When it comes to Mexican food in the United States, there’s perhaps no greater authority than Gustavo Arrellano, who literally wrote the book on the matter in his saliva-inducing 2012 narrative, “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”
But the term “Mexican food” is a broad blanket – one that often fails to properly highlight how Mexican food has evolved over the years and differs from place to place throughout the country.
Arellano, a longtime investigative reporter, columnist for the LA Times and frequent guest on television shows like Netflix’s “Taco Chronicles,” will speak on that very topic at 8 p.m. Thursday in a live-streamed presentation for El Pueblo History Museum as part of History Colorado’s Borderlands Speaker Series.
“It’s basically a lecture … just giving the history of Mexican food in the Southwest with a special emphasis on what I call Pueblo-Mex food and Den-Mex food, in other words, the unique Mexican foods of Colorado,” Arellano said.
“I’m going to talk a little bit about: What is this food? What marks the food that makes it different from other places in the United States? And just try to make everyone as hungry as possible and, once this damn pandemic’s over, to visit Pueblo to try its Mexican food.”
Arellano gets a taste of Pueblo-Mex cuisine
Arellano got his introduction to Pueblo-Mex cuisine back in 2018, as he was making one of his frequent visits to Denver.
The historic Denver Chicano Theater, Su Teatro, was creating a play about Arellano’s nationally syndicated ¡Ask a Mexican! column. One of the theater’s actresses, a Pueblo native, prepared for him a gift.
“She was like, ‘I know you like Mexican food and I know you like tortillas, so here’s a gift that I made for you. I made you Pueblo-style flour tortilla,’” Arellano recalled.
“And I ate it and I’m like, ‘Oh my freaking god. What the hell is this? I’ve never had a tortilla like this before.’ I was an immediate convert.”
Enamored by the experience, Arellano, who had stopped in Denver as part of a road trip to New Mexico, set aside some time from his trip to stop in Pueblo and eat as much local Mexican food as possible.
He returned to Pueblo later that year to give a lecture at El Pueblo History Museum, which gave him the opportunity to try more Pueblo foods.
“I was so enthralled with the Pueblo food that I pitched to the editors of eater.com, ‘Let me do a Pueblo story and go from Las Cruces, New Mexico, all the way up to Denver. I’m going to deem it the Great American Chile Highway and really get into some of these restaurants, especially in southern Colorado, that no one – especially in the American media – is covering this food.”
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Pueblo’s flour tortilla sets its Mexican cuisine apart
Arellano said although there’s Mexican food all throughout the American Southwest, there’s some pretty big differences in how different cities prepare and present the cuisine.
“The most interesting thing about this — and this is not exclusive to Colorado — this is for any place in the United States that has a longstanding Mexican American community – they’re going to have their own style of Mexican food,” Arellano said.
Pueblo, for instance, is well known for its famous sloppers, which Arellano said are “not really Mexican, per se” but use what is perhaps the biggest staple of all Mexican cuisines – the chile pepper.
Arellano said what he finds most unique about Pueblo-Mex food is its use of the flour tortilla. He runs an annual tortilla tournament in Southern California and said he’s never seen another tortilla – either in Mexico or the U.S. – made the way they are in Pueblo.
“It’s a thick, salty, irregularly shaped beauty. And what I especially love about it is when you have them on tacos … you don’t say, ‘on a white flour tortilla,’ you just say, ‘on white,’ like it’s a sandwich.
“It’s rare you see fried flour tortillas anywhere as a taco in the United States. But you find that in Pueblo. So that alone is just like, wow. It’s absolutely amazing. You’re not going to see that anywhere else.”
Arellano says Pueblo chiles are superior
Arellano also loves the Pueblo chile – so much so that he’s not afraid to ruffle feathers and weigh in on the heated debate between Pueblo’s favorite crop and its heated rival in Hatch, New Mexico.
“It’s Pueblo, absolutely,” Arellano said.
“I tell people, ‘Unless you’ve been to Pueblo and had those mirasol (peppers) fresh; unless you have seen it with the Pueblo-Mex cuisine, you are in no way to be trusted on your opinion about who wins in the Chile Wars.
“I’m the one who’s been there, I’m the one who’s tried these places.”
Arellano relented that he also loves Hatch chile and said, “intelligent minds can disagree on this debate.”
But he said what he won’t stand for is Hatch picking on Pueblo.
“New Mexico needs to allow Pueblo to have its moment in the sun because it is its faraway cousin. They are related,” Arellano said.
“So for new Mexico to keep trashing Pueblo over its chile – it’s like that bully in the family, the older cousin that keeps making fun of its younger cousin. So as someone who has no family in this debate, I will not stand for that.”
Arellano said to broker peace in the chile wars, he’s happy to offer up his home state’s own pepper, the Anaheim chile, as a sacrifice.
“The Anaheim chile came from New Mexico, and the Anaheim chile has absolutely no flavor. So I allow Pueblo and New Mexico to make fun of Anaheim chile for the rest of their lives as long as they stop trashing each other,” Arellano said.
Arellano’s love for Pueblo food runs deep. So deep, in fact, he said when he was approached by El Pueblo History Museum to give Thursday’s lecture, museum officials kindly offered him a stipend.
“I refused it,” Arellano said.
“I said, ‘Please just give me some good Pueblo food products so I can taste Pueblo again.
“So when I’m speaking about this on Thursday, it’s not going to be me speaking from memories of Pueblo chile from so long ago, it’s going to be me speaking from gorging on all these Pueblo food products from just like a month ago.”
Arellano’s lecture will be held virtually on Thursday at 6 p.m. To register, visit h-co.org/borderlandstalks
Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @ZachHillstrom