Food & Drink

Mexican Chefs React To Americans’ Tacos-And-Margs Take On Cinco de Mayo

While chefs appreciate Mexican cuisine's day in the sun every May 5, they're not totally on board with the way the U.S. has appropriated their food.

May 5 is Cinco de Mayo, an American-Mexican marketing holiday in which people drink an excessive amount of margaritas and Coronas, stuff their faces with discounted tacos and probably have no idea what the holiday actually represents. So how do Mexican chefs feel about this?

First of all, Cinco isn’t a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day. It’s a celebration of the Battle of Puebla, when on May 5, 1862, Mexico basically kicked Napoleon’s nephew and France out of the country in a brief defeat of colonialism. The war was fought in the east-central state of Puebla, the only region in Mexico that acknowledges the holiday.

In the late 1980s, Mexican beer companies discovered they could make loads of money from an Americanized holiday, and, according to The New York Times, it has worked: “In 2013, Americans bought more than $600 million worth of beer for Cinco de Mayo, more than for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.”

Despite the commercialism of the holiday and the way people (usually white people) can disrespect Mexican culture by wearing sombreros and fake mustaches, a couple of Mexican chefs are fine with the day.

Well, mostly.

“People have no problem going to Maggiano’s and buying a $26 big-ass bowl of bullshit pasta with canned tomato sauce. ... But when I charge $26 for a piece of beautiful halibut with mole verde, they’re like, "$26? What the fuck?"”

- Chef Diana Dávila

“Cinco de Mayo is like Taco Bell,” chef Zarela Martinez told HuffPost. “It has given the opportunity for a lot of people to taste Mexican flavors and start establishing a flavor palate.”

Martinez grew up in Mexico and moved to New York City in the ’80s. In 1987, she opened her namesake restaurant, Zarela, which closed in 2011. She’s known for her Mexican regional cooking and, in 2013, the James Beard Foundation inducted her into its Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

“Cinco de Mayo brings a lot of people into restaurants, and they get exposed to a lot of different flavors. So even though it’s a nightmare when everyone is there drunk and obnoxious sometimes, it’s a great opportunity for businesses to show their work. I think it’s a very good holiday.”

Two years ago, chef Diana Dávila opened her Chicago-based home-cooking restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojería. Since then, she and the restaurant have been nominated for three Beard awards. Dávila said the holiday doesn’t make her mad at all.

“Why wouldn’t I like it? I own a Mexican restaurant,” she told HuffPost. “It makes people want to go out and eat Mexican food on that day, so I’ll fucking take it. If anything, when things like this arise, it starts a conversation where people are like, ‘I thought it was Independence Day.’ No, it’s not. But that way they learn. It draws people in, so it makes me happy.”

When Martinez had her restaurant, leading up to Cinco de Mayo she’d spend a few weekends offering different regional dishes from Puebla and Mexico City, food “that you couldn’t have [anywhere] else.”

“Everyone has this idea that Mexican is enchiladas or tacos,” Martinez said. “They don’t realize that there’s all this seafood and all these salads, and magnificent vegetables. The food from my restaurant was very sophisticated and esoteric, but in a casual way.”

“Cinco de Mayo is like Taco Bell. It has given the opportunity for a lot of people to taste Mexican flavors and start establishing a flavor palate.”

- Chef Zarela Martinez

Dávila doesn’t offer any specials on the day, and she hopes diners don’t expect to encounter basic Mexican food. Mi Tocaya offers a fresh spin on margaritas and micheladas, and a one-of-a-kind nitro horchata.

“As for basic Mexican, there’s a lot of Mexican-owned places that are catering to the American public because it’s their business,” Dávila said. “For me it’s different. I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to learning the cuisine and traveling. If you want to go out and learn about culture, you are definitely going to have that here, because it is nostalgic Mexican dishes and flavors. It’s the real deal.”

Though Martinez and Dávila like Cinco de Mayo, they take issue with other aspects of appropriating Mexican cuisine.

“People don’t understand our culture at all,” Martinez said. “All my life I’ve dedicated it to making my culture known and understood. We have a very rich and beautiful culture that Americans don’t appreciate. ... The most important thing to a Mexican is to have dignity. Americans don’t understand that there’s all kind of Mexicans. I come from a well-to-do family, and I’m highly educated. And they don’t understand it.”

Dávila is bothered when people think Mexican food should be low-priced.

“I feel like there’s a lot of ignorance revolving [around] Mexican cuisine in general,” she said. “I want to shed light on how diverse and complex Mexican food is, but I don’t want to be negative about it. People have no problem going to Maggiano’s and buying a $26 big-ass bowl of bullshit pasta with canned tomato sauce. Yeah, that’s ridiculous. But when I charge $26 for a piece of beautiful halibut with mole verde — which is incredible — and fresh vegetables, they’re like, ‘$26? What the fuck?’ Our tacos are $4 apiece, but there’s smoked beer can chicken. The chickens are smoked in a smoker for four hours. There’s xoconostle [cactus fruit]. I go across the street [to a sandwich shop] and a bag of chips is $2. And people are tripping about spending $4 for a taco with all of these fucking ingredients?”

Thankfully, she said these criticisms don’t happen as often as when she first opened the restaurant. “Our clientele overall, they’re great. I love our people,” Dávila said.

“There are so many times that people are like, "Let’s call this al pastor." It’s not. You’re just using the word "al pastor" because you like the way it fucking sounds. ... People do that all the time with Mexican restaurants — and it’s not just white people. It includes Mexicans.”

- Dávila

She doesn’t have a problem with white chefs like Rick Bayless creating an empire around Mexican food: “If you love Mexican food and you’re researching, why would you be upset if somebody loves the cuisine of your culture? Wouldn’t that make you feel happy or proud?” But it angers her when people who haven’t done the research open restaurants.

“You’re just capitalizing on something that you know is popular and people like, but you don’t do it justice by understanding what it is that you’re making,” Dávila said. “There are so many times that people are like, ‘Let’s call this al pastor.’ It’s not. You’re just using the word ‘al pastor’ because you like the way it fucking sounds, and you know people are going to be like, ‘Oh, al pastor, let’s get that.’ People do that all the time with Mexican restaurants — and it’s not just white people. It includes Mexicans.”

However you decide to spend or not spend the holiday — Dávila suggests for those who want to stay home, they could make salsa with “an ingredient you wouldn’t normally add” — she also doesn’t want diners to think she and her staff will be lecturing customers on Cinco de Mayo.

“The thing is, at the end of the day, what I have is a restaurant,” she said. “If someone comes in and they’re asking questions about it, I’d be there to answer any questions of what I know. But I don’t think people are coming here because they want have a fucking history lesson.”

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