In his terrific new culinary history Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano details a number of junctures at which dishes dreamed up by Mexican immigrants went from unknown to ubiquitous. In many cases, he's able to pinpoint these moments with impressive accuracy because mainstreaming hinged on the invention of a contraption - Mariano Martinez's frozen margarita machine is just one of many examples - or a marketing campaign, such as the cook booklet that Gebhardt's developed to promote its chili powder and canned chili meat back in 1923.
Culinary assimilation isn't always so clear-cut. Few cuisines travel a straight line from foreign to familiar, and it's sometimes hard to track foods caught between the poles. Most Americans would agree that Italian food is no longer considered exotic, while foods associated with African nations remain relatively mysterious in most stateside communities. But what about cuisines that have cultivated followings in urban centers or isolated pockets of immigration? Has the U.S. fully accepted foods from Vietnam, Korea or Lebanon?
Well, no. Americans are still better versed in spaghetti than tabouli. But there are definite signs that they're growing more comfortable with different dishes: Last month, T.G.I.Friday's added Korean tacos to its menu. When a food writer of the future decides to chronicle Korean food's march to the mainstream, that platter will surely merit a chapter.
And anyone studying Vietnamese food's journey might have to reckon with Sub Sand, the tidy banh mi shop in the International District. Sub Sand is styled after Subway: Customers direct sandwich construction, just as they would if they were ordering a footl-ong Italian BMT in an airport. The filling choices are Vietnamese - satay beef and barbecue pork are standouts - but the toppings have been adjusted for American palates. Instead of cilantro, Sub Sand offers lettuce, cucumber and tomato, a tweak that strikes purists as comic.
Sub Sand makes a great sandwich: The bread's crusty and the vegetables are fresh. But what's so intriguing about the sandwich is that it's neither Vietnamese or American, but represents a resting point in-between. If, someday, there's a fat flip book documenting the evolution of Vietnamese food, Sub Sand might be featured on page 16. Here's your chance to linger on that page before the rest of the book is written.