Food & Drink

Netflix's 'Gentefied' Is the Revolution Taco Tuesday Needs

Netflix Gentefied
Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

One of the most enduring and telling scenes of the new series Gentefied, which premiered Feb. 21 on Netflix, comes in episode three, which opens with the iconic Mexican bolero “Sabor a Mi."

In a flashback, we see a young Chris Morales and his grandfather Pop in the kitchen getting ready to heat up some chicken in the microwave, when his grandmother Delfina walks in, shaking her head.

“Hey chiquitos, así no se calienta la comida,” she says. Hey boys, that’s not how you heat up food.

She ushers into the kitchen, turns on the stove top for a cast iron skillet and embraces her grandson.

“Requerdan, mijo, la comida verdadera es hecho con mucho amor.”

Remember, mijo, real food is made with lots of love.

“Food is a gift, it’s an act of love,” says Gentefied co-creator Linda Yvette Chávez. “When you’re at grandma’s house there’s always a million pots of food going, even if there aren’t that many people to feed. For her it’s a foundation of giving that love, it’s something prideful and important. I have memories of my own grandma who made the most amazing tamales.”

Since her grandma’s passing, Chávez says, she’s tried desperately to hold on to those memories.

“I’ll never, never have those exact tamales,” she says. “There’s a magic behind making that food that can never be replicated.”

Food love bombs abound throughout the first season, an culinary homage to Chávez and co-creator Marvin Lemus’ family history and upbringing. From the endless cameos of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Takis shared between family and friends, the carnitas burritos that Erik gifts his pregnant on-and-off girlfriend, to the bacon-wrapped hot dogs that the cousins scarf down after a night of partying — they’re all subtle nods to Chicano food culture in LA.

At the same time, the central theme of the show is about gentrification in the mostly Latino enclave of Boyle Heights, which in recent years has become a battleground for displacement in Los Angeles. The word “gentefied” is a play on words (gente is Spanish for people, be that one’s community or one’s nation) that refers to the various ways that Latinos engage with these changes.

The series centers around the Mexican-American Morales family, made up of Pop and his three adult grandchildren as they grapple with adjusting to this new reality while also paying respect to their family legacy.

This theme is deeply explored as the Morales struggle to keep afloat their Mama Fina’s Taco (named after both the fictional Delfina’s and Chávez’s late grandmothers, using the real-life exterior of longtime eatery La Ronda on East Cesar E Chavez Avenue) amid rising rents in the rapidly-changing neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

And it’s the food that comes out of the taqueria and the family’s kitchen that tells that story.

Southern California has been a hotbed for Mexican-American culinary experimentation since the 1870s.

Chris (played by Carlos Santos) is a professionally-trained chef who, at first reluctantly, steps in to take a role in Pop’s restaurant. It’s immediately clear in the season opener that he’s disassociated from his Mexican roots after spending a decade in Idaho. He’s often referred to as a coconut, brown on the outside and white on the inside. Throughout the first season we see Pop (Joaquín Cosío) teach his grandson to reconnect with his family -- and heal from cultural alienation -- using Mama Fina’s heirloom recipes, which he keeps in a small box in their home kitchen.

Cousin Erik (J.J. Soria) is deeply rooted in his community, gifting school children with free tacos in exchange for reading (“It’s like Book It, but with tacos,” he says), while facing the possibility of leaving to follow his baby’s mother Lidia (Annie Gonzalez) to Palo Alto. And cousin Ana (Karrie Martin) also helps out around the shop but is contending with her own issues around homophobia in the Latinx community and her desire to make it as an artist without selling out her own people.

This delicate balancing act of honoring one’s culture, while pushing forward is a reflection of the complex history of Mexican food in Los Angeles.

Southern California has been a hotbed for Mexican-American culinary experimentation since the rise of the tamale wagons of the 1870s in downtown Los Angeles, says Gustavo Arellano, LA Times writer and author of the 2012 book, Taco USA.

At the same time, the region’s food culture has been hotly debated, especially within the Mexican-American community itself.

Tacos were first commodified in Los Angeles, in the beginning showing up as freshly fried hard shells stuffed with shredded beef or chicken or ground beef. San Bernardino’s Mitla Cafe opened in 1937 fueling the inspiration for Taco Bell. Some of the pioneering mainstream sit-down Mexican restaurants that popularized the ubiquitous combo plate concept (cheesy enchiladas, chimichangas, accompanied by refried beans and “Spanish” rice, outsized Cadillac margaritas) were opened by Chicano Larry Cano, founder of the now-defunct Southern California El Torito chain.

LA’s historic Olvera Street -- home to the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles -- was restored as a tourist destination in 1931, which Arellano says likely gave America its “first hipster food hall,” housing the iconic Cielito Lindo taquito stand.

With the rise of Mexican migration in the 1960s and 70s came the concept of the soft taco, a simple corn tortilla filled with carne asada or carnitas. In the 1980s, tacos al pastor, marinated pork that roasts on a trompo (spit) started becoming more commonplace.

These arrivals have since been deemed as more authentic, albeit also relegated to the “cheap eats” category, while hard shell tacos are now dismissed as “Americanized.”

“We Mexicans are very defensive over our food in the United States and Mexico because Americans ripped off our food and made a mockery of it,” Arellano says. “We’ve created this idealized image of what Mexican food is supposed to be.”

If the cuisine doesn’t match up with that idealization, he says, Mexican-Americans are viewed as “venditos,” traitors, a word that gets thrown around quite a bit in Gentefied.

Most recently, Arellano says, Los Angeles has seen the opening of several taquerias featuring tacos filled with birria de res -- a fiery crimson, slow-cooked beef stew typical of Tijuana. Spots like Teddy’s Red Tacos, Tacos y Birria La Unica, and Birrieria San Marcos are proving to once again challenge the way Mexican food in the United States is perceived.

Lemus says his own notions of authentic Mexican food were challenged throughout the writing process.

“For so long I had this view of saying ‘fuck $5 tacos,’ I’m such a huge fan of street meat,” Gentefied co-creator Lemus says.

It wasn’t until his girlfriend, who came up in restaurants, pointed out that creating Mexican food is expensive, too, that his perspective changed. Tacos can exist on high-end menus and in the cheap eats category and at every level in between.

“I almost internalized that our food has less value,” he adds.

Such notions are also challenged in Gentefied as Chris and Pop butt heads over how to revamp the menu to attract new customers. Chris, who has aspirations of attending culinary school in Paris, introduces his grandfather to the idea of a “taco of the week” concept and creates a chicken tikka masala taco, much to the dismay of two longtime customers. Pop attempts to overcome this resistance to change and also honor Mama Fina’s legacy by taking his grandson’s modern take on the beloved taco and making several tweaks based on Delfina’s recipes.

“I get a lot of old-school Latinos who thank me.”

This scene reflects a newer wave of Chicano chefs that are combining familiar Mexican traditions and modern fine dining techniques that challenge stereotypes.

Mexican-American Chef Wes Avila used his culinary school education and stints in fine dining establishments to open Guerrilla Tacos, at first a food cart that sat outside of local coffee shops. His haute cuisine training served to challenge Angelenos to embrace the idea of a $5 (or $6, or $7) taco, taking premium ingredients like foie gras, usually reserved for expensive tasting menus, and nestling them inside a warm tortilla. The clandestine eatery eventually led to critical applause and his first brick-and-mortar in 2018 in DTLA’s Arts District, not far from Boyle Heights.

And as food writer Lesley Tellez wrote in a recent Bon Appetit feature, there’s a wave of Chicana chefs who are giving rise to the proliferation of vegan Mexican food.

Tellez, who’s written extensively on the use of pre-Hispanic cooking traditions in recent years, says more Chicano chefs are looking to their ancestral roots to redefine a cuisine that’s all-too-often associated with marinated meats or cheese.

“There’s this whole genre of Mexican-American cooking, it’s not something that you would find in Mexico City, it’s completely evocative of LA, it comes from the minds of Chicanos who grew up in LA and it’s great,” says Tellez, who’s spent time living in Mexico City and Los Angeles, and currently resides in New York. “They’re expressing a love for something from their heritage, I think we should be encouraging that.”

On the other side of the Hollywood Hills in the northeast San Fernando Valley barrio of Pacoima restaurateur Rafael Andrade has taken this ethos to heart with his eatery, Myke’s Cafe, a popular brunch spot that’s regularly highlighted on local television. The menu is a mashup of Mexican and American breakfast classics, like chilaquiles with eggs Benedict, breakfast tortas stuffed with beans, bacon, avocado, and eggs over easy, and carne asada chips using house-made kettle chips. And it’s situated in a neighborhood that, like Boyle Heights, struggled for years with a reputation for poverty and gang violence.

“I get a lot of old school Latinos who thank me, who say ‘you’ve taken this chance and look what you’ve done, you put Pacoima on the map,’” Andrade says.

Still, as more LA neighborhoods continue to fall prey to the effects of gentrification, some can’t help but wonder if these changes in Mexican foodways are meant to celebrate the region’s unique Chicano identity or to serve upwardly mobile folks -- including other Mexican-Americans -- who have no connection to the communities they’re moving into.

Culture writer Mariana Viera, who grew up in North Hollywood, has already seen her childhood neighborhood transform from a working-class, ethnically diverse section of the Valley, into the NoHo Arts District, and with it, a string of galleries, pricey cafes and eateries that she sees as potentially contributing to the erasure of her traditionally working-class Latinx community.

It’s only a matter of time, she worries, that her neighborhood mercadito where her parents know the Spanish-speaking owners by name and pick up fresh tamales for Christmas, have to give way to new high-end condos, boutiques, and other development.

And with that, a piece of her identity is lost.

In an essay she penned for Grub Street, Viera lamented how the gluten-free, keto diet fads stereotypical of a certain Los Angeles dining narrative has erased the traditions of Mexican-owned panaderias, pointing to a NY Times article that inaccurately described the city as an “unlikely bakery and bread haven.”

“In East Los Angeles, three generations of families have been able to share the same pan dulce from the same panadería; El Gallo Bakery has been part of the neighborhood for 70 years” in East LA, says Viera’s essay, calling into question the decades of Mexican bakery culture that are integral to life in Los Angeles.

“When you keep telling the same story over and over again it becomes the story,” says Viera.

Viera caught an early screener of Gentefied before the official release and can see both sides of the struggle that the fictional Morales family has to contend with.

“I think it’s very complicated,” she says. “On the one hand, it’s a simple matter of your immediate family and survival and the kind of possible lanes that you can take to make sure that your family is good. But then again, how does that affect the community in the long run?”

“Honey, they may love all our shit, but they don’t love us.”

That question comes to a head in one scene in which Chris, his cousins Erik (J.J. Soria) and Ana (Karrie Martin), and her girlfriend Yessika (Julissa Calderon) are hanging out in Mama Fina’s after closing time snacking on tamales.

Chris can’t eat his fast enough, lamenting his years in Idaho where there’s not much of Mexican anything.

Then he gets an idea, adding “gourmet” tamales to the shop’s menu to bring in new clientele.

Yessika chimes in that “white folks love dropping money on authenticity.”

“Tamales, sarapes,” she says.

“Nopales, huaraches,” adds Ana.

“Our hoods,” says Yessika.

“C’mon, can’t they just love something cause they think it’s cool?” asks Chris.

“Honey, they may love all our shit, but they don’t love us,” says Yessika.

It’s scenes like this that illustrate the complexity of being a “gentefier” and that have the potential to all of us, as diners, to engage with Mexican restaurants with greater awareness of the dynamics and stories behind the taco counter.

The following are some restaurants that, in some way, tell the story behind Gentefied. Also check out our list of the Best Mexican Restaurants in Los Angeles.

Cielito Lindo
Olvera Street
This iconic food stall was founded on DTLA’s historic Olvera Street in 1934. While the menu is made up of a handful of Mexican classics like tamales, chile rellenos, and burritos, it’s most famous for its freshly-fried rolled taquitos, perfect for dipping into their avocado sauce. Much of the place remains the same as it was in its early days, with a walk-up window where customers line up to buy paper trays of the iconic taquitos.

El Cholo Cafe
Pasadena
The second-oldest continuously run Mexican restaurant in the United States, El Cholo Cafe opened its doors in 1923 and ranks as one of the pioneering innovators of the combo platter (which originated in Texas). Platters are known for exceptionally large portions of dishes like enchiladas or chile rellenos -- usually topped with a mountain of yellow cheese -- and accompanied with refried beans and Spanish rice, as well as oversized Cadillac margaritas. The combo platters here were added to the menu in 1938, but the restaurant got its start with dishes like its Sonora-style enchiladas, albondigas soup, and chile Colorado.

Mitla Cafe
San Bernardino
The menu here changed the game for Mexican-American cuisine, though indirectly. Mitla opened in 1937 as a simple lunch counter along the historic Route 66. Decades later, Bell took notice of the diner’s popular tacos dorados -- hard shell tacos stuffed with meat, grated cheese, and tomatoes -- and went on to create his own line for what would become Taco Bell. A legend in its own right, Mitla Cafe remains a family-owned business and is now a popular roadside attraction.

La Ronda
Boyle Heights
The makers of Gentefied filmed quite a bit on-location in Boyle Heights, and were met at times with protests from community activists over contributing to the very problem of gentrification that it was seeking to address. To capture the essence in the neighborhood though, Chávez and Lemus worked with a scout to identify what would become the exterior of the fictional Mama Fina’s (the interior shots were on a set). What they found was La Ronda Restaurant, a longtime eatery that specializes in Mexican seafood, like fried whole mojarra, shrimp cocktails, and outsized micheladas.

Teddy’s Red Tacos
South LA, Venice, Echo Park
LA has officially reached a peak-level birria de res craze with more and more restaurants, taco trucks, and pop-ups serving up the cosomme-rich, finger-staining slow-cooked, marinated beef. In particular, it’s birria tacos that are all the rage, and one of the signature spots to find it is at Teddy’s Red Tacos., According to L.A. Taco, founder Teddy Vazquez started by selling his birria to his Uber customers from the trunk of his car. Then he started selling outside of a bar in Long Beach. Soon the viral sensation launched a taco truck in south LA, a sleek, modern-looking brick and mortar in Venice, and a second taco truck in Echo Park.

Guerilla Tacos
Arts District
Guerrilla Tacos opened its minimalist eatery and bar to much anticipation after receiving critical acclaim from the likes of the late, great Jonathan Gold, the legendary former LA Times food critic. Here, diners can experience a rotating array of the inventive tacos offerings that founder Avila became famous for, like an Indian-inspired vegetarian-friendly filling of saag curry eggplant, grilled swordfish, and pork belly with smoked trout roe, according to recent menus. Having a permanent home enables him to serve an extensive craft cocktail menu prominently featuring tequila and mezcal drinks, plus an exclusive reservations-only omakase chef’s table tasting menu experience.

Myke’s Cafe
Pacoima
The interior of this popular San Fernando Valley brunch spot is lined with paintings from local artists. The brunch menu that made it famous features items such as its gigantic breakfast tortas, banana split pancakes, and chilaquiles eggs benedict, as well as outlandish menu items like its jaw-splitting Bro Snicker Burger, whose patty is stuffed with bacon and Snickers and then topped with cheddar.

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Serena Maria Daniels is the Chingona-in-Chief and founder of online food and culture outlet, Tostada Magazine. She is also a 2018 Feet In 2 Worlds/WDET food journalism fellow. Catch her on Twitter at @serenamaria36 or @tostadamagazine.