Yesterday, one of the owners of Tacoma's Asado told me he was in Chicago researching Mexican food at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill as he and his partners prepare to do a "high-end" Mexican restaurant in Tacoma.
I ran into Bayless at IACP and button-holed him regarding Mexican food and American palates. A gringo, Bayless has a deep appreciation for, and skill with, Mexican cuisine. I told him about my parents' experience doing upscale Mexican food in their restaurant, which didn't go over well with 1980s Sacramento diners seeking 2-items-rice-and-beans combos for $4.99 – the typical Mexican fare enjoyed by typical American diners.
Bayless sped into a quick lesson in social-culinary politics:
"It's a clear way of keeping the immigrants in their place," he said of diners who take limited views of ethnic cuisines. "Just think about in the 1950s with Italian immigrants. You had pasta plates. You had meatballs. That's as much as you got from Italian food People said they didn't want anything else.
"Then Italian immigrants became Italian-Americans and started looking to Italy for all the refined stuff."
Bayless said he doesn't see the same trend south of the border.
"Are we looking to Mexico for all the refined stuff that they have to provide? Nobody's even looking there, but it's there. It's just that we don't look.
"People say that everything I do is not Mexican because it's not a burrito. We don't do burritos. We don't do nachos. We don't do fajitas. That's all Mexican-American food. We have people coming in all the time saying this is just kind of a creative southwestern inspired restaurant, even though we're doing moles from Oaxaca and Puebla."