Javier Cabral always dreamed of getting paid to eat. But he never imagined the job would require him to devour 36 tacos a day.
This was the Los Angeles journalist’s life as a “taco scout” and associate producer for Las Crónicas del Taco (Taco Chronicles), a popular new Netflix documentary series on taco history and culture.
“It would just be taco fucking ragers, taco binges,” Cabral said, recalling his early research for the show, which involved jam-packed trips to Mexico where he had a few hours in different regions, eating as much as his stomach could handle: “It’s like I was sweating lard.”
The Spanish-language Netflix show, which features mouth-watering dives into six different types of tacos, such as barbacoa and al pastor, is just one of many ways the dish has transformed Cabral’s life over the last year. The 30-year-old LA native and longtime food writer has also used his love of tacos to try to transform local media: in 2019, he became the editor of LA Taco, a hyperlocal news site that covers southern California culture, arts, news, events, and all things tacos, and aims to spotlight voices and stories often left out of mainstream publications.
“The taco has really elevated my life and made me financially secure for the first time in a long time,” Cabral said one afternoon, while eating a tostada at Guerrilla Tacos, a restaurant that was one of two LA joints featured in Las Crónicas del Taco. “It took me awhile to accept the fact that I’ve become the token taco writer.”
It’s been a long journey for Cabral toward his uniquely LA career, built on taco culture and recently culminating in the release of a Oaxacan cookbook with restaurant owner and author Bricia Lopez.
A first-generation Mexican American, Cabral grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and east LA, and his parents often struggled to make ends meet. When he was in third grade, his family filed for bankruptcy and lost their home, forcing him and his siblings to live in the office of his father’s furniture store.
In high school, Cabral became obsessed with the writing of Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer prize-winning food critic who was then at LA Weekly, the city’s alternative paper. Cabral often couldn’t afford to eat at the places Gold reviewed, but he would still diligently read him.
“Jonathan Gold loved all cuisines of all immigrants,” he said. “I was just a punk rock kid. And what’s more punk rock than getting paid to eat?”
At 16, Cabral emailed Gold out of the blue, saying something along the lines of, “‘Hi, Mr Gold. So, like, I’m in 11th grade and can’t find ‘food writing’ as a major anywhere. How do I become a food critic?’”
The two communicated back and forth and, in 2006, Cabral started his own food blog, Teenage Glutster, which Gold later credited in a review. Cabral barely graduated high school, but Gold eventually became his mentor and secured a budget for Cabral to work as a restaurant scout for him at the LA Times.
There were few Mexican American food writers at major publications, but Cabral built a name for himself as a taco expert. He had viral hits at publications like Vice, including one piece explaining why the tortilla quality in LA is inadequate and another defending the rise of $5 “fancy tacos”.
In 2018, he joined Las Crónicas del Taco, recruited by Pablo Cruz, a Mexican producer and the show’s creator: “That just sealed the deal for the rest of my life.”
Cabral was drawn to the idea of a food docu-series exclusively dedicated to tacos: “When he approached me, I was like hell yeah, let’s not have any talking heads, no egos. Just tacos.”
His first step was creating a “taco bible”, a roughly 100-page manuscript featuring everything the Netflix team might need to know about taco history and detailing his travels to Mexico in search of the best tacos. Fueled by mezcal and pulque (Mexico’s oldest alcoholic drink), Cabral ate his way through the country, cataloging his journeys on Instagram (#TacosForPablo). He also has an impressive ability to retain information about food: “I can remember exactly what we ate five years ago, to the night. I’m really obsessed.”
Some taquerias were wary, Cabral recalled: “People are really skeptical, especially if they hear me with a Mexican American accent … they don’t want to give away their recipes.” Others didn’t want attention, he said: “Taquerias in Mexico are very working class. Their number one demographic is their neighborhood around them, it’s not for Instagram or tourists.”
The “bible”, a kind of taco encyclopedia which he plans to publish, was the foundation for the show’s six episodes on barbacoa, carnitas, carne asada, tacos de canasta, guisados, and al pastor. It was key for the show to take place mostly in Mexico, he said: “We didn’t want to have the white savior complex. We didn’t want to have tacos be validated by the US.”
Audiences were drawn to the show’s balance of offering “history for taco nerds” and “straight-up food porn”, Cabral said, and the reactions were overwhelming.
He was especially moved by the praise from a woman who sells flowers in LA, who told him her seven-year-old son was no longer embarrassed to speak Spanish after watching the show, which will have a second season this year.
“I know it’s just a taco show, but I feel like Mexican Americans often have this chip on their shoulder, an inferiority complex … of not being American enough, not being Mexican, and this show has helped people understand how to be more proud of their country, of their parents’ country, and just honor that part of their family,” he said.
It’s the kind of mission that also drove his recent cookbook, Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, co-written with Bricia Lopez, whose family runs the acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza in LA. The book includes 140 recipes, celebrating indigenous cuisine, like the family’s pink horchata and mole negro.
While wrapping the book, Cabral also stepped up to lead LA Taco, working to build a news site that highlights corners of the city that often go unnoticed, whether a secret backyard mariscos restaurant in Lennox, queer Latin dance classes in a Highland Park garage or a guide to experiencing Koreatown on foot.
“LA Taco is like LA’s underdog publication,” he said, noting that the site has grown to attract roughly 1,000 members who support with monthly subscriptions. With smaller publications in the region shutting down at alarming rates, Cabral said he was eager to keep LA Taco alive and thriving. “We cover LA street-level stories … we’re still here and we’re as strong as ever.”
Even when challenges arise, Cabral reminds himself how lucky he is to make money “fucking around on the computer” and eating his favorite foods: “I happened to be the right person at the right time. Taco culture is blowing up, and everyone loves tacos.”
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/jan/03/taco-culture-is-blowing-up-how-an-la-food-writer-became-netflixs-taco-guru