the u-shaped theory of mexican food

Many cuisines run on a simple principle: if you get good ingredients and prepare them in a straight forward fashion, you will get good results. In Mexican cuisine, you start with fresh corn. Then you flatten it (tortilla) or mash it (tamale). Add slow cooked meat or roast vegetables. If you want a light taste, add cilantro, onions, lemon or lime.

That brings me to my theory of price-quality correlation in Mexican food. Everything I described is really simple to do and uses very common ingredients, even if it is a bit time intensive. It can also be made in large batches, so it should be cheap to make. And it is cheap in places where people actually care about decent Mexican food. That’s were you get the killer taco truck with excellent chivo tacos for $1.50 a pop. Olive Market in Bloomington has cheap, but good, tacos in this range. Feast, a preppy place, has decent low cost tamales. Darko Taco is our best truck.

So how can you charge $10 or $15 bucks for something that’s nothing other than slow cooked meat with a wrap? I don’t know, but I suspect the $10 enchiladas plate at the local Mexican place with a sombrero statue is charging for “atmosphere.” They are also doing a lot of extra prep – weird red suaces, drowning stuff in melted cheese, etc. Thus, the typical Mexican plate in this range is bad.

Oddly, Mexican food gets a whole lot better once you hit the $15-$20 range. Why? At this point, you hit a price point indicating much higher quality ingredients. For example, you might get a plate with oysters and octopus. Or you might get a grilled steak. They also maintain a good range of real Mexican plates. The knock-off faux Mexican place isn’t going to be chasing customers in this price range because they know they can’t fake it. My favorite is Guiterrez Drive-In in Salinas, California.


Written by fabiorojas

February 20, 2011 at 3:33 am

6 Responses

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  1. Best Mexican? Dirt-cheap, flies, hole-in-the-wall Kotija Jr on the PCH in Encinitas, CA.

    For what it’s worth – there is no good Mexican food in Europe, period. Same goes for Atlanta (we tried everything possible over a year, and always struck out).



    February 20, 2011 at 4:08 am

  2. I don’t imagine that the cheeze sauce or enchilada sauce really contribute much to the cost, after all — everything in the restaurant is bound to be from the cheapest possible source, down to the tequila and instant-mix in the margaritas, despite the mark-up. The $10 to $15 range is simply the going price for an entree at most any suburban chain joint, Mexican or not. Odds are the meal is mediocre, whatever the cuisine, but that’s what diners expect to pay.



    February 20, 2011 at 4:15 am

  3. Odds are the meal is mediocre, whatever the cuisine, but that’s what diners expect to pay.

    I wonder how much is driven by franchise costs and profit-sharing with the national chain. If a local restaurant can make it with the same cheap ingredients (Fabio’s point) and marketing power to compete locally (like being the *only* Mexican restaurant in town — don’t know if that’s the case here), then they turn a profit on everything between the typical price-point of suburban chains (Alan’s point. As an aside, a friend calls these restaurants “Your Neighborhood Apostrophe S Restaurants” Friday’s, Applebee’s, etc.). Perhaps the cheap ingredients — and inexpensive drinks — makes Mexican restaurants uniquely suited to capture this market.



    February 20, 2011 at 5:48 am

  4. @mike3550: Good point. Basic Mexican is just meat + tortilla/shells + cheap veggies + beans in a bunch of different combinations. That’s probably cheaper than the ribs you find at a place like Applebee’s, or seafood at Red Lobster. Goes a long way in explaining “why Mexican?”



    February 20, 2011 at 5:56 am

  5. i grew up in California and i’ll never forget the first “Mexican” meal I had in grad school. it was at Burrito Royale on Route 1 in Monmouth Junction and everything was ground beef and orange cheese. truly disgusting.

    fortunately the next day I discovered Oaxaqueno (260 Drift St. in New Brunswick) which is well to the left side of the Rojas curve. I ate there regularly, most recently when I visited Princeton two years ago to give a talk to the CACPS workshop.

    I think the real issue is less the cost than the fact that some people prefer that their food be smothered in nacho cheese food product than dusted with queso anejo. As Horkheimer and Adorno said “Immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities.”



    February 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

  6. […] Posted by teageegeepea under Uncategorized 1 Comment  Early today, Fabio Rojas proposed his u-shaped theory of Mexican food. Kieran Healy responded with a line-by-line imitation, applying it to higher education. I suppose […]


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