A Matter of Authenticity

November 21st, 2006 · 13 Comments

El TacoA Matter of Authenticity

+ a quick bite for El Taco
738 Davie Street (map)
(604) 806-0300

An essay by Jason Chin

After an unfortunate encounter with a taco at the newish El Taco on Davie Street (near Howe), I got to thinking about why this taco was so bad. My gut reaction was to say it wasn’t authentic; and, frankly, it wasn’t. The meat was okay, and the tortilla was fine, but what ruined the taco for me was salad mix thrown on top, looking as it if it has just come from an industrial sized bag. They didn’t even spare the requisite few strands of red cabbage. That’s not to mention the heap of pinto beans dumped on top of the salad. The watery lettuce didn’t add anything to the taco, besides making the entire thing soggy, and the beans lacked purpose as well. Even the green and red sauces provided did little to perk up this bland waste of $3.75. But was I more offended by the tastes and textures, or the fact that a restaurant advertising authentic Mexican cuisine was serving nothing of the such? And why is it that people are so concerned with tradition and authenticity (T&A anyone?), when in fact taste seems like it should be the primary goal?

A key roadblock in exploring the significance of authenticity is simply that it is difficult to find a commonly accepted definition for the concept. Simply put, authenticity means different things to different people. The most rigid definition would most likely take a Platonic turn, arguing that there is one essential idea of a taco that exhibits all of the characteristics necessary to judge a real object’s “taconess.” All souls would be then born with this idea of a taco and, well, you see where I’m going. The difficulty with this line of reasoning, or rather one difficulty of this line of reasoning, is that it is hard to say what the essential taco form is. One shot at this might be two tortillas turned over to house meat and sauce. And even if this is agreed upon, are we to say that any taco that doesn’t follow this mold completely is not a taco? Such reasoning is at odds with established trends in the culinary world.

Gastronomically speaking, deviations from established recipes are often rewarded. Fusion cuisine, for instance is often applauded for its creativity in combining two distinct culinary traditions. Ming Tsai, for instance, is famous for his East meet West cuisine, in which he combines classic French and European cooking styles with his Chinese heritage. Even Rob Feenie combines his classical French approach with Eastern ingredients that are prevalent throughout Vancouver. These chefs are heralded for their approaches to cooking, yet critics scorn others who deviate from tradition (I’m not the first to come down on El Taco). To explain this apparent contradiction, it seems clear that other variables must be at play. I propose that these variables take two basic forms: definitional and functional.

As mentioned above, the way people define authenticity is important for understanding how they feel about its role in cuisine. If one takes the rigid (there is only one true taco) approach, they most likely view the role of authenticity as quite limited. Since deviation from the taco form is almost inevitable, these strict authentics are almost forced to admit at some point that authenticity may be important, but holding to their definition of it can be extremely confining. A great writer once said that love is seeing something so beautiful it inspires you to create, to imitate it in your own way. Love, in the strict authentic’s mind, however, would be quite limiting.

Others take a less strict view of authenticity. Dean Gold, owner of Dino Restaurant and Enoteca, links authenticity to respect, “Paying respect to traditional means of production and traditional products; paying respect to a particular place and/or time; simple preparations that strive to show off the ingredients and not to mask them. When these ideals are honored, there is an authenticity in that cooking. The food can be modern but following those ideals will still speak to me as authentic.” This definition of authenticity is much more forgiving, and allows us to limit tradition to a certain process or mindset. Under this definition, chefs like Ming Tsai create authentic dishes because they have a deeply nuanced understanding of the traditions and recipes they are adapting. These chefs understand the histories behind their foods, as well as the purpose behind them. Two local restaurants provide excellent examples of Gold’s concept of respect. The Flying Tiger’s Tina Fineza plays on the concept of Asian street food, while the aforementioned El Taco does the same for Mexican street food. Fineza does street food justice – it’s by and large portable food you can walk around with. Yet, it is not wholly authentic in that she has added her own twist to each dish. El Taco, on the other hand, misses the idea behind street food completely. By adding a salad to the top of heir tacos, they remove the street food aspect completely. This is a taco that can’t be folded over, and one that requires a fork – not exactly food you can walk around with. El Taco apparently fails at Dean Gold’s definition of tradition: it does not respect the history or functionality behind the taco.

Outside of respect for functionality, there is the matter of ingredients. The Italians surely didn’t use soy sauce, but that’s not to say they wouldn’t have had they access to it. These kinds of switches are prevalent in Rob Feenie’s cooking. His “Feenie Weenie,” for instance, features sauerkraut gussied up with a little five-spice powder and the classic Feenie Burger is accompanied by a spicy aioli spiked with nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce). These touches are true to the conceptions of their respective sources. The nuoc mam acts as the salty component to the spicy mayonnaise and the five-spice is the sauerkraut’s peppery component. These ingredients work within the confines of the dish, and it’s not hard to imagine sauerkraut often including five-spice, had the world globalized more quickly. At El Taco, however, lettuce and beans on the taco doesn’t quite have the same resonance. For one, I’m pretty sure Mexicans have lettuce, and I know for a fact they have beans, so it’s not like these touches could have been incorporated into the traditional taco. But they weren’t, and there’s likely a reason behind that notion.

Experimentation with new ingredients and new styles of cooking were especially prevalent among Italian American immigrants when bringing pizza to North America. Many connoisseurs hold New Haven style pizza to be the ultimate representation of pizza, even when compared to the more traditional pizza from Italy. New Haven pizza is cooked in a coal burning oven, which immigrants used out of convenience, and in place of the more familiar wood-burning oven. Both methods are designed to create great amounts of heat. In the case of New Haven style pizza, the methods and ingredients differ from the traditional, but a sense of authenticity remains in the knowledge of old world traditions.

In addition to definitions there exist other reasons why one might criticize restaurants that deviate from authenticity. Some restaurants strongly advertise their authenticity, when in fact fall they short of any definition of the word. Again, El Taco is guilty, advertising “Authentic Mexican Food.” The food falls short of authentic Mexican foods and traditions and this more than likely causes reactance among those that visit the restaurant for what it advertises. On the other hand, Ming Tsai does not advertise authentic Chinese food, but his East-West fusion is true to name, and a diner receives what he or she expects. But why do restaurants advertise authenticity – what is it about this construct that diners find so appealing?

I think a large part of authenticity’s appeal is simply an implicit association people have between authentic and good. I don’t think a lot of people actually think through why they want something authentic, they just assume it’s good. I don’t mean to imply that this heuristic isn’t usually correct; I’d argue that more often than not, it is. There is a reason these classic recipes have stood the test of time. The classic taco is a perfect balance between corn, meat and sauce, with portability to boot. The authentic as good heuristic can break down, however, when people assume that the authentic as good relationship goes both ways and thus that unauthentic is bad.

People may also be drawn to authenticity because they believe that it is important to appreciate the basic form, before trying the variations. In other words, to detect variations on a theme, one must first understand the theme. For example, one can have no full appreciation of East-West fusion without any prior knowledge of classic East or West cuisines. This is one of the reasons I traveled to China this past Summer, to try Chinese food in its native land. I don’t presume that one can’t find great Chinese food in North America, but I believe it must not be as easy.

Finally, there is the case of foods that simply aren’t the same if they aren’t created authentically. For instance, it is possible to make cheese nontraditionally, through processing various ingredients to create processed cheese food (American cheese). American cheese really isn’t very good and it at its heart, it isn’t really cheese. In this extreme case, the non-authentic food is qualitatively different from the original, rendering the distinction quite clear.

Diners, for the most part, are drawn to food labeled as authentic. This most likely occurs for a variety of reasons, as simply a short-cut for good food, or for through more deliberative thought. But how diners define authentic can be a key factor the appropriate role of authenticity is modern cuisine. The strict definition makes the term almost obsolete, while likening authenticity to a form of respect affords a more nuanced analysis of authenticity’s role. Further, restaurants following neither definition have little cause to advertise their restaurant as authentic. Authenticity remains an important construct, one that rightfully shapes our dining culture, but it appears the story that is more complicated than one would assume. And anyway I look at it, both quality and authenticity hit a black hole when it comes to El Taco.

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Tags: Mexican

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gil // Jan 3, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    It’s funny how tastes differ. As a restaurant owner you just hope that the people that review your place will belong to the group that appreciates healthy tasty food prepared in an authentic style that can appeal to Canadian and Mexican tastes. Obviously you don’t belong to that group. I certainly appreciate the attention though. Check out review at beyondrobson.com

  • 2 Nancy // Jan 4, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    Even as an avid reader of reviews and the like, I must say, I found your long winded review more than a little hard to stomach, not only did it systematically deviate from its subject matter, it was completely irrelevant. I have been to Mexico on numerous occasions, as I have been a recurring customer at El Taco, and I find your review to be completely and totally false in all aspects, except perhaps, that the El Taco taco must be eaten sitting down with a fork. Their taco, as well as the other items on the menu, are extremely close to the real thing, as authentic as possible, and insatiably delicious. I might suggest that to better serve your definition of “authenicity” you visit the local Taco Time, I hear you can get a taco for a $1.50 on Tuesdays. Leave the reviews to the professionals, the ones who have actually been to Mexico.

  • 3 Jason // Jan 5, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for reading. When living in Southern California I visited Mexico more times than I can count. However, it’s true that I’ve only tried the tacos at El Taco, so that’s all I can comment on. This is why this was an essay about authenticity and a quick bite, and not a review, as you mistakenly state. The information about this system is available here: http://www.eatvancouver.net/2006/07/21/introducing-quick-bites/.

    If you are interested in tacos that fall under the definition of of authenticity that I settle upon in this essay, try Dona Cata on Victoria.

    Thanks again for reading,


  • 4 justine // Jan 8, 2007 at 11:48 am

    as i sit here in mexico, drinking a margarita and reflecting on what i would like for lunch today i can´t help but wish i could go to EL TACO for a scrumptious tortilla soup. of my 12 yeares living partially in mexico and studying extensively the cuisine, i have to say i am very proud of all of my dishes at el taco. yes i am part owner and menu designer of the el taco on davie. i really appreciate the feed back because consistancy is extremely impertant to us at el taco, and after reading your “essay´´ i see it is time to do a little quality control. i pride myself on the perfect combinations of flavour texture, and colour in all of our dishes. i really hope you give us another try because i can guarantee that you will be pleased. especially if you have lived in southern california. we may not use as much grease and some of the more authentic ingredients are not available but i think we have created a beautiful compromise between both cultural pallets.

  • 5 Jason // Jan 12, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    Well it certainly seems as if I should go back and try more of the menu. As it was a quickbite, i was dealing with only one visit.

    I’m sticking to my guns with the tacos. For me, certain tastes speak to pleasant memories, tacos being linked to certain times in my life. So going into a restaurant advertising authentic tacos and receiving some bastardized form of a taco is extremely disappointing.

  • 6 Dan // Jun 12, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    I just tried the chicken burrito. Taste was decent, but it had like 3 pieces of chicken in it. Too bad, I was hoping it would be good.

  • 7 Dan // Jun 13, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Thanks to Chilo’s being unexpectedly closed (big surprise), I went back to El Taco and tried a couple Tacos (not good… not good at all, they are all lettuce) and the “chilequiles,” which I think is “Mexican” for “soggy nachos.” I can safely say I will not be back.

  • 8 Jason // Jun 13, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Well I’m glad I’m not the only one to think that.

  • 9 gil // Oct 22, 2007 at 11:03 am

    In the “BEST OF VANCOUVER” issue of Georgia Straight El Taco was voted “most authentic” and “best burrito”

  • 10 Jason // Oct 22, 2007 at 11:16 am

    Isn’t this the award that McDonalds frequently wins for top fries, and Vina (food court restaurant) takes best Vietnamese? I think it’s safe to put as much credence in this award as the sanity prize from britney spears.

  • 11 Gillian // Dec 2, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    I am shocked that anyone could find anything wrong with El Taco. It is by far the closest thing to an authentic burrito you can get in Vancouver, and by far the most delicious to boot. Having lived in southern California and eaten countless burritos at countless excellent taco stands, I consider myself to be somewhat informed as to what makes a good burrito. El Taco’s burritos ARE the best in Vancouver. In fact, I’ve become somewhat of a convert to their fresh and healthy style chicken burritos even over my long time favourite SoCal carne asada burritos. I think it’s a terrible shame that Jason Chin got his negative review on here first when I’m sure he’s in the minority in not appreciating El Taco.

  • 12 Jason // Dec 2, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    What a joke. Gil, everyone I talk to feels absolutely ripped off after going to El Taco because besides being sorely unauthentic, it’s also just really bad. You obviously have a vested interested in the success of this restaurant and I hope in the future you will disclose this fact, otherwise I will be forced to moderate your specious comments.

  • 13 Dan // Dec 2, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    As frequent readers of this website know, I left Vancouver a few months ago for the sun, warmth, and wine of first Northern, and now Southern California. I can safely say that El Taco is nowhere near as good as even the worst burritos or tacos I have had since I have been here (and there have been many).

    We had a taco truck that came to winery every day at lunchtime, and to even compare it to El Taco would be an insult to Los Magos. And no coleslaw mix in the burrito!

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