A history of American cuisine. Chips the way Page likes ‘em — old tortillas cut up and fried.
David Page’s initial interest in San Diego’s venerable El Indio Mexican restaurant was maybe not entirely visual, but he grants that “what interested me the most at the time — provided they could meet the barrier of good, home-cooked food — was, from a television standpoint, their Rube Goldberg-esque tortilla conveyer belt.” He was in the early stages of producing the hit television series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and was duly impressed with the contraption, which cranks out around 1500 tortillas a day. Contraptions make good TV, especially when they make good tortillas.
3695 India Street, San Diego
But the machine wasn’t why he came back to El Indio when it came time to write Food Americana, his culinary history of the way the USA has transmogrified dishes from other countries into a cuisine that is uniquely and legitimately American. (The book comes out April 20, and may be pre-ordered now on Amazon.) He came back because “it’s a perfect representation of everyday Mexican-American cooking. It’s not what they’re serving now in Mexico City, but it’s a terrific example of the earliest evolution of Mexican food in America as it became a cuisine of its own. And it’s a perfect example of the kind of mom-and-pop place that helped bring Mexican food into the mainstream of American society.”
Chips the way Page likes ‘em - old tortillas cut up and fried.
He’s not a bit bothered by the fact that El Indio’s corn tortillas aren’t handmade in authentic Mexican fashion. “I’m not a big one for the authenticity debate,” he says. “It’s authentic to what it is. They’ve been doing it by machine there for 70 years. It’s a historical part of the way they produce Mexican food here in America. What’s more important to me is that they nixtamalize the corn with lime and make their own masa. I want good ingredients. I want things that have been honestly cooked. Put the work in.”
Beyond that, he asks, what means authentic? “Food evolves with culture. I’ve seen birria taking its place among the popular Mexican foods in America. As research for this book, my wife and I got in a car and drove 90 miles to a food truck in South Philly and gorged ourselves on some of the best birria I’ve ever had. Was it better than the stuff I had when we stumbled on a family-owned restaurant in Jalisco? I don’t know. But it sure tasted good. And I can tell you that the birria tacos that came to America from Tijuana were quite different from the birria — not served in a taco and often made of goat and not beef — in Jalisco. And I would guess that more and more Americans, as opposed to the people in Tijuana, are eating those tacos with cheese. And over the years, more things will happen.”
Page knows his business. Last week, I ordered my first quesa taco at Mr. Birria in Santee, and also made a plan to try their birria ramen upon my next visit. The transmogrification continues apace.