Richard Hinojosa makes tacos. He makes chicken tacos. He makes beef tacos. He makes scallop, octopus, and lobster tacos. He makes a poke taco with a taro root chip for a shell, a shrimp taco sopping with green curry. He makes tacos with Cajun, Creole, Szechuan, Argentinian, and Brazilian flavors. He even makes a Korean fried chicken taco with green onion mojo and gochujang.
He makes al pastor tacos just and nothing like al pastor. Al pastor is marked by pork and pineapple, both often shaved from spits in the style of shawarma (al pastor has Lebanese origins). For his taco, Hinojosa confits pork belly. He chars pineapple, cooks the fruit down, and adds it as a purée. “You got all the cool flavors of al pastor, Hinojosa says, "but it was a different interpretation."
What exactly is Hinojosa doing at CRUjiente Tacos in Arcadia? Are these even tacos?
The taco has amorphous boundaries, just like the sandwich. (Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is a hamburger?) A taco, many people would agree, is a tortilla folded around filling. People who have grown up eating tacos or love them especially likely have further definitions: tortilla makeup and size, proportion of fillings, softness, crunch ...
Where in the taco universe do Hinojosa’s new-age tacos fall, and do they even fall there at all?
Hinojosa opened CRUjiente Tacos in November 2016. He was born in Texas. His family came from Mexico a few generations back. When he was younger, he would visit relatives in Mexico's Rio Grande Valley. His mom cooked “a little bit of everything, but really Tex-Mex.”
Over the years, Hinojosa cooked in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Hawaii. He cooked alongside people from Japan, Thailand, and Polynesia. When he makes tacos, he incorporates what he has learned. “I let the ingredients lead in the direction of the taco,” he says. “There’s no harness on them. They can go kind of wherever.”
There is something of a fringe movement in Mexican cooking toward novel food. Mexican chef Enrique Olvera — who helms world-class restaurants such as Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York — cooks innovative Mexican dishes like uni tostada and cobia al pastor. Alex Stupak, a white dude based in the Northeast, shapes unconventionally colored tortillas and even crafts a pastrami taco; he recently won a James Beard Award for a book called Tacos: Recipes and Provocations.
Hinojosa cooks in this new-age tradition.
For a minimalist duck taco, he places two slices of breast on a blue corn tortilla. He doesn’t spoon salsa verde on top but widely spaces two circles of the green sauce. The duck rests on red mole, which is a mashup of his grandmother’s and godmother’s moles. Toasted sesame seeds, peanuts, and micro cilantro complete the taco. This is a grilled chicken taco elevated about 12 stories.
So far, Hinojosa has featured some 80 tacos. He says he doesn't cook “Mexican food” but, at the same time, operates a “taco restaurant.” His tacos, he says, range from Mexican-influenced to “not Mexican.”
“Not Mexican” includes curry shrimp and Korean fried chicken tacos. The idea that a taco could be something other than Mexican is strange and hard to digest. But cuisine isn't fixed. Dishes evolve. New ingredients come into the fold. Food changes.
For his many tacos, Hinojosa presses his own tortillas using heirloom blue corn masa. He has made flavored tortillas by mixing corn with cilantro, poblano, Fresno chile, cardamom, and dashi. These nonconformist additions can change the tortilla's color.
Some of his food is traditional, like posole, ceviche, and guacamole. Taco-wise, he makes green chile pork and crunchy beef tacos in a more standard vein. Though not strictly traditional, his lamb taco comes from a Mexican memory: While traveling as a kid, he discovered eating goat.
Some of his food is more progressive, alien next to what you'd find in your local taqueria. He makes Szechuan beef cheek tacos, tacos featuring beef braised for 36 hours, avocado tempura tacos.
That some of his tacos cost more than $5 doesn't disqualify them from being tacos. Yes, a $2 taco is a great thing, but not all tacos have to be cheap. Upgrading a taco's ingredients shouldn't make somebody a pariah; it should make him or her a luminary who channels cooking's zeitgeist. If Chris Bianco can elevate pasta — the ultimate peasant food, a food that costs $2 a box — with heirloom grains and badass pork, then why can't Hinojosa do the same for the taco? If you pay close to $20 for a pizza or north of $25 for a pasta bowl, then spending $5 on a taco shouldn't be too much.
When it comes to defining "taco," Hinojosa keeps things open: "A taco in essence is a good tortilla, a focused topping with accompaniments. You’ve got to be able to pick it up and eat it as a whole. That’s it.”
That said, he does have rules for taco making (as does Stupak).
“You don’t just throw something on a taco and call it a taco,” Hinojosa says. “You have to keep the integrity of what a taco is. Everything on the tortilla has a place. Each brings something to the taco, to the dish.”
People, he says, are starting to open their minds about what Mexican food can be. He takes pride in the time and attention he spends on his tacos. He loves that his approach is different, “elevated,” and, when all goes right, makes for a “cerebral taco.”
Are Hinojosa’s tacos Mexican food? Are his tacos even tacos? Where you draw these lines is a thorny and fascinating question given what he and other chefs are cooking, how they are stretching tradition like melted candy, how elusive and imprecise food definitions are, and cuisine's shifting nature.
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And Hinojosa, you can bet, wants to keep stretching.
“I love that this world is opening up,” he says of novel approaches to Mexican cuisine. “If people thought we were even doing a little bit to help that, I would be thrilled.”
CRUjiente Tacos. 3961 East Camelback Road; 602-687-7777.
Open: Monday to Thursday 3 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 3 to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday.