USC Dornsife Spanish major Daniel Arellano picks morsels of sizzling meat from the delicate bones of a fried chicken neck and stuffs them into a warm tortilla, garnishing the resulting taco with freshly chopped onion and cilantro and spicy red salsa.
With obvious relish, he takes a large bite.
“Mmm, this is good,” he says appreciatively. “I love the crunchy, crispy skin. They’re a little hard to eat because of all the bones and I wish there was a bit more meat because it’s so rich, but I really like them.”
Nearby, several of his classmates observe his culinary daring with expressions ranging from anxiety to admiration. A short distance away, the rest of the class are eagerly lining up outside the unpretentious food truck emblazoned with the words Santa Rita, Jalisco, Pescuesos de Pollo. Sarah Portnoy, a lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese in USC Dornsife, has brought her students there to sample the chicken neck tacos.
This was undoubtedly the most unusual — and for some the most challenging — recipe students encountered on their gastronomic tour through the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles as part of Portnoy’s Spanish language class The Culture of Food in Hispanic Los Angeles.
This dynamic, interactive course teaches students to develop their oral and written Spanish language skills in authentic settings by exploring Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods via food trucks, markets, restaurants, street vendors and community gardens. Students then document and analyze their experiences and interviews in blogs and short videos which are written and presented in Spanish and posted online at losangelesculinaryculture.wordpress.com.
“The class isn’t just about food, but the whole community that forms and supports that culinary culture,” Portnoy said. “We consider ourselves culinary anthropologists.”
Neither the instructor nor her students had ever tried chicken neck tacos before.
“I think that’s part of the beauty of this class,” said Portnoy, who encourages students to step outside their comfort zones. “They may never have them again but it’s exposed them to something new and it’s made them broaden their horizons.”
Portnoy expects students to pay close attention to the city’s food trucks and with good reason. In recent years, L.A.’s burgeoning food truck scene has come to define the city’s gastronomic landscape. Spearheaded by the massive success of Kogi’s celebrated fusion of Korean barbecue and Mexican food and aided by distinguished food writers like Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold and OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arellano, the L.A. phenomenon made headlines across the country as other cities jumped onto the bandwagon.
In fact, there are two different categories of food trucks: the relatively recent mobile trucks selling gourmet fusion or specialty foods and the traditional loncheras, or stationery food trucks, that have been around since the 1950s.
“In the 1880s, we have documentation of people pushing tamale wagons on the street,” Portnoy said. “There has always been a culture of street food in Los Angeles because there has always been a Mexican presence here. The loncheras, which originally fed construction workers, are a continuation of that tradition. Now those beyond the localized Latino community have become more interested in them as a result of the explosion of the Twitter trucks, or as Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, calls them, the ‘luxe loncheras.’ ”
Symbolically, the constantly relocating food trucks that can be tracked on Twitter represent mobility — which is what L.A. is all about. Through their promotion of fusion food, they enable customers to transcend cultural boundaries, something the stationery loncheras also achieve, albeit via a different route, through their introduction of non-Latino audiences to authentic regional specialties.
Portnoy asks students to compare the two types of trucks, including prices, clientele and the difference in appeal.
“The cache of the Kogi trucks is that you never knew where you would find them,” Portnoy said. “It’s all about knowing what only a certain hip circle of people who follow Twitter know.”
The loncheras, on the other hand, provide an authentic experience. Those food truck owners are mostly reproducing the food in the restaurants and markets of their hometown or at the stands on Baja beaches.
Portnoy contrasts the Kogi truck, which peddles the inventions of its founding chef, Roy Choi, with Mariscos Jalisco, a lonchera whose owner Raul Ortega has refined typical regional recipes he learned in his hometown of San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco, Mexico.
Before sampling the chicken neck tacos, Portnoy took her students to visit the Mariscos Jalisco food truck. Featured in the Smithsonian, Ortega recently won LA Weekly’s top award for best old-style lunch truck. He counts over 1,000 regular customers, some of whom he said drive more than 100 miles to eat his legendary shrimp tacos, aguachile and ceviche.
The final stop on the students’ sensory journey is Guisados, a bustling taqueria in the heart of the colorful old Boyle Heights neighborhood which just won LA Weekly’s award for the best taco eatery in the city.
“When you go to a taco truck usually there are only one or two specialties so I wanted them to try a wide variety of tacos and Guisados has that,” Portnoy said. “I also wanted the students to see the contrast between the culinary experience of standing up and eating outside at the truck and eating in a sit down place.”
Jovial owner Armando De La Torre, who delights in giving the USC Dornsife group free sample plates, serves a variety of delicious tacos, including a platter of chiles toreados, tortillas garnished with five types of fiery peppers he cheerfully warns are hot. Portnoy bravely tries one and a few seconds later runs for the kitchen where chefs give her cold, sliced tomatoes to cut the burning sensation.
When Portnoy first came up with the idea to teach language through food culture, she knew she had hit on a winning combination. Now in its third semester, her class has proved to be hugely popular.
“The course has brought new students to the department and attracted many Spanish majors,” Portnoy said.
She got the idea for the class three years ago while listening to radio host Evan Kleiman talking to Gold on Good Food, Kleiman’s KCRW show.
“They were discussing whether West Los Angeles institution Tito’s Tacos serves authentic Mexican food,” Portnoy said. “Gold said that he considered Los Angeles to be a region of Mexico unto itself. I thought that was an outrageous comment, but it got me thinking.
“Every region of Mexico and every country in Latin America is represented in L.A.,” she continued. “You’re not going to find that anywhere else in the country. You can walk a couple of blocks from campus and find 25 Salavadorean pupeserias. Just two or three miles away there are maybe a hundred Oaxacan restaurants. And yet we’ve got these students who are barely leaving campus, who are practicing Spanish only in the classroom or on their study abroad semester in Spain and are missing this palpable hands-on opportunity to use the language in a real cultural context without going too far from campus.”
Since taking Portnoy’s course, many of her students have become dedicated foodies, eagerly consulting Yelp and Chowhound to discover L.A.’s most obscure and interesting Latin food trucks, restaurants and market stands. Portnoy encourages her students to venture further afield by declaring trucks parked with a mile of campus off limits.
She also teaches students about the legal and social issues loncheras’ owners face as well as the importance of street food in battling health and access issues.
Her students examine issues such as obesity, diabetes and lack of access to fresh produce or so-called ‘food deserts.’ They discuss organics and farmers markets and who can shop at them and whether shoppers can use Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.
“Students even write a first person blog as if they were a local resident near USC detailing their food challenges,” she added.
Speakers invited to the class have included chef John Rivera Sedlar of Rivera Restaurant; Gold; Arellano; William Deverell, professor of history in USC Dornsife and director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West; Erin Glen, founder of the La Associación de Loncheros L.A. Familia Unida de California, an association protecting the rights of food truck owners and operators; and Ortega, one of L.A.’s most successful lonchera owners.
The most recent visitor was Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Pilcher’s book examines the uneasy relationship between globalization and authenticity as it traces the history of how the now ubiquitous taco — which was still virtually unknown outside Mexico and the south western United States as late as the 1960s — has “conquered the world.” The book investigates Mexican taco carts; Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris, France; tamale vendors in Los Angeles; and the legendary “Chili Queens of San Antonio” — a 100-year tradition in which women cook chili over open fires at the plazas of San Antonio, Texas.
The eagerly anticipated class finale is a cooking lesson from top Mexican chefs, Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu from La Casita Mexicana in Bell, Calif.
“Last winter because it was holiday time they taught us to make different kinds of tamales and serve them in the husk with a variety of different salsas,” Portnoy said. “We learned how to make and decorate tortillas by pushing flowers into them. They were beautiful.”
Until then Portnoy steers students towards modestly priced eats. “I keep in mind they are on a student budget,” she said. “The only really high end place I take them to each semester is Rivera Restaurant downtown.” A meal at the sleek, modern Rivera would normally cost $80 a person at least, but owner John Rivera Sedlar, lauded as one of the top 10 chefs in America, gives Portnoy’s students a special deal.
A Question of Authenticity
During a recent visit to Portnoy’s class, the thorny question of authenticity is the hot topic of debate.
“Gustavo Arellano says anything cooked by a Mexican person can be considered authentic Mexican food,” asserted Daniel Arellano, a senior. “That’s one extreme and the other is that if a dish is not prepared with a certain chili pepper, or in a specific kind of cast iron pot, then it is not authentic. It’s very difficult to formulate your own opinion, it’s very subjective.”
Deciding who has the right to define “authentic,” and what it means exactly has created conflict, with many restaurants and cookbook authors using the word as a marketing tool, Portnoy said. One of the ways she gets students to think about the issue is by sending them to El Cholo Spanish Café, a downtown Mexican restaurant founded in 1923.
“The place ties itself to Spanish roots via its name and there’s a certain inherent elitism in that,” she said. “So is this an authentic Mexican dining experience, with women dressed in flowered dresses and revolutionary posters on the walls? Or is it an authentic Southern California Mexican dining experience? Would you find it replicated back in a Mexican village? No. Would you find it at a high end Mexican restaurant in Mexico City? No. It goes back to what Jonathan Gold said, that you could consider Southern California as a region of Mexico itself.”
Senior Christie Amrein, a Spanish major, discovered her attachment to Mexican food on her semester abroad in Europe. “The food everyone from the U.S. missed most was Mexican food because it tastes like home.
"Food is a unifying force,” Amrein said. “We don’t have a regional California dish, but Mexican food has become almost an American food. “
Learning about the international appeal of Mexican food has led students to consider global culinary evolution. “In a few hundred years because of globalization and the digital age there will be totally different dishes that we haven’t even imagined yet,” said John Buderwitz, a senior majoring in Spanish in USC Dornsife and film at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “For example, Indian curries have become part of British culture while the popularity of sushi in Mexico will one day make it, in a way, Mexican.”
The key learning experience in Portnoy’s class can be found in Rivera Sedlar’s mantra — “Food unites us. A shared experience, it overcomes differences and distances to form common bonds. It is a dynamic vehicle for human understanding.”