Kosher Taco Truck Tours Streets Of El Paso
The Southwest border is a place where people and cultures collide and inevitably blend together.
For El Paso, Texas, artist Peter Svarzbein, it’s the perfect setting to introduce a food experiment that compliments his latest project.
He combined his experience as a Jew growing up on Mexico’s doorstep to create a new twist on an iconic dish.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Let’s go to the Southwest border, a place where people and cultures collide and inevitably blend. And for El Paso, Texas artist Peter Svarzbein, it’s a perfect setting to introduce a food experiment that compliments his latest project. He uses his experience as a Jewish man growing up on Mexico’s doorstep to create a new twist on an iconic dish. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Fronteras reporter Monica Ortiz Uribe has our story on the kosher taco.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: It’s hotter than a desert full of burning bushes in this kitchen. No surprise, considering the amount of cooking going on.
JOSE CAZARES: There’s about 450 to 500 latkes, six whole roasted kosher chickens, the pico de gallo, roasted green chilies. We did an Israeli salad.
URIBE: Chef Jose Cazares sips a Dr Pepper in between each flip of his spatula. He’s frying clumps of shredded potato in a pan. These are latkes, the traditional Jewish dish served during the Hanukkah holiday. But these are not Hannukkah latkes. No, these latkes are just a sidekick to the main attraction: a kosher taco.
RABBI LEVI GREENBERG: Kosher is dietary laws that are set forth by God in the Torah, in the Bible to the Jewish people.
URIBE: That’s Rabbi Levi Greenberg. We’re in his synagogue kitchen in El Paso, where he supervises the food preparation. The kosher taco is the brainchild of local artist and photographer Peter Svarzbein.
PETER SVARZBEIN: I actually muled 50 pounds of kosher meat from Albuquerque down to El Paso.
URIBE: Svarzbein has paired his kosher taco experiment with a video exhibit he created on Latino crypto-Jews. What’s a crypto-Jew? They’re the descendants of Jews who forcibly converted to Christianity as far back as the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s. The Spanish called them Marranos or pigs. Pork is not kosher.
SVARZBEIN: The reason why they called them Marannos is because they would force them to eat pork to the bone, to show how Christian they were and not Jewish. It was really – it was like a – it was an identity through food.
URIBE: The idea of joining a taco and kosher food is a nod to the Jews who fled to Latin America, particularly Mexico, to escape persecution.
SVARZBEIN: So in a way, having a kosher taco is a way to take that power back and to positively identify oneself through food consumption.
URIBE: And thus was born Conversos y Tacos, a gourmet taco truck touring the streets of El Paso this summer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So one chicken shawarma and one Ari White’s kosher asada, please.
URIBE: At a recent stop in downtown El Paso, a curly-haired customer places an order. There are three different kosher tacos to choose from. There’s the chicken shawarma taco, then the brisket taco that comes with a pickle, and finally a taco prepared with smoked beef from a famous kosher barbecue in Yonkers, New York. Each order comes with a latke and a jalapeno dipping sauce.
LESLIE GARCIA: But they’re wonderful. They’re delicious. It’s great.
URIBE: Leslie Garcia sits at an outdoor bench with a table full of relatives. She’s a pastor at a nondenominational Christian church. Her family has a Jewish past.
GARCIA: Our great, great grandfather fled during the Inquisition and fled through Mexico. And then our whole family ended up in California. Except my father opened a business in El Paso, and we are El Pasoans.
URIBE: You could say the Garcia family is living the kosher taco. They grew up Mexican-American and Christian. But since they discovered their Jewish roots, the family simply combined both cultures.
GARCIA: You know, we celebrate Christmas, but we like Hanukkah. And we do Hanukkah so that they can understand this is where we came from.
URIBE: The Jewish community in El Paso is small, making kosher food hard to come by and expensive. So the taco truck is a special treat for local Jews. For Svarzbein, it’s also an opportunity to educate. There are those in El Paso who know little or nothing about the Jewish faith.
SVARZBEIN: For me this is really about let’s create this space of understanding and of dialogue and that there’s places where cultures can blend together and where you can create something different, something new, something fresh.
URIBE: For HERE AND NOW, I’m Monica Ortiz Uribe in El Paso.
YOUNG: And her story on the kosher taco came to us from Fronteras Desk. That’s a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics. I feel we should now hear lyrics in Spanish to go with this.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
YOUNG: So who knew? A kosher barbecue? If you have a cultural cuisine mashup, let us know at hereandnow.org. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.