I just heard the tragic news: My cheese smuggler died.
He was from my dad's native rancho of Jomulquillo in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, a quesero whom hundreds depended on for their queso añejo, a thick, salty fromage unique to the region featuring a chile-tinted orange rind and lovingly nicknamed queso de pata (foot cheese) for its rank smell. This is organic cheese without peer: originating from cows that feed on grassy hills untouched by modernity, processed with a special rennet, crafted using centuries-old traditions. Queso añejo isn't illegal to import; it's just that la migra restricts how much cheese people can bring in at a time, and the clients of my late smuggler — my family included — demanded wheels by the dozens.
In Southern California, eaters can try numerous regional Mexican specialties, from the widely known (Oaxacan moles, the truffle-like huitlacoche) to the downright rare (taco acorazado, made with milanesa and grilled cactus and translating into English as "battleship taco"; it's native to Cuernavaca, Morelos, and is found locally only at one pink-colored Santa Ana lonchera).
Such diversity is a natural result of decades of Mexican migration, but there's one glaring anomaly: Zacatecas' culinary traditions are virtually invisible in local restaurants.
This quirk belies demography. The state is to modern-day Southern California what Iowa was for a previous generation of Angelenos: a place known for its work ethic and its conservative values, and for sending hundreds of thousands of its residents to our sunny wonderland.
And just as Hawkeyes became legendary for their Long Beach picnics, Zacatecans are renowned among Mexicans for their fiestas: massive weddings scored with the brass-band booms of tamborazo, all-day rodeos and baseball tournaments, fundraiser dances that collect and remit more money back to Mexico than expats from any other state. And at all the events, regional food reigns.
Zacatecans and their descendents occupy all rungs of Southern California life, including Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, Hollywood sexpot Jessica Alba and yours truly, son of two parents who came from tiny villages in the mountains above the city of Jerez.
Mine has been a life of heritage served daily: a slice of crumbly añejo to accompany breakfast; tunas (the fruit of the prickly pear cactus) served diced or as an agua fresca during summer; gritty chocolate; neon pink coconut candy called alfajor that looks and tastes nothing like its better-known Argentine cousin.
And perhaps most gloriously, asado de boda, an austere mole as sweet as molasses due to Mexican chocolate, brown sugar and buckets of lard, but with a creeping heat that leaves lips slightly scorched. It's a wedding staple, and since I'm zacatecano, I can eat this dish weekly easily just by hanging with my extended family of thousands — uncles, aunts and too many third cousins to count.
But despite the massive Zacatecan community, I've long searched for restaurants that serve our food — mami and the aunts can cook only so much. I know that the first businesses immigrant communities tend to open are restaurants or produce stores that cater to the palates of their paisanos. So, given the sheer number of zacatecanos, why aren't there dozens of neighborhood restaurants selling our grub? Why must I rely on vacationing relatives and cheese runners for blocks of quince paste and chorizo links, for bags of properly prepared pepitas?
"You'd think with all the [zacatecanos] here, you'd have more of a presence of our food," says Huizar, who was born in Los Morales, the rancho between Jomulquillo and my mom's hometown of El Cargadero.
"But we haven't marketed our food to others, and it's a shame. Every time I go down to Zacatecas, I always order asado. It's so delicious, but I wonder why it's not up here, why I have to call a relative in Anaheim to make it or wait for a wedding."
And, sí: Many restaurants sell Zacatecas-style birria, but that doesn't count, since we stole the dish from our eternal rival, Jalisco.
Zacatecanos have migrated to Southern California since the Mission days, but the exodus didn't begin in earnest until the Mexican revolution in 1910. As early as 1922, they comprised one of the largest contingents of Mexicans in the Los Angeles area, according to Ricardo Romo's "East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio." The diaspora has never ceased: The Mexican government estimates that 1.8 million Zacatecans and their descendants live in the United States, a number larger than the Mexican state's current population.
All those immigrants hunger for reminders of their homeland, says Adrian Felix, a doctoral candidate at USC writing a dissertation on Zacatecan migration between Southern California and Mexico. Felix's studies and personal experience (his parents are from Jerez) show that Zacatecan food flourishes in Southern California, even if restaurants don't carry it.
"In academic literature, we have a phenomenon called ‘nostalgic remittances,' which are regional products [that] fulfill an emotional need for the immigrant," he says. "Oftentimes, it's foodstuff. That's why the absence of zacatecano restaurants is striking."
He theorizes that the oversaturated Mexican food industry and high start-up costs scare off prospective Zacatecan restaurateurs, but he isn't satisfied with that theory. "The food comes up here — the market is there. But for whatever reason, it's yet to be commercialized. So zacatecanos turn to the informal economy."
Both Huizar and Felix, and everyone else I asked, could think of only two Southern California restaurants that sell Zacatecan dishes, both in East Los Angeles: Teresitas and Tamales Liliana's. Only Teresitas explicitly states it sells meals "estilo zacatecas." Its salsa de chile de arbol, dry and fiery, is just like Mom makes it, as are the crunchy chilaquiles.
But if Teresitas didn't advertise itself as a Zacatecan restaurant, I honestly wouldn't be able to tell. No cultural markers exist, such as pictures of ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar or the Santo Niño de Atocha, an apparition of the infant Jesus that's the patron saint of Zacatecas. A friend claimed Teresitas sold asado on Wednesdays, but it's actually a mole negro made with pork ribs that tasted more like a greasy version of the Oaxacan standard than anything familiar to me.
Much more pleasing is Tamales Liliana's. The restaurant's menu cover has a drawing of La Bufa, the iconic hill that towers over Zacatecas' eponymous capital, and its mole zacatecano has the same consistency as asado, although Tamales Liliana's version uses chicken and not nearly enough piloncillo. A display case features Zacatecan confections such as candied sweet potato, and wall ads list crispy gorditas, buttery the way zacatecanos like them. But these treats are buried in a menu of burritos and chile verde.
Two restaurants. Out of thousands of Mexican spots. And no more quesero. I'll find a way to get my añejo, but that doesn't solve our Zacatecan culinary crisis. Meanwhile, my cousin's children are beginning to marry — another asado season awaits in the banquet halls of the Southland.
Arellano is the food editor of OC Weekly and author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! He is working on a book about the history of Mexican food in the United States.