Jeffrey Pilcher is the author of PLANET TACO: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press, $27.95, released October 1st)
For more the past fifteen years, I have been traveling the world eating tacos.
My mission was not to find the best taco. I would have eaten better if I had just stayed in Mexico City. This was social science, or to be precise, multi-sited ethnography. I was looking for the most interesting and unusual tacos to study the process of globalization. I wanted to find out who carried Mexican food around the world and how the taco changed as a result.
The search begins.
Ich bin ein burrito. Tex-Mex restaurant in Berlin, 1999. Many German-Mexican restaurants were notable for their vegetarian emphasis, perhaps catering to members of the German counterculture who had sampled Mexican food while backpacking along the Maya trail. Even the beef tostadas were served atop a pyramid of salad greens.
Old El Paso products in a shop window near the renowned gelato shop, Giolitti, Rome, 1997. Displays such as this one catered primarily to expatriates from the United States. Italians understandably preferred their own home cooking.
Plastic tacos. A Tex-Mex restaurant employs the Japanese art of fake food to display fake Mexican food, Tokyo 2001. For the best taco in Japan, you have to go to La Bamba Restaurant in Osaka. The owner, Oshima Bari, was a former Japanese hippie who studied Spanish in college and lived for a year in Mexico.
The first wave of global Mexican. Surfers were early evangelists of the taco, carrying Cal-Mex around the world on their search for the perfect wave. The granddaddy of overseas Mexican restaurants, founded on Australia's Gold Coast by Californian Bill Chicote in 1967, was called Taco Bill. Here, a rival in Brisbane, 2003.
Taco Bell goes global. Although many of the company's international ventures have failed, Costa Rica offers a success story. I photographed this busy store near the national university in San José in 2008, but I'm afraid I can't recommend any good Mexican restaurants in Costa Rica.
Wet-Mex. Corona beers, tequila shooters, and bird-bath-sized margaritas create an alcoholic image of Mexican food in New York City, 2009. But in the past decade, Mexican migrants have created a likely restaurant scene both in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods of Park Slope and Dumbo as well as among the down-home taco trucks of Jackson Heights and Redhook.
Agua fresca smoothies. Palm trees and tropical fruit drinks offer a taste of street food that is "Hecho en México" to visitors at the Jean Talon Market, Montreal, 2010. Operated by a chef from Querétaro, El Rey del Taco serves great mixiotes (pit-roasted lamb).
Paris al pastor. Street food becomes the new gold standard for authentic Mexican, displacing Tex-Mex stereotypes. Paris, 2012. Taco shops have begun appearing in tourist neighborhoods such as Chido in the Contrescarpe, but many insiders prefer El Nopal near the Canal Saint Martin.