A shrimp taco at Mariscos. (Mariah Tauger / For the Times)

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Column: Cultural appropriation in the restaurant industry

Cultural appropriation is happening throughout restaurants across the industry.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/madelynesses/" target="_self">Madelyn Esses</a>

Madelyn Esses

February 24, 2022
Cultural appropriation, which can be defined as an inappropriate adoption of ideas or customs of a group of people, can be seen in many different industries including food, toys, clothing and many more. 

It is a frequent phenomenon in the restaurant business to steal ideas and recipes from other restaurants that have claimed them as their own. Chain restaurants do not contextualize the food they serve and can misrepresent it.

For example, according to an LA Food Adventures Blog, Taco Bell is built on the appropriation of Latinx culture as they denatured and commercialized Mexican cuisine. The chain restaurant now has over 7,000 locations around the world and is thriving, but not due to Glen Bell’s creativity and authentic recipes and instead due to his stealing of others’ ideas.

Taco Bell’s success comes from the power imbalance in the restaurant industry. Glen Bell, the owner of the extremely popular restaurant Taco Bell took many of his methods from other authentic restaurants. His recipe for his hard shell taco comes from a restaurant in San Bernardino called Mitla Cafe. He is even reported to have eaten there every night and tried to recreate the recipe at his home. 

On the other hand, Guerilla Tacos is a prime example of a Mexican restaurant that is able to combine many ingredients from different cultures, by using appreciation instead of appropriation. 

This restaurant actually began as a taco truck and was founded in 2012 by Chef Wes Avila and his wife, Tanya. A stand on a corner progressed to a food truck and is now a successful restaurant, Guerilla Tacos, in downtown Los Angeles. Avila’s goal in starting this business was to make something to reflect the culinary experience he had gained that helped to shape his identity.

They have a plentiful menu that changes based on which ingredients are in season at the time. This is one of the many ways Avila ensures his customers are receiving meals cooked with the best, fresh ingredients that are available. He creates dishes with ingredients that are not usually put together and combines them in a tortilla; each fusion is a great blend of flavors.

“I like to use ingredients that keep us interested in what we’re doing,” said Avila in an interview with NPR.

One of his most popular tacos is the Sweet Potato Taco; he took this comfort food of his and elevated it. The tacos have evolved for around nine years into the taco he serves today, which has become Guerilla Tacos’ signature dish.

It is a combination of many ingredients that are not usually seen in a Mexican taco including the main ingredient, sweet potatoes, in addition to Oaxacan cheese and an almond and cashew chile — which is one of the many unique sauces that Guerrilla Tacos tops their dishes with. 

It is extremely important to educate oneself on the heritage and customs of the Latinx community in order to respect their culture and become more aware and actively work against appropriation. Ways to help the Latinx community and truly appreciate their culture include having discussions, calling out appropriation, and stopping to support corporations that profit from appropriation.

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