From birria tacos to chilaquiles, Claudia Sandoval’s culinary border tour is proof food unites us

Claudia Sandoval, winner of the sixth season’s of “MasterChef”He went on to be a bestselling author of cookbooks and talks about food all the time. Claudia, a chef, talks about food and my ears hear music. As Claudia described the wonderful chilaquiles and birria tacos on the premiere episode, I was captivated. “Taste of the Border,” I heard the culinary equivalent of a musician conducting a Beethoven symphony.

Even though I had just eaten lunch, chef Claudia’s passion for her craft was so infectious that I was instantly hungry for more. This is only one reason I loved the premiere. Her new Discovery+ seriesFoodies and non-foodies will agree. 

Claudia is also a unique choice for our culinary tour guide. In fact, “Taste of the Border”It may be the show she was made to host. The series features the chef who traverses the US-Mexico border to find the best food being served at our often-overlooked border cities. After all, chef Claudia grew up as a border town kid, crossing every weekend from San Diego to Tijuana to visit family. 

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“My grandma would be cooking up and you could smell the café de olla brewing, and my grandpa would be in his typical corner reading the newspaper,”Claudia, chef, recalls our recent “Salon Talks” episode. “Those are some of the most nostalgic memories I have of growing up on the border . . . [‘Taste of the Border’] is literally, literally me, and there’s so many of us who lived on the border and who know exactly what it’s like to be here and how blessed we are to have a little bit of both worlds.”

The word “border”Each episode is often loaded with different political perspectives and views. But this series focuses on the things that unify us. It’s about Claudia, who calls food the master connecter. 

“I think that at the end of the day, we can all gather around a table and it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you are, what you believe or any of that,”She spoke. “We can all come around a good plate of food and have an awesome discussion about nostalgia around food, about how that food came to be.”

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Claudia, the chef, points out that it doesn’t matter what your passport says about one of our most basic needs: food. We all need to eat.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your beliefs are, whether they’re religious, political, whatever,”She spoke. “In the end, we are all united through food. One thing we can all agree on is the incredible deliciousness and nostalgia of food.”

And that incredible deliciousness and nostalgia is on full display as chef Claudia explores stops along the border from San Diego, California, to South Padre Island, Texas.

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Claudia appeared on the Today Show recently. “Salon Talks,” we talked about her childhood on the border, food and recipes as that master connecter and why she cooks. You’ll want to use Claudia’s roadmaps to recreate her amazing culinary journey. Watch Claudia’s “Salon Talks”Listen to the episode here or see our conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You’re Mexican American. I’m also Mexican American, except my grandmother immigrated from the south of Mexico in Mérida to the US, also the south.

Oh, wow! You eat great food. Mérida has some of the best food in all of Mexico.

Tomorrow, we’re making cochinita pibil.

Oh! Oh!

You’re welcome!

Can I be invited?

You are welcome to visit our home anytime. Your family is from Sinaloa and you were raised in San Diego. Because this is about your lived experience, it feels like you were meant to make this show.

I grew up in a border town as a kid. My grandmother, who is technically my great aunt, was born in San Diego. She actually lived in Tijuana which is literally on the opposite side of the border. Every weekend, my family would drive down to grandma’s house every weekend. My grandma would be cooking up — and you could smell the café de olla brewing — and my grandpa would be in his typical corner reading the newspaper. Those are some of my most fond memories of growing up at the border. It is me. There are many people who have lived at the border and know what it’s like to live here.

You also mention that crossing the border is a normal thing if you live in San Diego. Many Mexican Americans identify as “Chicanos,”Chicano culture is also known as the “in-between.”What was it like growing-up in between two cultures?

It’s fantastic, I think. Listen, I think it’s wonderful in the sense that you don’t have to choose what you like — you can have the best of both worlds, right? It’s almost like you can have your cake and eat it, too — and that’s just the way life is. It would be remiss of me not to state the obvious. I know that all of us have at one point or another heard of Selena — right? Selena, the Mexican American singer, always said that she never felt white enough to be white in America, but Mexican enough to be Mexican. It’s like there’s an in-between culture. You can visit Mexico when you live near the border. If I went to Mérida, for example, you start to realize that there is kind of this separate culture that lives in these border towns.

It’s also totally different when I go to Central America. If I go to the Midwest or I go to the East Coast, it’s a completely different culture than what I find in California — and even more so than what I find on the border. So, I think that exploring that — exploring the regionality of that type of culture — and Chicano is a very like California thing, right? You grew up on one of these two sides. It does have its trials and tribulations but I find the beauty and the riches in it all. I wanted to share this because it was the right thing to do. It was a culture and story that needed to told, because many people have a distorted view of what it’s like living on the border. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do this with the one thing that unites us all, which is amazing food.

I noticed that you posted on your Instagram that border is often loaded with different political views. But this new series doesn’t focus on that. So what’s it all about?

This show is all about food. Listen, when you live near the border, I believe that one thing unites us all. It doesn’t matter what political views you hold, or what your beliefs are politically. At the end of it all, we Americans, Mexican Americans, and anyone who is from these two countries. Avocados are available in the US because of the wonderful country that is next to us and vice versa. Exportation from the USA is responsible for a lot of the Mexican products. We are more like neighbors than political enemies. We have many treaties with this country. It’s not all about that.

“I want to make sure that our cultural foods . . . continue to have value “

It’s all about the one thing that unites us all. At the end of it all, I believe that we can all gather around tables, no matter which political side you are on, what your beliefs, or any other factors. We can all share a delicious meal together and have a wonderful conversation about nostalgia and the history of food. The best part of it is that food on the border is exactly that — it’s a blending of all of the cultures that have come to that border, whether it’s indigenous people, whether it’s people from central America, South America, China, Japan, all of these different cultures co-mingling in this cultural kind of, I hate to use the word melting pot because it’s become so cliché, but that’s kind of what it’s like. Yes, you are at the border. It seems like a division. But, I would argue that it is really more borderless than that. It doesn’t matter what passport you have, we all get to eat.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the food. So let’s dive right in. We will be starting our journey in San Diego, where we are familiar with your city. You say, let me quote you, “I can tell you with confidence that nothing inspires me more as a chef than this region, the intersection of two Californias.”Could you please elaborate a little more on that?

You have California to the north and Baha California to south. This region inspires and motivates me. I was born here. You’re bringing California’s coastal cuisine north. It’s a popular choice with chefs like Dominique Crenn who is the first female chef ever to earn three Michelin stars. Baha California is a great place to get this cool Asian influence. It also has a lot of Japanese influence. You’ll see a lot of things like ceviche, soy sauce, and other Asian-inspired dishes. You also have a lot olive oils, especially in Baha California, which is wine country.

California is a top producer of fresh fruits and vegetables. California, as we all know well, has amazing produce from both sides. It doesn’t take much to have this amazing product. This is one of the many beauties of San Diego, which borders both California and Baja California. You can mix both California’s to create a new, completely unique and mind-blowing cuisine.

The first stop on the tour is El CarittoBarrio Logan is where you can find chilaquiles. Chilaquiles are my favorite breakfast food. If you haven’t tried chilaquiles before, could you please explain what they are for people at home?

So, chilaquiles. Imagine you take tortillas, and then you fry them up until they almost look like chips. They’re almost like Doritos except that they haven’t been coated or covered yet. So, just tortillas that are fried almost like nachos, but then they’re just kind of sautéed with usually a little bit of onion, a little bit of garlic and then we just kind of douse them in this sauce. It depends on whether you want red or green sauce. But Mexico’s gotten creative — and we’ve gone in all sorts of different directions for chilaquiles. They tend to be red chilaquiles (or green chilaquiles) that use two types of salsas. Then you also have the divorciado style, which is half and half, which means like divorced, they have two different sides. This is what chilaquiles look like in their simplest form.

“My mouth is watering, in case you didn’t notice.”

Are you a red sauce or a green sauce fan?

I’m a big fan of red sauce chilaquiles.

Similar here.

Yes. Red chili sauces are my favorite. I think they add so many depth, and dried red chillies, I think, just create these incredible sauces. You can even put tortillas in that! It’s like saucy nachos. It’s my favorite thing.

Totally. You’re not eating straight chilaquiles in the show. You’re having chilasopez — what are they?

So, chilaquiles sopes. On El Carrito’s show, they are called chilasopez. They are basically chilaquiles on top of a sope. A sope is, kind of imagine it almost like a pie crust, but it’s made out of corn. You use the same masa as you would to make a corn tortilla to make a sope. Then you pinch the edges to create a boat shape. Next, they add beans and then load your chilaquiles. It’s incredible.

It sounds like a dream. . .

It was amazing. They had a chipotle sauce sauce instead of regular red sauce. Then, you add an egg to that. You know what else you would want in your life? It was simply magical.

Next, we head to San Ysidro. It is a popular destination for people crossing the US border. You go to Tuétano TaqueríaBirria tacos. What is a birria taco for everyone at home?

Birria is a type of ceremonial dish that is often served in large quantities. It is ideal for large events that require a lot of people to eat. Usually, it takes a very long time to cook — somewhere between usually four to eight hours. Birria is usually served at large events or as a breakfast option. I love Tuétano Taquería because her birria is made even a little more elaborate than that. She cooks it for 12 hours, then cools it overnight and then reheats it on the next day. Recalentado, if you are familiar with Latino cooking, is a huge deal. Recalentado simply means to cook it again the next day.

The next day, you’ll be warming it up. It happens that all those flavors, which had been kind of floating around and doing their thing, now have a chance to relax due to the temperature dropping. There is something magical about food and chemistry. When you allow things to cool down, it allows them to gel. Everything, including fat molecules, has bonded together and become harmonious. The birria becomes almost viscus. This gives you an incredible level of viscosity. In case you didn’t notice, my mouth is watering. You kind of get almost this amazing viscosity so that when you’re having this consommé, which is that juice, that broth that it cooks in, that usually has a blend of different chiles. I don’t know the recipe because she won’t give it to us.

You can imagine it as a stewed birria texture, which is meat that falls apart in the mouth and has a bit more texture than a short rib. It can be thought of as a pot roast, but cooked really well. You’re familiar with how pot roast falls apart like a Chuck roast. It’s a similar idea, but imagine it in this spicy, flavorful red sauce. This creates a rich consomme that is simply to die for. You can serve it on a crisp tortilla by using the same fat that was melted at the top. You can dip your tortillas into that, then bake them, then add some cheese, viria, and finally, a bone marrow topping. I mean, it hadn’t been invented, it hadn’t been done. But I didn’t realize it needed to be done because it is so delicious.

That is what I wanted to address. First, my abuela teaches me that great Mexican food often tastes better the next morning. So, I’m glad we talked about recalentado. Tuétano literally means bone marrow, and there is a hunk of bone marrow on top of these tacos, which you usually use for something like caldo. I have never seen it on tacos before. What is the taco like?

Bone broths are a popular topic these days. Guess what you’ll hear when you hear about bone broths? They’re using a lot of bones, specifically, like tuétano, like bone marrow, and so what happens is you’re taking all of those nutrients out of those bones and creating a stock. She does this, then boils the bones but doesn’t cook them fully. These will then be cooked to a part. She cooks them part-cooked and then she grills the bone marrows. This is where the beauty lies. You can get both of these flavors. The stocky flavor is what you get, but it’s then grilled to get nice and charred so it cooks through. You can then add that to your taco. It adds an incredible richness and anxiousness.

I highly recommend bone marrow to anyone who hasn’t tried it. It tastes almost like a buttery beef, if that’s possible. It’s amazing. It’s used in Mexican caldos quite a bit, so caldos often include it. The traditional way to do it is to take a bone with bone meat in it and put it on a tortilla. Season it with salt and pepper and then eat it up. It’s incredible.

I love hearing you talk about food. It’s like music — You make me so happy. I want to eat every single thing right now.

We are grateful.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your beliefs are. We are all united through food.”

You also visited San Diego’s Convoy District, where you could get Asian food at the Mexican border. This may surprise some viewers. Why was that important?

It was honestly one of the most important stories I wanted to tell. This was extremely important to me. People often think of Mexico-America border. “Oh for sure, we’re going to get some Mexican food. We’re going to get some Mexican American food. We’re going to get Americanized Mexican food.”Whichever one of these variations you choose, it’s a good idea. As we discussed earlier, this show aims to demystify that. It’s about changing perspectives, and helping people see that borders aren’t as straight-forward as they seem.

In the 1940s, there was a massive migration of Chinese and Japanese Americans to California. Many people don’t realize this. Many of them were actually pushed southwards of the border. It was important to share this. The Convoy District, which has more than 200 restaurants in the area, is the largest Pan-Asian destination of Southern California. It’s where my nails are done, and it’s also where my daughter gets her boba drinks. Because we are so lucky, we visit there about two to three times per week. Everything is available, from dim sum to the best Korean barbecue spot. We have a lot of everything. It’s almost like a small mom-and-pop shop. It’s our little piece of China and Japan and all the rest.

It’s that simple. You’ll have a tasty noodle place serving up the best dumplings, which is like Shanghai cuisine, and right next to it, I’m not joking, is like a taquería. Next to it is the tofuhouse, which is Korean tofu soup like soondubu. O’Brien’s Pub is next to it. This is the beauty of a town like San Diego, and the beauty that border towns offer. You can eat Chinese cuisine next to Korean food next the Irish pub. It makes perfect sense. All of these businesses are thriving, even though I don’t understand why it makes sense. It’s the food that unites us all, as I said.

And you actually discovered on the show that Chris Lang, who you visited — you went to his family’s restaurant growing up for Chinese food, right?

Chris Lang, who is also the owner of Common Theory — he’s one of the founders of Common Theory and the Realm of the 52 RemediesConvoy’s cool Speakeasy is located at. His family — that’s like 100% real. My reaction is a good indicator. I realize that his family were the owners of Palacia Royal, which is like our family — that’s where we went every Saturday. I promised you that we would go to Grandma’s. She would make breakfast for us. We’d then go to comida chinese later, because that’s how we call it. Chinese food. So we went to Palacia Royal and we went to comida China. It was his family’s. It was like it was a complete loop.

“You start to realize that food has no boundaries.”

Chris could speak perfect Spanish. These stories are the ones that people will be able to see that it really is like that. It was three restaurants. There are only two or three restaurants left in Tijuana now, but they have several restaurants. Common Theory is a speakeasy. However, it’s important to note that they still honor their culture and continue to infuse a little bit from what they’ve learned along this journey.

They’re not content with making the same old thing. When you think about how crazy they are thinking, let’s make a Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich with szechuan peppercorn sauce. You realize that food is not limited.

I wanted to ask one question of you, the same question I ask everyone who comes to visit us. What is your favorite thing to cook? It’s a very simple question. As a Mexican American who makes my grandmother’s cochinita pil and other dishes, cooking is a way for me to connect with my culture and my family. It also helps me to understand who I am and what my heritage is. What is your favorite thing about cooking?

Because I believe in the preservation and enjoyment of good cooking, I enjoy cooking. I believe that one of the most saddest things I have heard lately is that a lot people aren’t cooking anymore. A lot of those recipes that you think about when you close your eyes now and think about the best meal you ever had are going to be lost forever. It’s a great feeling to be able share these recipes and to be published. “Oh, my God. I thought I forever lost that recipe, and then I saw your cookbook . . . I made the birria recipe . . . Oh, my God. It just reminded me of my grandma, reminded me of my mom who’s no longer here.”

I cook to ensure that future generations don’t forget the amazing recipes that are so close to our hearts. Food is nostalgia. I cook because I want to preserve our cultural foods, and ensure that they continue to be valuable, not only emotionally, but also all around.

Claudia, the thing you just said really resonated with me. These are all my grandmother’s family recipes. Before I move to LA, I am actually spending time with my grandmother here to learn how to cook these recipes.

To wrap up, I should mention that we’re approaching the sixth anniversary for your best-selling cookbook. Congratulations! What does it feel like? A) What does that feel like? B) Is there a cookbook we can look forward to in the near future?

I am working on it. It is something I am actually working on. I do hope so. I hope so. I would love to share my Olita recipes with you guys. I withheld a lot from that cookbook. “Master Chef”It’s not a cookbook, but it feels amazing. It’s something I am most proud of. I was aware that the cookbook was a major part of my win. To be able to claim that you are a published author is huge for me. I was always very interested in reading so to call me an author is like, what? It’s still not fully ingrained in me, so to be a bestselling author feels like, what?

Sometimes I find it helps to take a moment and just take in all that I’ve done. Through that my daughter is forever going to have kind of similar to what you’re doing — a chronicle of those recipes and of those super, super important things to remember me by, her grandmother by, her great-grandma from. These are the kind of gifts that can never be taken away, I believe.

I’m so glad you’re doing this because so much of that is being destroyed. Even if it isn’t authentic, even if you use spam and potatoes. Even those super Americanized things that you would eat — macaroni salad — I know it sounds like super silly, but everybody’s got their own twist on macaroni salad. It’s possible to preserve these recipes, however simple they may appear, so that we can share them in the future. “Hey kiddo, hey nephew, this is my grandma’s recipe — good luck beating this one.”

Trisha Yearwood came on the show to help me understand my mom’s death from cancer two years ago. I always wished that I had a handwritten letter from my mom to read in times of need. I asked her, but she wasn’t strong enough to do it. I realized that all my mom’s recipes were handwritten notes. When I make them, it’s almost like she’s alive.

That’s right.

Food is our connection, right?

Exactly. Food is the master connector, my friend — that’s why I say it. It doesn’t really matter who you are or where you are from. Food is what unites us all. We all agree on the incredible taste and nostalgia of food.

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