Salud! is the newest addition to my neighborhood’s (Barrio Logan/Logan Heights) long list of delicious taco establishments. I heard about them through Instagram where nine out of ten posts are photos of tacos. If you know me, then you know how much I love (good) food. FOOD
After a quick Google search, I realized this place had quickly gained a large following in San Diego. The owner, Ernie Becerra also has a proven track record with his taquiza catering company San Diego Taco Company landing multiple awards throughout the years.
I did not have any preconceived expectations of this new business but the transformation my neighborhood is currently going through is startling and upsetting, to say the least. I’ve been living in Berkeley for a couple of years now, and every time I return to my hometown San Diego during school breaks I notice my neighborhood going through many rapid changes. Most changes have been disheartening as gentrification has begun to take way in Barrio Logan. Every time a new business opens up, I try to see where it fits within the community.
I didn’t know how to feel about this new taco shop given this context but I decided to go check it out with my niece Carla. Carla is your typical eleven-year-old musical prodigy/princess/dog whisperer/future Youtube star. Being spoiled by my mom’s cooking she has also become one of the toughest food critics I know. She appreciates traditional flavors and accessible ingredients. Together we would make a holistic assessment of this new taco business.
As you enter Salud! you can see the merging of tacos and Chicanx culture. There is a car hood hung against the wall with decorative art, elegant low rider car parts substituting paintings on walls, black and white photos of Chicanxs from the good old days, monochromatic walls to accentuate the vibrant decorations, sugar skulls and 1950’s soul music playing in the background. There’s a large mural featuring a woman wearing large hoop earrings with a rose on her brown hair holding a thorned sacred heart. I went to the bathroom and it was the coolest a bathroom I’ve ever been to with nopales painted all over the walls.
It’s a beautiful restaurant that makes Chicanx iconography and culture its main identity marker. It’s not your typical decoration route, as most taco shops stick to vibrant yellow and red walls. This place was elegant, modern and most importantly Chicanx in its aesthetics.
Another key difference from most taco shops in the area was its demographics. The crowd was largely young professionals, navy officers, and just middle-class people in general. The working class people that I saw were the servers, cashiers, and the folks in the kitchen.
The cost for a taco ($2.50) was above average for my neighborhood, and the portions were smaller than most tacos for the price. We each got three tacos, carne asada, al pastor, and birria. These tacos are untraditional to some extent with some of their ingredients providing a “modern twist” such as the bases for some of the sauces.
Carla took notice of some of the untraditional flavors and was not a fan, she also did not like how loud the music was, which made it difficult for us to chismear and catch up. I was more open to the changes in ingredients although some flavors clashed and were overpowering. The meats were fresh and well seasoned, coupled with hand-made tortillas, I was happy. I was not as excited about the portions given the price we paid, but the tacos were rich in quality ingredients and flavors.
Carla was definitely not coming back again and I was trying to situate Salud!’s role in my ever changing neighborhood. Affordability is key in a neighborhood that has been historically composed of working class and low income Latinxs with the average annual income for a family of four being $24,000. Other menu items included a side of beans for $4, esquite for $5 and nachos for $8. $2.50 per taco does not seem too steep of a price but when you take into consideration the minimum wage in San Diego, Salud! becomes less appealing to community members. For $5 you can buy a burrito the length of your arm just a few blocks away or an elote cup for half of their price from our local street vendors. I felt privileged to be eating there as the quality of the ingredients was better than most taco shops, but the prices and portions are not enough bang for my buck. Eating to reach a level of fullness is important in the way I was raised.
Carla and I disagreed on whether we would come back again. Overall, I liked the food but as a poor broke brown person, I do not have the income to come on a daily basis for my lunch breaks. I would come here for Taco Tuesday when tacos are 3 for $5 though!
I would recommend this place for people who are looking for modern tacos and a new experience as I appreciated the cultural iconography, ambiance, and the upholding of multiple Chicanx experiences, although I would have liked to have seen more melanin that was not there just as workers. I hold conflicting thoughts on this restaurant’s role in accelerating gentrification and would like to speak to the owner and hear about his community involvement on my next visit.
Food is political. Often times “good food” is a coded word for white food and the criteria which we use to judge food is based on privilege and eurocentrism. Growing up I learned to appreciate simple ingredients such as those used to make chilaquiles because that is what was readily available, but I also know there are over twenty ingredients in my mom’s mole recipe.
As cliche as it sounds there is a tremendous amount of love present in my family’s kitchen that impacts the flavor of our food. In low income communities like the one I was raised in, food takes a spiritual role in our everyday lives.
A new generation of Latinxs like myself may experience traditional food as well as modern takes on those very dishes we grew up consuming. I am accepting of those changes that Salud! is making within their recipes most likely due to exterior influences that altered my food palette. Carla upholds traditional Mexican food perhaps as strongly as someone from my parent’s generation. I see this as a reflection of the divide between our generations and the way we go about upholding our cultura in food.
At Salud! I did not see an appropriation of food, given the owner’s long family history in the Mexican food world and Becerra’s cultural roots. I was greeted with warmth and the food tasted like it had been made with care. Places like Salud! may not be what my community is used to but the food and what it stands for is an homage to the recipes of prior generations of elders. This speaks of the heterogeneity among Latinxs and the changes in the way we consume, experience and make food. However, Salud! and other new Latinx owned businesses, predominantly located on Logan Avenue must have affordable menu options that are inclusive to the original working class AND low income community of the neighborhood, not just catering o middle class folx whether Latinx or white. Or else they contribute to a division among first generation Latinxs and second and third generation Latinxs. I would also want to hear from their community involvement whether it be volunteering their time, donating their money, food or any other form of community enrichment they are a part of. It is not enough to simply say this is gentefication (as opposed to gentrification) on the sole grounds that it is a Latinx owned business and Latinx iconography, it must be backed up with a commitment to Logan Heights and Barrio Logan’s low income community through concrete actions.