Can Foreigners Handle the Heat? Mexico City Debates Milder Salsas.


Gerardo Medina runs the Taquería Los Amigos, a 24-hour stand that sits at a busy intersection in an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City.

With more customers from abroad eating his tacos, he began noticing similar reactions to his pico de gallo: red faces, sweat, complaints about the spiciness.

So Mr. Medina, 30, got rid of the serrano peppers, leaving just tomatoes, onions and cilantro. While he still offers an avocado salsa with serrano and a red salsa with morita chiles and chiles de árbol, he wanted to provide a non-spicy option for international visitors unaccustomed to intense heat.

“It attracts more people,” he said.

Chiles are fundamental to Mexican cuisine and, in turn, to the country’s identity. Mexicans put them, often in the form of salsas, on everything: tacos, seafood, chips, fruit, beer and, yes, even sorbet.

“Food that isn’t spicy practically isn’t good food for the majority of Mexicans,” Isaac Palacios, 37, who lives in Mexico City, said after consuming tacos smothered in salsa.

But since the pandemic, the country’s capital — with a metropolitan area of 23 million people, a temperate climate and rich cultural offerings — has become hugely popular as both a tourist destination and a new home for international transplants who can work remotely and whose earnings in dollars or euros makes the city more affordable. (Americans are the biggest group.)

As a result, in certain neighborhoods, the gentrification has been inescapable.

English is often heard on the streets. Rents have ballooned. Boutiques and coffee shops are increasingly common.

But another key manifestation of this international shift — the lowering of the heat levels of salsas at some of the city’s many taquerías — has caused consternation among Mexicans and set off a debate about how much to adapt to outsiders.

What might be good for business might not be good for the Mexican psyche.

“It’s bad,” said Gustavo Miranda, 39, a Mexico City resident, after downing tacos with work colleagues. “If you don’t want it to be spicy, don’t use any. If you lower the heat on a salsa, now it’s a dressing. It’s not a salsa anymore.”

The influx of new residents from abroad has been a boon for certain Mexico City neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa and Polanco that feature lush tree-lined streets and vibrant shopping and food scenes.

Taquerías that have softened their salsas said they wanted to be more welcoming to people with different tolerance levels, not just Americans, but also Europeans and even customers from other Latin American countries where the cuisine doesn’t have as much heat.

Jorge Campos, 39, the manager of El Compita, a taco shop that opened in the heart of Roma a year ago, said the taquería had dropped the heat level on one of the three table offerings — a charred, tomato-based salsa — by using more jalapeños and fewer habanero peppers.

International customers, he said, would sometimes send tacos back because the salsas had burned their mouths. Since the other salsas are inherently spicier — the red one is made almost entirely of chile de árbol, while the green one has serrano peppers — they tweaked the charred salsa to make it easier on some diners.

“You give them a range of options, and since they know themselves, they say ‘OK, I’ll try the medium one,’” Mr. Campos said, adding that the waiters typically explain the spiciness to people from abroad.

A few taco shops have even begun labeling their salsas with spice-level indicators, in part to help customers who don’t speak Spanish. One red flame equals fairly tame; five red flames means watch out.

At Los Juanes, a popular taco stand that sets up on a Roma Norte sidewalk every night, one worker, Adolfo Santos Antonio, 22, said the staff had started cutting down on the heat level of one of their three salsas — using more jalapeños and avocados, fewer serrano peppers — after international customers made remarks about how hot it was.

But not all taco shops have felt the need to placate multinational taste buds.

Guadalupe Carrillo, 84, the manager of Taquería Los Parados, which has been in Roma Sur for nearly 60 years, said that in her three decades there the salsa recipes hadn’t changed despite the growing flood of non-Mexicans.

“Foreigners have to learn our customs and our flavors,” she said. “Just like when we go there and we eat hamburgers or what isn’t spicy.”

Janelle Lee, 46, who was recently visiting Mexico City from Chicago with her husband, said she simply could not handle spicy. Still, she added, she didn’t expect taquerías to tweak their salsas for people like her.

“They should preserve who they are, the culture that they have and their food,” she said.

On social media, weakened salsas in Mexico City have become a hot-button issue, amplifying fears about a changing city.

Carmen Fuentes León, 29, a Tijuana native, D.J. and social media influencer who posts often about food and lives in San Diego, created a stir on social media this year after a two-week visit to Mexico City, where she said she ate tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Her conclusion? Some salsas packed no heat. The culprits? People from abroad.

“I’m in Mexico City as a victim of gentrification,” she said in a video on TikTok criticizing the salsas at the El Califa taco chain, which has locations in many affluent parts of the city.

In colorful language, Ms. Fuentes said that if Americans didn’t like the salsas, they should go home and eat the less spicy options there.

The video, so far, has drawn 2.3 million views and nearly 5,000 comments, many of them in support.

Ms. Fuentes, in an interview, said she had recorded the video because she was “very frustrated” that she couldn’t get the heat level she wanted, noting that she did finally find spicier sauces — but outside the most gentrified neighborhoods.

Sergio Goyri Álvarez, 41, whose father started the El Califa chain 30 years ago, said that while the chiles used in the five salsas might vary in spiciness based on the harvests, their salsa recipes had “not changed.”

In fact, he said, the fifth salsa was added not long ago, made with habaneros, for Mexicans who love very spicy and didn’t think the chain’s selections packed enough heat.

El Califa, though, has done other things to cater to foreigners. Mr. Goyri said the chain had started offering menus (with photos) in Englishand added vegetarian tacos (soy, pea protein or grains), which have been a hit among global customers.

“We are providing services for these foreigners,” he said, “but we are not changing anything about our spirit or our D.N.A. to try to ride this wave of foreigners.”

Adrián Hernández Cordero, 39, who leads the sociology department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City and has studied gentrification and food, said international influences had gotten outsized attention in the salsa debate.

Some food has also gotten milder over the past decade because Mexicans, particularly in urban areas, have realized that spiciness contributes to intestinal problems.

“It’s very easy, especially on social media, to look for the problem in foreigners,” he said, “when we’re not seeing that the situation is much more complex.”

Tom Griffey, 34, a Boston native, moved to Mexico City in 2019 after being enchanted while visiting a friend and works remotely as a data engineer. He said he usually reached for the hottest salsa and even if he did burn his mouth, he would never complain about it.

“I try to blend in as much as possible,” said Mr. Griffey, who speaks Spanish and whose partner is Mexican.

At the Taquería Los Amigos, Mr. Medina doesn’t speak much English, but he said he at least warned visitors by pointing at the condiments and saying “spicy” or “not spicy.”

Lately, he has been experimenting more on the less spicy side, introducing sweeter options, like onions caramelized with pineapple juice.

Next? Maybe a mango salsa.



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