto seeds from a tree in the village and hand-grind them with garlic and onion for a flavorful red paste. This is used on meat which is cooked in a covered pit. While waiting for the meat to cook, the women of the village demonstrate how to make handmade tortillas. The whole process takes hours and many different hands. It seems traditional Mexican food is anything but fast.

So how did we get the impression that Mexican food is fast and unsophisticated? Gustavo visits Mitla Café in San Bernadino California. Here you can find what I would call typical, tasty Americanized Mexican food. They have the staples- tacos, enchiladas, burritos- along with a sombrero decoration on their menu. They are a Route 66 roadside attraction.

And yet, Mitla Café is a family business which was started in 1937 by a grandma from Mexico who brought her traditional recipes to the US. Once here, she used the ingredients she could get such as ground beef, cheddar cheese, and iceberg lettuce. This led to some natural Americanization of her traditional food.

Interestingly, her café was frequented by none other than Glen Bell. Not knowing anything about how to make tacos, he visited often and ultimately opened Taco Bell. So Taco Bell is really Mexican food twice removed. It was already changed by grandma Lucia who altered her recipes for American ingredients and palates and then it was further changed to be standardized, cost effective fast food.

Gustavo asks Michael Montano, third generation owner of Mitla Café, how he feels about Glen Bell cribbing from their recipes. He says they are proud to be part of the history of food in America. “The immigrant story is about assimilation but also having that predominant culture assimilate some of your beliefs.” Here was one of the most startling premises of the show. A taco is a perfect location for cultures to blend.

Gustavo feels that Americans have a stereotype that Mexico is only influenced by Indian or Spanish culture and they ignore all the other cultures that have impacted the food. When they go to sample their first late night taco, David insists that his taco de camaron (shrimp taco) tastes just like har gao, a Cantonese shrimp dumpling. Gustavo tells him this could be influenced by Chinese immigration to Mexico starting in 1530.

They also try tacos arabes. These tacos use a pita-like bread and spit roasted pork that looks a lot like shawarma. It developed in Pueblo Mexico when Lebanese immigrants fled Turkey during World War I.

Ugly Delicious episode recap tacos, photo provided by Netflix

David also visits Roy Choi, a pioneer in food trucks in Los Angeles. He makes Korean fusion tacos like a short rib taco and a kimchi quesadilla. Roy feels that the taco is a “portable vessel of love” and is “representative of immigrant community.” He explains that tacos can bridge xenophobia and racism, bringing people together over good food.

It was at this point that the show reminded us that the taco has become a political symbol. You may recall the recent attempts to enforce legal immigration to the US, the discussion of the wall, the warning of taco trucks on every corner. For some, tacos have become symbolic of illegal immigration and the growing prevalence of Mexican cultural influence in the US.

David visits South Philly Barbacoa, a restaurant that got national attention in 2016 when Bon Appetit wrote about it. The headline proclaimed that “An Undocumented Mexican Chef Runs One of the Country’s Best New Restaurants.” Cristina Martinez, the chef in question, crossed a desert to get to the States to make a better life for her daughter.

They would like to expand their restaurant to accommodate crowds, but they are worried about her legal status. Her American husband tells David that anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry has worked with undocumented people and that a crackdown would have a huge impact on the industry. He hopes that food can help bring about change in the laws “one taco at a time.”

Next: Ugly Delicious recap: Pizza

The show ends in Mexico. There, Rene Redzepi, Michelin Star Copenhagen chef, has opened a pop-up restaurant with Rosio Sanchez, Mexican-American. They source local ingredients and employ the local women to make tortillas. It is a blend of fine dining and tradition created by Mexicans, a Dane, and the daughter of immigrants. It serves as a perfect example of the complexity of the “simple” taco which represents so much- history, culture, politics.