Bill Esparza, a Latin food expert who’s visited every state in Mexico, recently wrote L.A. Mexicano for Prospect Park Books. In his first book, Exparza explains his personal connection to the diverse cuisine and showcases many people who’ve made L.A.’s Mexican food culture so great. L.A. Mexicano also provides an in-depth overview of regional Mexican dishes, ingredients, and where to find them in Los Angeles. I’ve known Esparza since 2008, traveled with him many times to Mexico to eat, and understand his knowledge far exceeds tacos, even though he programs the largest taco gathering in the country: LA Weekly’s Tacolandia. In the future, I could easily see him writing a book on regional Brazilian cuisine or hosting his own travel show. In the meantime, you can find him scouring L.A.’s backyards for birria or holding court over obscure bottles of agave-based spirits. Now, learn more about the man from our recent L.A. Mexicano interview.
Josh Lurie: How did you decide which families and establishments/trucks to feature?
Bill Esparza: The biggest challenge in writing L.A. Mexicano had to be choosing the 40 personalities that would be featured in the book. Obviously, there are so many other worthy contributors to the L.A. Mexican dining scene which made this difficult, more in terms of not just retelling many of the very well known and well documented chefs and cooks. It was important that there be an element of discovery, with enough lesser known figures to add depth.
JL: You feature many original recipes that pay homage to Mexican classics, in addition to restaurant recipes. What was the most difficult recipe to test, and why?
BE: Well, I learned the hard way that it’s wise to outsource your recipe testing and didn’t hire someone until I was under water with only two weeks to complete all my testing. At that point I was less than half way through the recipes. Making Rocio Camacho’s mole negro was a challenge because the skill it takes to achieve the same color, texture and balance she achieves through the cooking process just wasn’t going to happen in a couple of passes. She also taught me a lot about mole with this recipe-you hear people say that every household does it differently but when you search online it seems as if though one recipe has been copied over and over again with only minor variations. Rocio’s doesn’t use tomatillos, and it was confusing me–like I was missing something. I asked her where the tomatillos were and she said, “Well, my mother didn’t like the acid so she left them out of the recipe.” Then, she did this same mole at an event we did together without using any stock in case there were vegans, and it tasted the same. I asked 5 times if it had stock and she just kept smiling, laughing and shaking her head. So, my goal is to master her mole, some day.
JL: You mention prominent Mexican food “champions” like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy many times throughout your book, going so far as to say they “were seeking to impose their own dominance over Mexican cuisine.” You also write that Bayless “hijacked” the 100-year struggle for Mexican-American restaurateurs to gain mainstream acceptance. Have Bayless and Kennedy done more good or harm to Mexican cuisine’s perception?
BE: Yes, I believe they’ve done more harm than good for the Mexican community, and Mexican cooks. Kennedy seduced a generation of Americans that fell in love with Mexican cuisine, many of them moving to Mexico and fully immersing themselves in the culture. It gave white food writers access to traditional Mexican cuisine. Kennedy’s early books and then Bayless brought it to television and his restaurants. Food media let Bayless become the standard bearer of Mexican cuisine, but Mexican cooks and chefs in America don’t look to him, and Bayless isn’t a peer of Mexico’s greatest chefs and regional cooks, so who gave him the permission to speak for the community? When chefs like Wes Avila, Carlos Salgado and Ray Garcia are placed below Rick Bayless in the mainstream press, that’s wrong, and it has hurt the progress towards creativity. The conversation, until recently, about Rick Bayless and Mexican cuisine has taken place and been decided without input from the Mexican community of cooks–it’s a conversation among people who have limited knowledge of the cuisine or are stuck in the past. What Kennedy and Bayless value doesn’t acknowlege innovation in Mexico and the struggle of Mexican-Americans to be able to even cook their own food in America, as it used to be that Mexican restaurateurs had to call their restaurants, Spanish restaurants in order to operate outside the barrio. Mexican chefs and cuisine are respected all over the world–no saviors or ambassadors are needed.
JL: What stage are we at in terms of people appreciating and understanding the value and depth of Mexican cuisine? What other steps are necessary (other than this book)?
BE: We are still a long way away from mainstream acceptance–people love our food but don’t always love the Mexicans making it. Mexican chefs are absent at food events and on food television and food writers and critics have very little knowledge or experience with the cuisine. I saw several local food critics and writers practically kill themselves trying to get a table at Redzepi’s Noma Mexico, yet you don’t see them going to Mexico City to dine at Pujol, Sud 777, Maximo Bistrot, Quintoníl, or to Monterrey to visit Pangea. They don’t know about Francisco Ruano in Guadalajara. Asian and Latin-American cuisine are the future of dining in America and writers will have to do more outreach into those communities in order to really cover them. We need more Latino and Asian writers, more perspectives, and non-Latino writers need to do more to find the authentic voices in the Mexican community. It really is simple–try asking a Mexican.
JL: Any misconceptions you had about L.A. Mexican food culture that researching this book cleared up?
BE: In writing this book I became more aware of how Mexican-American cuisine formed, and was able to see a connection between the combo plates of our youth and the modern pocho cuisine of Alta California. It also reminded me that L.A. has been the center of Mexican cooking in America dating back to the founding of Los Angeles. Many pivotal moments were revealed in my research, like an AltaMed event [East LA Meets Napa] years ago when John Sedlar, a relatively unknown Ricardo Diaz, Cacao Mexicatessen and several other Latino chefs were all beginning to cook in a way that was uniquely L.A., a new comida chicana and an original style of Mexican cuisine born in America.
JL: You’ve now visited every state in Mexico. What are three Mexican dishes you’ve experienced in your travels that you would most like to see arrive in L.A., and why?
The three dishes that I think about often are burritos de carne con chile in Sonora; barbacoa de pollo relleno, a whole chicken stuffed with cactus, chiles and xoconostle from Tlaxcala; and pejelagarto (barbecued gar) from Tabasco. But, I don’t need them to come here–I’d rather go back to Mexico and have it there.
JL: What will it take for you to consider “L.A. Mexicano” a success?
BE: L.A. Mexicano will be a success when a Mexican-American chef wins a James Beard Award, the Carnitas El Momo family gets a show on the Food Network and when magazines and other publications actually talk to Mexican cooks and chefs when doing stories about our food. When that happens, maybe I’ll do brunch round-ups or write about what’s in season at the Hollywood Farmers Market.