Complaint Desk

Stop Demanding All Ethnic Food Be Cheap

After the humble taco stand Trompo was named one of Bon Appetit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America, a Redditor named Thrill_of_life turned their nose up at the $1.85 cost of Trompo’s tacos: “Too expensive in my opinion, bet they’re also going to raise the price.” Another Redditor, signel, agreed: “Give me the $1 tacos.”

I’ve been guilty of the same thinking. I’ve turned my nose up at $6 “gringo” tacos, and my friends raise their eyebrows at $10 bowls of pho. But, however noble our intentions might be, that attitude — good ethnic food must be cheap — is just plain wrong.

There are two stated motivations behind the “Give me $1 tacos” argument, one good and one bad. The bad one is simple selfishness, of course: We like cheap food because it’s cheap. Spending more money isn’t fun.

The slightly more noble reason is to discourage our foodie culture from fetishizing “elevated” immigrant food. Too many self-proclaimed “foodies” obsess over the idea of “artisanal” or “chef-driven” interpretations of foods that were originally made by folks who couldn’t afford the fancy stuff, and the result is culinary gentrification, pricing poor people out of their own staples. Home barbecuers have all noticed the skyrocketing cost of former bargain meats like short ribs, and Dallas restaurants’ habit of charging $17 for a plain burger with American cheese has probably sent a few people running back to McDonald’s.

But that’s a separate problem entirely. Drawing a line in the sand and saying “This food should never cost more than this amount” is not the right answer. It’s not even an answer at all.

There are great reasons to pay extra for tacos and other foods that have come to the U.S. by way of other countries. For one thing, inflation and wage growth exist. According to the Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, a taco that cost $1.50 ten years ago should cost $1.79 now. And The New York Times reports that wages have gone up 2.6% in the last year, which affects how much the taco guy gets paid — and how much you can spend.

Then there are the costs of running a restaurant. Rent, wages and other expenses are higher in Dallas than they are in, say, rural Mexico or China. Food costs have a nasty habit of rising even when inflation doesn’t. Trompo is using good-quality products for their tacos, too. They’re not buying mass-market tortillas and $1.99 chicken breasts from Kroger.

Food costs lead directly into a discussion of quality. But quality doesn’t just mean good ingredients; it means skilled cooks, an equipped kitchen and maybe even some creativity. Those things cost money, too. When Trompo responded to Bon Appetit’s accolade by posting a “we’re hiring” message on Facebook, they said the restaurant’s wages would be $8 to $11, not the Texas minimum of $7.25. Are Redditors indignant that they’re paying more to help a cook or dishwasher make a little extra?

Which brings us to the deepest and ugliest problem with the “$1 tacos only” argument. Not only does it discourage innovation, depress wages, dismiss food costs and ignore inflation; it can be, taken to the extremes, classist and racist. Why are tacos being held to a price standard that coffee and barbecue are not?

Not all pho is the same. Not every Indian lunch buffet is the same. Not every kebab is the same. “Foreign” foods are not commodities that every restaurant should do identically. If you think that burgers are incredibly diverse but street tacos are all interchangeable, you’re badly misinformed. The good news is that becoming well-informed involves eating lots of super-yummy tacos.

There are many reasons to pay a little extra for tacos, or banh mi, or egg rolls. Being an elitist gringo foodie does not need to be one of them. According to a lot of people who know a lot about tacos, Trompo’s cost a few cents more because staff earning a better minimum wage has put serious work into making the food really damn tasty. Who would want to argue with that?
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart