Who gets to make tacos in Dallas, and who gets to decide? If you're making tacos and you're not Mexican, are you stealing someone's culture or are you executing a loving homage?
Those questions came up in Dallas this week after a mini-tussle between Revolver Taco Lounge and Bowls & Tacos, two taquerias in Deep Ellum that touched on a debate circulating nationally.
Revolver is owned by Regino Rojas, who is Mexican-American; Bowls & Tacos is from Sam Wynne, who is white.
On May 30, Rojas issued a tweet saying, "We declare a taco war with @BowlsAndTacos for trying to steal my tortillera, Let the taquiza begin!" The next day, Bowls & Tacos owner Sam Wynne responded on Facebook, denying that they'd tried to poach staff.
Taco blogger Jose Ralat stepped in, calling Bowls & Tacos bandwagon jumpers with mediocre tacos. Wynne responded by saying, "I looked up to your writing as human, only to find out you don't respect me because I'm white."
Cultural appropriation was the cause in an episode in Portland, Oregon, when a burrito stand called Kooks Burritos was forced to close after its owners, two white females, were accused of recipe theft.
People didn't think about those things in the '70s, when chef Rick Bayless began his career specializing in Mexican food. He was educating people on the cuisine, not culturally appropriating. He recently said he shouldn't be criticized for being white and wanting to share Mexican cuisine with the world.
As the New York Times notes, American-born chefs have an advantage.
But there's no substitute for authenticity. As Professor T.J. Tallie, a historian of African history at Washington & Lee University, recently told Forbes, it's about ownership, saying, "I could learn and master Japanese cooking, but I do not think I would ever have the space to feel like I could explain to Japanese people how their cooking should be done."
In our story yesterday about Musashi, a ramen restaurant in Plano, we noted the value of having a chef from Japan whose recipes are more Tokyo-authentic than what you'd find at other local sushi restaurants, most of which are Korean-owned.
Most Italian restaurants in Dallas are owned by Albanians, and that has definitely not been good for Dallas' Italian restaurant scene. Mi Cocina, the most prominent local Tex-Mex chain, is majority-owned by whites, and their food is an overpriced hybrid that barely resembles Mexican.
Tacos seem to be a particular touchstone, since they've become such a major food group for Anglo diners and can be less complicated to execute.
But good food, well executed, always wins.
Authenticity has value, but if you're doing it right, the melting pot can result in something better, says Jesus Garcia, an acclaimed chef of Mexican descent who owns Oni Ramen in Fort Worth.
"Authenticity is obviously good, but it also has its limitations," he says. "If you're observing traditional techniques to the letter, that can also limit your ability to create something new."
As for Rojas and Wynne, they've since agreed to participate in a taco-off.
"We challenge @BowlsAndTacos to a taco war!" Rojas tweeted. "3 styles 1 traditional 2 innovative 3 your best taco 1 your kitchen 2 on mine 3 in the street!"
The only element not resolved: Who will be the judge.