Prepared Foods talks Mexican food and flavor trends with Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times columnist who covers “Southern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond.” He previously worked at OC Weekly, where he was an investigative reporter for 15 years and editor for six, wrote a column called ¡Ask a Mexican! and is the author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” He’s the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came to this country in the trunk of a Chevy.


Prepared Foods: We were introduced to you in a webinar sponsored by the California Milk Advisory Board. On that occasion, you were talking about Mexican cheeses that are trending up. Can you recap those varieties growing in popularity?

Gustavo Arellano: Sure. Here are just a few: Quesillo (Oaxacan cheese, milky like mozzarella), Añejo (like a sharp, funky cheddar), Cotija (salty, powder, and a good substitute for parmesan), Asadero (a light cheese ala Swiss), and Requeson (an edible cottage cheese).


PF: As a follow-up, why are these particular varieties trending?

Arellano: Generally, I’d say they’re trending up because of the ever-exploding popularity of Mexican food, and the increased interest in other Latin American cuisines. Quesillo is most commonly used for quesadillas and tortas (Mexican sandwiches) at taco trucks. Cotija is good for salads, and Añejo is particularly great for modern nachos!


PF: Looking more broadly at the Latin food scene, what other finished foods and beverages might we see trending up in 2021?

Arellano: You’re continuing to see the spread of Birria de Res—goat stew prepared with beef—in taco and quesadilla form. Mezcal continues to establish itself as a worthwhile rival to tequila. Gourmet micheladas will become a thing if we’re ever going to be able to drink in bars anymore. I also still think tortas will get their spotlight soon enough.

All of these already are established trends in Southern California or have been for years. When it comes to Mexican food, most of the United States’ biggest food trends for the past 15 years have started from here.


PF: Do you see particular ingredient spices trending up in 2021?

Arellano: It’s not a spice so much as a finished product that’s spicy. For example, I’d say “salsa macha.” This is an oil-based salsa that can be used as a condiment, or as a sauce. It can be super-spicy, or just flavorful (especially smoky). The New York Times just did a big feature on this at the end of 2020, so you know it’s going to go big!


PF: Anything more that you’d like to note or add?

Arellano: Just that smart restaurants, supermarket product buyers and food developers should pay attention to Mexican food. It’s not just the future of American cuisine—it’s the present!