The Issue With Eliminating the Context of Califas’ Carne Asada Fries

USA, California, San Diego. Historic town centre. Getty Images

The fact that the New York Times missed the mark on Southern California’s culture is not unusual. Los Angeles seems to let out a collective groan when its communities are mischaracterized or portrayed inaccurately by a writer whose finger isn’t quite on the Angeleno pulse.

San Diego got to experience that same brand of annoyance this week when the Times ran a much-criticized piece on carne asada fries—a dish as quintessentially San Diegan as sunshine, Rey Mysterio and cousins right across the border in Tijuana.

Though the dish might sound odd to some, carne asada fries make perfect sense upon the first bite. The dish is composed of carne asada atop a fresh pile of french fries with guacamole, cheese, crema and salsa fresca on top. Every mouthful is rich and messy in the best possible way.

Local lore says the dish was created at South Bay San Diego landmark Lolita’s Mexican Food after a vendor suggested the restaurant’s owner take the french fry and carne asada stuffed California burrito—also a San Diego invention credited to the region’s Roberto’s taco shop empire—out of its flour tortilla wrapping to offer the filling as a larger plate. The dish became an instant hit and spread throughout San Diego and beyond.

In the Times’ post, however, the recipe and backstory focus on the dish as seen at a Denver establishment “loved by bikers and hipsters alike.” This way of presenting the dish takes away its origin to make it more approachable or elevated for an audience who is far removed from San Diego’s Mexican-American experience and more familiar with a white-normative viewpoint.

Eliminating the context of the dish erases the significance carne asada fries have as a combination of food culture in America and foodways of northern Mexico. Many are familiar with the main ingredients of this meal in their so-called “real” contexts, with fries playing side dish to hamburgers and the cuts of beef getting stuffed into tortillas. But when these ingredients come together, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Conceptually, carne asada fries encapsulate a major piece of the Chicano and Mexican-American experience. Critics see them as inauthentic Mexican food, yet the majority will also refuse to see them as American food. Deemed neither Mexican nor American, carne asada fries are stuck in a limbo familiar to many—“no son ni de aquí, ni de allá,” as is often said.

However, it is that same cross-cultural identity—and the fact that carne asada fries are objectively delicious—that gives the dish everything it needs to be celebrated as a Mexican-American success in Califas. They have successfully crossed over without being left behind by the culture. As a meal, the fries have taken a great significance in local culture as comfort food, a social activity, or as some quick grub at the end of the day. Many a plate of fries has been had over a Mexico soccer game or a (now Los Angeles) Chargers playoff win.

While the Times focused its attention away from the context which truly makes carne asada fries special, this platter endures as a Cal-Mex original which people will champion.