In Norway, one of the most socially progressive countries, a restaurant franchise that displays racist stereotypes prospers. The Tex-Mex chain Los Tacos first opened in Bergen in 2015, before establishing spots in other major cities throughout southern Norway, like Oslo, Stavanger and Haugesund. Their logo is a caricature of a Mexican man with a large mustache and sombrero. They’ve posted Facebook memes that use Latinx faces and names for comedic effect. One reads: “I hate tacos! said no Juan ever.” Another shows a picture of five kids, presumably Mexican, dressed in Mariachi garb, beneath the superimposed caption “Juan Direction.”
For the past few years, a sign has been hanging outside of their restaurants. The text, which briefly went viral thanks to a Facebook post from former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, claims that Los Tacos serves “Mexican food so authentic Donald Trump would build a wall around it.”
Over email, Los Tacos CEO Brian Kovary tells me that these signs are meant in jest, “as we also don’t expect Donald Trump to come in [and] physically build a wall around our restaurants.” What’s misleading about the joke, though, is the (false) claim that Los Tacos is authentic. “We are not authentic Mexican food, more American Mexican with a twist of Norwegian,” admits Kovary.
In addition to the sign’s unclear takeaway, the franchise has benefited from humorizing the current US political regime’s racist rhetoric and policies for promotional shock value. Their joke isn’t clever so much as it’s supposed to seem ballsy. Although the joke is intended as a jab at Trump, it’s a weak one since it simultaneously trivializes the danger and trauma facing Mexican immigrants in America down to the crude symbol of Trump’s proposed border wall.
When Kovary mentions that Los Tacos offers a “twist of Norwegian” to Tex-Mex cuisine, his phrase brings to mind Taco Fredag (or Taco Friday), a weekly Norwegian tradition where friends and family build their own tacos for dinner. Taco Fredag has grown ubiquitous throughout the country because Norwegians see it as a fun and efficient way to share a meal.
Pame Koselig, a popular vlogger who documents her experience as a Mexican living in Norway, echoes this sentiment. “When it comes to Taco Fredag I think it is an interesting tradition, Norwegians have managed to personalize it, make it their own and to create a family event around it and I believe that is fantastic,” Koselig writes over email.
A version of this tradition can be seen at Los Tacos: customers follow a “subway style assembly line,” as Kovary describes it, telling the server what ingredients to put in their taco, burrito or bowl. However, since Taco Fredag has associated Tex-Mex food with efficiency, this seems to have helped foster a distanced, reductive perspective on Mexican culture within Norway’s public consciousness, which could explain why the offensive connotations of the restaurant’s logo, memes, and sign have gone mostly unchecked.
It would also explain why Koselig—who has never eaten at Los Tacos, since there aren’t any near where she lives in northern Norway—has come across some other dubious Norwegian vendors purporting to sell “Mexican food.” “I can say that I have never been to [an authentic] Mexican restaurant in Norway, where I live, we have none,” she says. “One thing I can mention is that I have noticed that when ‘Mexican food’ is being sold, sometimes the menus have grammar mistakes, for example instead of ‘Quesadillas’ it says ‘Quesedillas.’ Also, I remember once I saw a food-truck that was selling ‘burritos’ without the tortilla (which is one of the main ingredients of the burritos, without it the dish is basically a salad).”
While Koselig’s examples illustrate careless behavior on the Norwegians’ part, Kovary should be more readily aware of how his franchise engages in similar behavior, considering his background. He grew up in San Diego and frequently surfed in Mexico. “The Mexican food in San Diego has a very high standard since we have so many Mexicans in the area who are passionate about the food,” he notes. “As a teenager, I basically grew up on burritos, so that alone has given me a lot of inspiration.”
In 2012, the same year he graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a bachelor’s degree in business, the soon-to-be CEO came up with an idea for an event company geared towards college students. He flew out from his bartending gig in Greece to meet potential investors in Bergen. Although the investment fell through, he ended up living in the city for a little over a year, where he discovered the people’s love for tacos despite the lack of Mexican restaurants in Bergen and the rest of the country. Out of this consumer demand, Kovary then founded Los Tacos.
While the Norwegians’ taco obsession is real, the franchise is nonetheless culturally appropriative. Koselig doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad quality in restaurants if it can be leveraged to promote deeper cultural understanding. “[O]f course there are many restaurants around the world selling food inspired by another country’s [cuisine], without necessarily being owned by a person from that country, and when that might be not a 100% genuine representation I believe it is a way to spread the love and curiosity for that kind of food,” she says. Appropriation based on sincere cultural admiration is still appropriation, but it’s better than Los Tacos’ lazy, disrespectful messaging and imagery.
Kovary remains focused on keeping his current restaurants profitable and running smoothly, but he hopes to expand the franchise beyond Norway eventually. When I asked about his relationship with the population of Mexicans currently living there (below 2,000 as of 2014), he admitted that he hasn’t reached out to them. “In the future, we look forward to start doing more street taco style and bring in some new/exciting products that might gain Mexicans living in Norway’s attention.” Developing a relationship with the Mexicans of Norway would be an essential next-step for Los Tacos, along with a serious reconsideration of their current image.