An American friend of mine who has also spent a fair amount of time living abroad says that whenever anyone asks him, “What do you miss most about home?” he always immediately answers “Mexican food.” It may seem like an odd answer, but Mexican food is undeniably an integral part of American cuisine and culture. The US has excellent Mexican food, thanks to its proximity to (duh) MEXICO and its large population of Mexican-Americans. And Mexican food is one of the great joys of American life.
I remember in 2005 when I first moved to London – a city truly blessed with a plethora of ethnic restaurants from across the globe serving up delicious fare (despite the outdated and unfair stereotype that the UK doesn’t have good food) – and I was disappointed to find only a meager handful of Mexican restaurants. There were plenty of Turkish restaurants, and Indian restaurants, and Pakistani restaurants, and Moroccan restaurants, and Vietnamese restaurants, and Ethiopian restaurants, and… But where were the Mexican restaurants?
They were few and far between in London, but it’s not surprising. After all, the US is home to over 34 million Americans of full or partial Mexican ancestry (10.9% of the US population, according to a US Census Bureau survey in 2012). Not to mention the US hosts the largest Mexican community in the world outside of Mexico, with apparently 22% of all Mexican-origin people globally living in the US. In the UK, on the other hand, the number of Mexicans living in the United Kingdom is a grand total of… 3,849 (as of the 2001 UK Census). And not nearly enough of those are opening restaurants.
Obviously, ethnic cuisine in any country closely mirrors the immigrant populations of that country. And that is true in terms of both quantity and quality. What few Mexican restaurants I did find in London were generally, to use the culinary term, shit. They were often overpriced and underwhelming, and I found myself reluctantly going back in the hope that things might change, only to find myself disappointed again and again, like some sort of abusive relationship involving false hopes with a side of pinto beans.
To be fair, toward the end of my stay in the London, in 2010 and beyond, Mexican restaurants seemed to enjoy a surge in popularity, and the selection of mexicano eating options improved (the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain even opened several locations, serving up their signature foil-wrapped, plastic-basket burritos for the perfectly unreasonable sterling price of £7, evidently capitalizing on the desperation of London’s many Mex-starved American expats).
But, as my friend pointed out, Mexican food will just never be the same as it is back home (unless if you happen to be abroad in Mexico, in which case you’ve hit the jackpot). My most recent return to the US, less than one month ago, came via California, so my re-immersion into Mexican-come-American food has been complete. When I arrived in San Diego, my friend welcomed me by taking me out for Mexican food. When I arrived in Silicon Valley, my brother welcomed me by taking me out for Mexican food. When I met up with my sister in San Francisco, she offered to welcome me by taking me out for Mexican food. I said I needed a break.
I’m now staying in the Mission, a neighborhood of San Francisco that was traditionally a Mexican barrio and still exhibits a high incidence of taquerias. My housemate said that one day while he was eating Mexican food for dinner, he realized he had eaten a breakfast burrito that morning and then tacos for lunch. And he hadn’t even returned from a recent trip abroad.