I could listen to Claudia Sandoval, the winner of the sixth season of “MasterChef” who went on to become a bestselling cookbook author, talk about food all day. When chef Claudia talks about food, my ears hear music. As I listened to her describe the wonders of birria tacos and chilaquiles on the premiere episode of “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. That’s only one of the many reasons why I loved the premiere of her new Discovery+ series, and foodies and non-foodies alike will, too.
There’s also the fact that chef Claudia is singularly suited to be our tour guide on this culinary journey. In fact, “Taste of the Border” may be the show that she was born to host. In the series, the chef crisscrosses the US-Mexico border as she uncovers some of the best food being served in our often-overlooked border towns. After all, chef Claudia grew up as a border town kid, crossing every weekend from San Diego to Tijuana to visit family.
“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,” chef Claudia recalled on 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” on its own usually comes loaded with varying political views and perspectives, but this new series focuses on what unites us. It’s about what chef Claudia calls the master connecter: food.
“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 said. “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.”
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food’s newsletter.
As chef Claudia points out, what’s on your passport doesn’t matter when it comes to one of our most innate needs: food. We all have to eat.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your beliefs are, whether they’re religious, political, whatever,” she said. “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.
When chef Claudia recently appeared on “Salon Talks,” we talked about her childhood on the border, food and recipes as that master connecter and why she cooks. You’re going to want to leverage the chef’s road maps to recreate her unforgettable culinary journey. Watch Claudia’s “Salon Talks” episode here, or read 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 good food then. Mérida has some of the best food in all of Mexico.
Tomorrow, we’re making cochinita pibil.
Oh! Am I invited?
Can I be invited?
You’re totally welcome anytime in our home. You were raised in beautiful San Diego, and your family yields from Sinaloa. In a way, I feel like you were born to make this show because this is about your lived experience.
I grew up as a border town kid, myself. I grew up in San Diego, and actually, my grandmother, who is technically my great-aunt, lived in Tijuana, which is literally on the other side of the border. So, every weekend growing up, we would just drive down to my grandma’s house. 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. And those are kind of some of the most nostalgic memories I have of growing up on the border. So, yes, it is literally, literally me, and there’s so many of us that lived on the border and that know exactly what it’s like to be here and how blessed we are to have a little bit of both worlds.
To touch on that, you point out at the very top of the first episode that it’s perfectly normal if you live in San Diego to cross the border at least once a week. Some Mexican Americans also identify as “Chicanos,” and Chicano culture is known as the “in-between.” What was it like growing up in between two cultures?
I think it’s wonderful. 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. I would be remiss if I didn’t obviously state the obvious, right. I know that all of us have at one point or another heard of Selena — right? Selena, the Mexican American singer, who always said, I never felt white enough for white America but not Mexican enough for Mexico. I feel like that’s kind of that in-between culture, right? When you live on the border and then you visit the Republic of Mexico. 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.
When I go to Central America, it’s also completely different. 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? Like, a very you grew up on kind of those two sides. On top of that, it does come with some trials and tribulations, but I think honestly, nowadays, I’m finding the beauty and the richness in that. That’s exactly why I chose to share that. I felt that it was a culture and a story that needed to be told because a lot of people really kind of have this skewed perception of what it’s like to live on the border. So, I thought what a perfect opportunity to do that with the thing that unifies all of us, which is amazing food.
I noticed you wrote on your Instagram that the word border usually comes loaded with different political views and perspectives, but this new series isn’t about that. So, what is it about?
This show is about exactly what I was just saying: food. Listen, when you live on the border, I think that one of the things that unifies all of us, and it doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you are, what you believe or what you don’t believe politically at the end of the day, we as Americans, as Mexicans, as Mexican Americans, anybody that is in these both countries. The reason why we have avocados in the US is thanks to that wonderful country next door and vice versa. A lot of the products that we have in Mexico are thanks to exportation from the US. We are neighbors more than we are political enemies. In fact, we have a ton of treaties with this other country — and it’s not about that.
“I want to make sure that our cultural foods . . . continue to have value “
What it’s about is the thing that unifies all of us. 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. 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. 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’re on the border, and it seems like it’s a division, but I would argue that it’s really kind of more borderless country in the sense that it doesn’t matter what’s on your passport, we all got to eat.
One thing we’d be remiss to talk about is the food, so let’s dive in. When we start our journey, we’re in your hometown in San Diego. 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.” Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
I mean, you have California proper to the north, Baha California to the south. This region inspires me. I was born here. You have kind of that California coastal cuisine to the north. That’s grown very popular with chefs like Dominique Crenn, who is the first female chef to have three Michelin stars. You have all of this kind of really cool Asian influence from Baha California because Baha California also has a very big kind of Japanese influence. You see a lot of like soy sauce, ceviche and things like that, which I love. Then on top of that, you have kind of this Mediterranean influence, as well in Baha California, so you see a lot of olive oils, especially through Baya de Guadalupe, which is wine country.
When you have just this amazing product, California of course, as we all know, is a top producer in fresh fruits and vegetables, so when we have such incredible produce coming from both sides, such incredible products, you don’t need to do much to it. That’s one of the beauties that you can find living in this borderless town of San Diego that has California to the north and Baja California to the south. You can kind of commingle both of the California’s and create kind of this new cuisine that’s like completely different and just absolutely mind blowing.
Our first stop on the show is El Caritto in Barrio Logan, where you get chilaquiles. To me, chilaquiles are the ultimate breakfast food. Could you break down what chilaquiles are for folks at home, if they haven’t had them before.
So, chilaquiles. Imagine that you take tortillas and then you fry them up to almost become chips. Imagine them almost like Doritos, but not Doritos in the sense that they’re not covered and coated 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 usually depends on whether you want red, green or whatever kind of other sauce. But Mexico’s gotten creative — and we’ve gone in all sorts of different directions for chilaquiles. Most of the time, they are red chilaquiles or green chilaquiles using two different types of salsas. Then you also have the divorciado style, which is half and half, which means like divorced, they have two different sides. In its simplest form, that’s what chilaquiles are.
“My mouth is watering, in case you didn’t notice.”
Are you a red sauce or a green sauce fan?
I am definitely a red sauce chilaquiles.
Yes. You know, I love red chili sauces. I think they add so much depth, and those dried red chilies, I think just create these amazing sauces. When you can douse tortillas in that, I mean come on. It’s like saucy nachos. I love it.
Totally. In the show, you’re not having straight chilaquiles. You’re having chilasopez — what are they?
So, chilaquiles sopes. They’re called chilasopez on the show, El Carrito, and essentially what they are is they are chilaquiles served on top of a sope. A sope is, kind of imagine it almost like a pie crust, but it’s made out of corn. So, the same masa that you would use to create a corn tortilla, you use to create almost like a thicker tortilla. And then you pinch around the edge to almost create like a little boat, and then they add beans to that and then they load your chilaquiles on top. It’s incredible.
It sounds to die for . . .
It was amazing, and instead of a regular red sauce, they had like a chipotle cream sauce, which was like, what? Then you add an egg on top of that. I mean, what else do you want in life? It was just magical.
Next, we depart for San Ysidro, which is a landing spot for many people when they cross the border into the US. You go to Tuétano Taquería for birria tacos. Can you dissect what a birria taco is for everyone at home?
Birria is something that usually is actually a pretty kind of ceremonial dish. It’s made for really large events where you have to feed a ton of people. Usually, it takes a very long time to cook — somewhere between usually four to eight hours. So, birria usually is served for large events, or it’s served for kind of like morning after breakfast, if you will. I love Tuétano Taquería because her birria is made even a little more elaborate than that. She cooks it for about 12 hours and then allows it to cool down overnight and then reheats it the next day. Now, if you know anything about Latino cooking, recalentado is a big deal. Recalentado just means recooking it the next day, right?
You’re rewarming it up the next day. What happens is in that rest period that it has, all of those flavors, everything that was kind of floating around and doing its thing, has now had a time to relax because of the temperature coming down. Something magical happens in chemistry and in food that when you allow things to come down to temperature and then brought back up to temperature, everything has kind of had an opportunity to gel, right? So, even the fat molecules and everything in there has just kind of married itself and become harmonious. What happens is with birria, it becomes almost viscus. So, you get this incredible kind of viscosity. My mouth is watering, in case you didn’t notice. 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 what her recipe is, because she won’t give it to me.
But you know, birria, imagine it like stewed almost like pulled pork texture, meat that just kind of falls apart in mouth, has a little bit more texture than say a short rib. Think of it almost like a really, really, really well-cooked kind of like pot roast. You know how pot roast kind of falls apart like that, like that Chuck roast kind of falls apart. It’s kind of that same type of idea, but just imagine it in kind of like this, not spicy, but spicy and flavor red sauce and that creates this luxurious consomme that is just to die for. Of course, when you serve it on a crispy kind of tortilla that’s using that same fat that was kind of rendered off at the top. You kind of dip your tortillas in that, crisp them up, add a little bit of cheese, add a little viria and then top them with a bone marrow on top. I mean, it hadn’t been invented, it hadn’t been done, but I didn’t realize it had to be done because my God it is to die for.
I wanted to touch on that. First, my abuela has taught me that the secret to great Mexican food sometimes is that it just tastes better the next day. 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’ve never seen it on a taco before. What is that taco like?
Well, you see nowadays you’re hearing a lot about bone broths, right? So when you hear about bone broths, guess what they’re using? 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. Now she does that, creates the stock, boils the bones, but doesn’t take them the full way. She allows those to then come out about part cooked. So, she part cooks them and then she takes those bone marrows and puts them on the grill. The beauty of that is that you kind of get both of those flavors. You get the kind of more stocky type flavor, but then it’s grilled so it gets nice and charred and it gets cooked throughout. Then you obviously kind of drop that onto your taco, which adds just an anxiousness, that richness, that is incredible.
If you’ve never had bone marrow, I definitely recommend you try it. It really kind of just tastes almost like a beef butter, if you will. It’s actually incredible. In Mexico, yes to your point, we use it in caldos a lot, so caldos usually include it. The traditional thing would normally be just, if you got a bone with bone marrow in it, you take the bone out of your dish, you kind of drop the bone marrow onto a tortilla, add a little bit of salt to season and then eat that up, and it was just like, again, a buttery taco. It’s incredible.
I love listening to you talk about food. It’s like music — you just make me so excited. I just want to eat everything now.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your beliefs are. We are all united through food.”
Lastly, in San Diego, you hit up the Convoy District for Asian food on the Mexican border, which I think might surprise some viewers. Why was it important for you to make that stop, as well?
Honestly, it was one of the biggest stories I wanted to tell. This was very important to me. When people think Mexico-America border, they think, “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.” Whatever one of those variations, right? I brought up, as we mentioned earlier, this show is about demystifying that, it’s about changing perspectives and making people realize that borders are not just as linear as one or the other.
We had a huge migration of Chinese and Japanese Americans into the California’s way back in the 1940s. A lot of people don’t know that. A lot of them were actually pushed south in south of the border. I think it was really important to share that. The Convoy District is the largest Pan-Asian destination in Southern California that has over 200 restaurants in that area. It’s where I get my nails done, where my daughter goes to pick up boba drinks. We are probably there two to three times a week because we are so lucky. We have everything from dim sum to our favorite Korean barbecue spot there. We truly have a little bit of everything, and we’re so lucky and it’s all kind of like these small mom and pop shops. It’s our own little, if you will, little China and little Japan and all of these put together.
That’s what I love about it. 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. Then right next to that is the tofu house which is Korean tofu soup, like soondubu, and next to that you have O’Brien’s pub. That’s the beauty of a place like San Diego and the beauty of border towns. You can have Mexican next to Shanghai cuisine next to Korean food next to an Irish pub. I don’t know why it makes sense, but it makes perfect sense, and all of those businesses are thriving. Like I said, it’s what unifies us all, it’s food.
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 the owner of Common Theory — he’s one of the founders of Common Theory and the Realm of the 52 Remedies, which is a cool Speakeasy in Convoy. His family — that’s like 100% real. I think you can tell by my reaction. I realize that his family were the owners of Palacia Royal, which is like our family — that’s where we went every Saturday. I told you, we would go to my grandma’s. She would have breakfast for us. Then, later on, we’d go to comida china because that’s what we call it, right? Chinese food. So, we’d go to comida china, and we’d go to Palacia Royal. And the fact that it was his family’s was like, what? It just felt like it was a complete circle.
“You start to realize that food has no boundaries.”
The fact that Chris spoke perfect Spanish. I think that those are the types of stories where people are going to realize like, holy smokes, it’s like that, it really is like that. The fact that they had three restaurants. I think now there’s only one or two in Tijuana, but now that they’re on this side, they own several restaurants, including some of the best wings in San Diego at Golden Chopsticks. Common Theory, a speakeasy, but above all of it, that they’re still continuing to honor their culture and still infusing a little bit of what they’ve learned along the way.
They’re not just so stuck in their way that they’re like, we’re only going to make super authentic foods, which is wonderful sometimes, because you want that, but they’re like, no, let’s take it to the next level, and let’s create a spicy szechuan, pepper, corn, chicken sandwich that like blows your mind. So, when you start to think about how crazy it is that they’re thinking, let’s make a Nashville hot chicken sandwich on the border in San Diego but with szechuan peppercorn sauce, like what? That’s where you start to realize that food has no boundaries.
I wanted to ask you one question, which is the same question that I ask everyone who visits us. Why do you cook? It’s a very simple question. For me, as a Mexican American making my grandmother’s cochinita pibil and dishes like that, cooking connects me to my culture and my family and who I am as a person. Why do you like to cook?
I like to cook because I believe in the preservation of our cooking. I think one of the saddest things I’ve heard recently is that a lot of people aren’t cooking anymore and that a lot of those recipes that when you close your eyes right now and you think about the best dish you’ve ever had, some of those recipes are going to be lost forever. So, to be able to publish a book, to be able to share those recipes, it makes me want to cry because I’ve had people literally say to me, “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 make sure that the next generations don’t forget all of those amazing recipes that are so near and dear to our heart, and food is nostalgia. So, I cook because I just want to make sure that our cultural foods and that all of those things continue to have value because they have so much value, not just emotionally, but all the way around.
Claudia, one of the things that you just said really hit home with me. These books behind me with the labels are all of my grandmother’s family recipes. What I’m actually doing before I move to LA is I’m spending some time with her here to make sure that I can learn how to cook all those recipes myself.
Speaking of which, I would be remiss to say in closing, we’re coming up on the sixth anniversary of your best-selling cookbook, so congratulations on that milestone. A) What does that feel like? And B) Can we expect another cookbook sometime soon?
I’m working on that. I am very literally working on that. I hope so. I hope so. I would love to be able to share my Olita’s recipes with you guys. I held back a lot of the recipes from that “Master Chef” cookbook, but you know, it feels incredible. I think it’s one of the things that I’m most proud of. Honestly, I knew that the cookbook was one of the biggest parts of my win because to be able to say that you’re a published author is a huge deal in my book. I was always really big into reading and so to call myself an author is like, what? I feel like it still hasn’t quite sunk in and then to be a bestselling author is like, what?
I think sometimes when I take a moment to just kind of really take in the fact that I’ve done all of this and that. 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. I think that those are the types of things that are gifts that can keep on giving.
I’m so happy that you’re doing that because so much of that is being lost. Even if it’s not something super authentic, even if it’s like 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. If we can preserve those recipes, as simple as they may seem, to be able to share them in the future and say, “Hey kiddo, hey nephew, this is my grandma’s recipe — good luck beating this one.”
Trisha Yearwood stopped by the show, and she helped me connect the dots after my mom passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. I always wished I had a handwritten note from my mom that I could read when times were tough. I asked her about it, but she didn’t have the strength to do it. Then I realized that all of my mom’s recipes are handwritten notes, and when I make those, it’s like she comes to life.
Food connects us in that way, right?
Exactly. Food is the master connector, my friend — that’s why I say it. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your beliefs are, whether they’re religious, political, whatever. In the end, we are all united through food. One thing we can all agree on is the incredible deliciousness and nostalgia of food.
Watch more “Salon Talks” episodes with our favorite chefs and cookbook authors: