LA’s Mexicano: Bill Esparza : New Worlder

Los Angeles based, Mexican-American food writer Bill Esparza has been championing Mexican food for most of his career, drawing both respect and advice from fellow chefs and writers including Andrew Zimmern, Enrique Olvera and Anthony Bourdain, to name a few. Having won a James Beard Award for his coverage of L.A.’s taco scene in Los Angeles Magazine, it’s no surprise that Esparza is the curator for LA Weekly‘s annual Tacolandia, which takes place on June 17th, but this week sees the publication of Esparza’s first book, L.A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places, a love letter to LA’s Mexican food scene. A deep dive into the complex food culture that permeates California’s most glamorous city, complete with profiles of local Mexican chefs and bartenders, interviews with vendors and purveyors, guides to the best eats and drinks within the city and recipes from the city’s most beloved restaurants, this is LA as seen through the eyes of its most popular cuisine and most ardent supporter. We caught up with Esparza during this very busy moment to chat tacos, Tacolandia and his new book.

Tacolandia is upcoming and in it’s 5th year. When was the moment where you knew you had to get involved with this festival? Tell us a bit about how Tacolandia has evolved since.

I was involved in several events prior to Tacolandia including The Taste, Beverly Hill Food and Wine and the LA Street Food Fest as a curator of traditional Latin-American restaurants. As far as I could see, no one else had much success bringing in mom and pop restaurants and Latino street vendors before I got involved. LA Weekly approached me with the festival back in 2013. That year we had only 25 vendors and today we’ve grown in over 120. We’ve grown in size but I’ve worked hard to maintain a high participation of small businesses and those that represent the best of what LA and beyond has to offer.

Year One vs. Year Five. What’s harder? What’s become easier?

What has become a challenge is that many other events, whether taco festivals or not, have adopted a very similar approach to curation, so I’m always working to bring in something new for our attendees, to keep the event fresh. When we started there were no other major taco festivals, and now they are everywhere, which is great. What has become easier is the organization and for me personally, just knowing my limits.

How do you think Tacolandia has contributed to the conversation around Mexican food over the last five years?

Tacolandia came along at the perfect time, when the taco scene in LA, as well as across the US, was really starting to explode. It’s help establish LA as the center of creativity and diversity in Mexican cuisine–we’ve always known this, but it’s another thing altogether to see all these styles: traditional, pocho, Alta California, Mexican-American, Cal-Mex and beyond, in one place.

With over 120 vendors, what are some of your go-tos? Which do you visit for:

A hangover: Birrieria Nochistlán
A regional specialty: Mariscos Jalisco
A pit stop with a first-time visitor to LA: Guerrilla Tacos
A bite with your mom: La Casita Mexicana
The best drinks to pair w/your taco: Pacifico, a michelada or a Mexican craft beer. Beer!

Pueblo de los Angeles is a landmark for the Mexican community. Tell us a little about EPPA — the charity partner for Tacolandia. Why it is so important?

El Pueblo de Los Angeles is the beginning of Los Angeles, it was where Mexican food first became accepted and it’s the birthplace of America’s taco craze. Thought the year, there are cultural events that take place on Olvera Street that are important to the Mexican community and to LA heritage. I’m proud to be hosting the event here and supporting the community.

In addition to Tacolandia, you have a book out this week. Your first, right?

Yes, LA Mexicano from Prospect Park Books, is my first book, which tells the story of Los Angeles Mexican cuisine through the people, places and recipes that represent one of LA’s defining immigrant communities, Mexican-Americans.

It’s pretty clear how important understanding the Mexican community is to understanding LA. How did you decide the format for the book — telling the stories behind each recipe, the chefs, the immigrant struggles?

The format was a collaboration between my publisher, Colleen Dunn-Bates and I — the format was more her idea and I organized the cuisines and selected the personalities to profile. There are few Mexican cookbooks made in the US that feature our Mexican cooks, and no one had ever covered Los Angeles. Immigration was a natural topic, as many of the families featured in LA Mexicano share a common story, of weaving their traditions into the fabric of LA’s cultural mix. The many waves of Mexican immigration to the most Mexican city in America, in a region that used to be Mexico have given us a variety of foods and conventions.

Is there one of the LA Mexicano stories that stands out most vividly in light of today’s political climate?

There are a few restaurateurs in the book that came to the US when President Reagan granted amnesty as part of his 1986 Immigration and Reform Act. I think that the policy’s being pursued by the current administration would have discouraged these outstanding entrepreneurs. We are worried about food production, of course, but we need people to open restaurants and contribute to the culture and economy of Los Angeles. People come here just to eat Mexican food!

You’ve gotten to know all of these people over the years in your reporting, how do you think the response will be from the Mexican community? 

It’s my hope that they get the opportunity to appreciate the individuals profiled in LA Mexicano and that it helps make them feel proud to be LA Mexicans.

You’ve been outspoken — most recently in an Eater LA piece — about how the critics still don’t get Mexican food. What’s your response to the latest New York Times piece about “Modern Mexican” food

The fact that the article used Redzepi’s pop-up as the focal point of the article is unfortunately, par for the course. The pop-up was a chef event attended by chefs and media, and part of a series of global pop-ups for Redzepi. It has nothing to do with Modern Mexican — I’ve no issues with the pop-up and don’t find it controversial at all, I just don’t get its inclusion in the NYT piece. I liked Claudia Prieto Piastro’s quote , “I don’t object to others working with our food. I do object to feeling like we’re supposed to be grateful that someone is shining a light on it.” It’s time we talked to Mexican chefs about Mexican food, both here and in Mexico, for a change. We don’t need culinary ambassadors.

Moving away from global Mexican — how has LA’s Mexican food scene, specifically, evolved in the last five years, the last 10 years?

The emergence of an original cuisine, Alta California, is the most exciting thing to happen to Mexican cuisine in the US. it’s what Mexican cooking should be in America–we have our traditional vendors for those foods we love: tamales, moles, tortas ahogadas, barbacoa, but chefs should be bringing something to the table other than a recipe they learned in Mexico. We’ve also have begun to see hyper-regionalism. Before we had Sinaloan, Pueblan, Oaxacan; now we see Mazatlán, San Luis Rio Colorado and San Juan de Los Lagos and specialties only found in those places.

Speaking of LA’s food scene — the New York Times recently declared LA the latest American city worthy of attention for its ethnic diversity, casual cool, and inventive chefs. Do you agree with this assessment or have people just not been paying attention? 

Well, yes, we’ve known this for a long time. LA is has layers and dimensions. On Friday night you’re at Bestia, Saturday morning you’re at the Grand Central Market and by night time, you’re making a late-night run to South Central for regional tacos after a meal at Song. On Sunday you’re in the SGV for dim sum, and if you want, you can lose yourself for months exploring Mexican, Chinese or Thai. We aren’t worried about tablecloths, just make it delicious.

You’ve been an outspoken critic of Trump. Can you comment on what would a border wall would to the culinary communities on both sides? 

First and foremost; it’s the hatred and rhetoric behind “the wall” that’s the most troubling. This will not accomplish anything positive for the US but it has terrorized the Mexican community in the US. We are putting our entire food system at risk, from the farm to the table, and the long term loss of labor could affect our food system for generations. In the short term, food is rotting in the fields, kitchens are struggling to find staff and we are losing valuable consumers and taxpayers. The one thing we all have in common, that doesn’t care about racial politics, is the cutthroat market economy that lords over the middle and lower classes. That should be our common ground, where we can agree on the basic needs of the daily economy, and that the best way we take care of our own is by doing what is logical. It’s a waste of life to care who is picking your food, cooking it or washing the dishes. It’s only important that it gets done. As for Mexico, it remains to be seen if they begin to do business elsewhere — the people who’ve been suffering and have been left behind will be most affected by any of these changes.

Anything else you want to add? 

America loves Mexican food, but it doesn’t always love Mexicans. LA Mexicano puts you face to face with the people that make the food America craves, and it is my wish that they get to know these amazing people. We need to humanize the story of Mexican food, and that can only be done by shining the spotlight on the Mexican cooks, chefs, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs that have been make America great since the founding of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula, or LA!

Tacolandia will take place on Saturday, June 17th from 3 – 7 PM.  For more information and to purchase tickets, click hereL.A. Mexicano: Recipes, People & Places is on-sale now.  To purchase online, click here.

Header image courtesy of Tacolandia 2016, The Brik’s Discada taco. Photo Credit: Anne Fishbein.