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How Social Media Is Fueling a New Era of 'Latinextravagant' Restaurants

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A series of dishes and beverages on a table top.
The massive birria pupusa 'pizza' at Pupuseria Las Cabañas in Hayward. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

C

apturing the enormity of Latinidad is impossible.

Our diasporas are simply too sprawling and unwieldy. We are too bass-thumping. Too slippery. Too regionally layered and linguistically varied. Too contradictory, too bombastic, too fragmented, too migratory. Sometimes too nepotistic. Perhaps too open-hearted? We definitely resist simple definitions. (We can’t even internally agree on whether we call ourselves Latino, Latina, Latinx, Latine or, my personal favorite, Latin@).

And I love us for that.

It makes sense, then, that our foods, which are equally hyphenated, uncategorizable and epic, push against the borders of tradition. Indeed, our culinary offerings are as sprawling and bold as our own communities are.

Picture a restaurant in Hayward that serves pupusas with the circumference of a pizza. Or, at a Dublin taqueria, a ridiculously gigantic bowl of phở birria next to a cake-sized pan dulce French toast that’ll feed an entire family. Down in San Jose, you can grub on generously-loaded baked potatoes topped with sour cream, jalapeños and al pastor. And in Richmond, when all else fails, there’s always the amalgam of Hot Cheetos on this and Doritos on that.

A large pupusa cooking on a griddle is flipped using a pizza peel.
Flipping one of Las Cabañas’ oversized pupusas on the griddle. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

In the words of L.A. Taco’s Memo Torres, a journalist who often goes viral for showcasing imaginative Latinx meals, including both the tiniest and largest tamales in L.A.: “Latinos can be extra flamboyant.” It’s true. When it comes to cooking and eating, we tend to possess a Super Saiyan level of confidence. It’s a state of being that I’ve taken to calling “Latinextravagant.”

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The lifestyle doesn’t come without its flaws: cycles of dietary miseducation, questionable spending habits and social media vulturing. Certainly, the widespread influence of platforms like Instagram and TikTok has warped the foodscape, with businesses adjusting their models to meet the algorithm’s demands. But combining intergenerational family knowledge with internet trends is a major part of how today’s food businesses are able to thrive.

And no one seems to be doing it with as much out-of-pocket razzle dazzle as Latinx food entrepreneurs.

Pupusas the Size of a Pizza

Perhaps no other eatery in the East Bay delivers a more Latinextravagant experience than Hayward’s Pupuseria Las Cabañas. A Salvadoran sit-down with a full bar, Las Cabañas is best known for its pizza-sized pupusas and dizzying selection of margaritas. When I went on a weekend after 10 p.m., lines snaked out the door. It felt like I was stepping into a family celebration, with abuelos cracking jokes beside sleeping infants while college-aged friends buzzed around.

Las Cabañas encapsulates the ways in which family legacy, comfort food, social media clout and intergenerational evolution intersect to create something uniquely appealing to modern eaters.

What does that look like? A plate of gargantuan pupusas locas. The dish hails from El Salvador, where larger-than-average pupusas have been cooked up for eons. But for owner Frankie Martinez, it’s about taking it over the top.

A person with a goatee looks at the camera and leans against a wall inside a restaurant.
Pupuseria Las Cabańas owner Frankie Martinez poses for a portrait at his Hayward restaurant. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

To make the pupusa loca, a giant lump of masa — which weighs several pounds and resembles a small medicine ball — gets flattened into something like pizza dough, then kneaded and knuckled into a girthy disc that gets filled with cheese and refried beans. The process to make a single pupusa loca takes roughly 10 minutes inside a narrow, scorching-hot kitchen. It’s finally plated with an optional birria topping.

Despite the somewhat gimmicky nature of the dish, there is an emphasis on made-from-scratch ingredients, giving the final product a fire-kissed freshness that can hold its own against pupusas of any diameter. Social media has played a role, too, in helping to increase the local pupuseria’s mojo.

“I never knew how much [social media] would impact our sales,” Martinez says. “I had to hire a lot more people, put more systems in place. It’s not just our regular customers anymore, we get people who don’t even know what a pupusa is, so we’ve had to train our workers on how to even explain it. People are coming and just showing us something they saw on their phones and telling us that’s what they want. They’re not even looking at our menus.”

The interior of a restaurant with several tables full of customers.
The restaurant is known for its festive, party-like atmosphere. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

According to Martinez, the pupusa loca is so large that he only knows of one patron who has single-mouthedly finished it. The rest? They order it, take a selfie, attempt a few bites, then box it up to go — in an actual pizza box. (I shamefully admit my wife and I only ate about half, but we tried, damn it.) Martinez is aware that the spectacle and presentation of his food is just as important as the quality. It’s all part of his strategy. And it’s working.

“Everybody is on TikTok and Instagram,” says Cesar Arroyo, a Bay Area food influencer and Gen-Z immigrant from Mexico who went from working construction to consulting for restaurant owners like Martinez to promote brand growth. “Simple videos can go viral and save a whole business. It can sometimes be too much, to be honest with you. But you want to bring in a crowd. You want people to take a picture with something big. It’s exposure.”

While at Las Cabañas, you’ll also want to also check out their pupusa bombs — deep fried bolitas of masa stuffed with cheese, frijoles and, if you so desire, birria (what else?). They’re equally photogenic, with fun cheese pulls and gooey insides dripping out of the spherical pupusa shell. And if you’re feeling especially Latinextravagant, you can add an order of “Angelita’s Margarita.” Named after Martinez’s mother, the drink is an endearing tribute to the original “hustler” who first opened Las Cabañas in 2004. After she passed from an illness in 2015, Martinez has carried on his mother’s recipes but with a modernized, Instagram-friendly twist.

A fork and knife cut into a filled fried-looking ball.
Cutting into the oozy, cheesy interior of a pupusa bomb. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The exposure has undoubtedly been good for Martinez’s family-owned business. He confirms a boost in clientele since he introduced the mammoth birria pupusas in 2018 that has been unlike anything previously seen in the restaurant’s multi-decade existence. This summer, numerous Bay Area food influencers — including Arroyo, whose IEatCalifornia account on Instagram has over 41,000 followers — have posted about the giant pupusa, which has led to mainstream news outlets catching on. I personally found out about the pupuseria when a friend DMed me a viral video of the pupusa loca earlier this year. Despite living in Hayward for years, I hadn’t known about Las Cabañas prior to seeing it on social media.

“We started doing more social media, especially in 2020 when the pandemic happened,” Martinez says. “When my mom was around, she was skeptical of it. She wanted us to do TV commercials. But I told her people don’t watch those as much anymore. I know she would be proud of where the restaurant is today and she would understand and support it. She’d be like ‘What are you doing now, aye mijo? Que no son bayuncadas.’”

L.A. Taco’s Torres has noticed similar social media trends in Southern California, where many of the nation’s Latinx food trends — including quesabirria — originally took off. “[Social media] is a way for people to empower their business in their own style. Any chef who wants to be out of pocket can [do so].”

@thesnacksensei The Biggest Pupusas In The Bay Area! 📍 Pupuseria Las Cabanas In Hayward CA 🔥 #pupusas #pupuseria #bayarea ♬ Wild Thing (Re-Recorded) – Tone-Loc


However, it’s a flawed system — one that fosters a certain kind of gatekeeping, fetishization and even exploitation.

“The vultures of IG and TikTok, like anything, have a downside,” Torres continues. “With millions of followers, [some food influencers] charge $800 to $1,000 for an hour. That’s capitalism right there. I know a lot of influencers who invite me to eat with them, and their rates with vendors are fucking outrageous. But yeah, it’s catchy, to get on the map, to get attention. Especially for small vendors. Social media is where they can get their publicity for cheaper, even if influencers are charging an arm and an ass for content.”

Martinez hasn’t shied away from that approach, though, leveraging the Instagram-driven birria craze through popular food personalities like San Francisco’s Snack Sensei to further blow up. The dynamic is complicated, as the social media buzz that comes with a made-for-glam dish like the pupusa loca is one of the easiest ways hard-working restaurateurs like Martinez can make their business stand out in a culinary landscape saturated with over-hyped content. It highlights this current generation of foodmakers’ larger struggles to present their cultural foods to a wider audience — foods that, in many cases, were simply overlooked in the past.

A female line cook uses a spatula to lift a giant pupusa onto a plate.
Irma Morales, a cook at Las Cabañas, places a finished pupusa onto a plate. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

A Cultural Marriage of Birria and Phở

In one of Dublin’s sleepiest, least glamorous strip malls, you’ll find what may be the most underappreciated fusion eatery in our region: Taqueria Azteca. Acquired in 1998 by Luong “Lu” Dang, a Vietnamese war refugee who arrived in the East Bay in the ‘70s, the shop has maintained its down-to-earth, homely Mexican vibes from previous ownership, while loudly introducing some of Dang’s zanier combinations, like Bochata (boba + horchata) and birria-filled bao.

Azteca is the proud home of quesabirria grilled cheese sandwiches and — my wife’s favorite — pan dulce French toast. Served on a massive, custom-made concha from Juanita Market #4 in Tracy, the dense, pink beauty is buttered up and prepared like any other French toast, with an optional tray of ham and eggs on the side. To be mega-clear, this pan dulce has the acreage of a cake, with a heft that can only be described as intimidating.

a tray of pink pan dulce french toast is topped with strawberries and served with a hefty side of eggs and ham
Taqueria Azteca’s pan dulce French toast is topped with strawberries and served with a hefty side of eggs and ham on a cafeteria-sized tray. (Briana Chazaro)

But the restaurant’s flagship item is its bone-in birria phở — an eye-popping amount of noodles swimming around in consommé broth, with a “dinosaur bone” of meat casually laid on top. For the average eater, it more than suffices as lunch and dinner.

“Years ago, I didn’t have the nuts to do this,” Dang says. “But the Bay Area has a huge Vietnamese and Latino community, so everyone loves to see it. At first we were all clumsy with it, but we found our rhythm and are learning how to do it properly. Ask the [Latino] cooks here what they eat. They’re the ones making stuff that’s personal to them, and we each add our own touches. We eat our own food every day.”

In Dang’s case, it’s not so much about pushing forward a family tradition as it is about fusing immigrant experiences. Married to Estefany Garcia, an immigrant from Michoacán, Dang has extensively toured various pueblos around Mexico, listing off dishes that even I — the son of Mexicans whose own mother lives in Veracruz — didn’t recognize, including corundas, uchepos and morisquetas. Together, Dang and Garcia are organically uniting their cultures through a genuine, love-bound exploration of their own brand of Latinextravagant cuisine.

a bone-in slab of Mexican birria is served in a giant bowl of Vietnamese pho
In Dublin, a bone-in slab of Mexican birria is served in a giant bowl of Vietnamese phở. (Briana Chazaro)

“It allows us to open up our kitchen in ways that are both traditional and non-traditional,” he says. “We’re always blending. At home, she might cook phở, and then she’ll make tinga and we’ll mix it. I added birria to bao, as well. The bao bun is a very different texture [from tortillas]. It’s soft and chewy and crispy, inside and out. It’s fun and easy to share. And it’s so damn good to eat.”

The internet has played a major role for Lu and Garcia’s concoctions, too.

“[Social media] is a communication channel unlike before,” says Lu. “I used to do TV and radio in the 2000s, and it was completely hit or miss. For small businesses like us, we can’t afford that. With Instagram, it levels the playing field. We eat with our eyes first. Something that we can do to grab your attention is to make it over-the-top.”

@bayareafoodz Check out this Big ass taco i got from @taqueriaaztecadublin its get no better than this #bayarea #tacos #tacostuesday #bayareafoodz ♬ original sound – Bayareafoodz

For a small, otherwise modest eatery where Latino construction workers, white suburban moms and Asian elders mingle, Azteca is among the most unexpectedly “epic” dining experiences I’ve found in the Bay. Lu is extremely passionate about keeping Azteca’s foods playful and inviting — a major element of Mexican food that attracted him when he first came to it as an outsider. It’s something that Latinextravagant foods tend to do: They compel others to join in and share.

Beyond the Big Dishes

It’s not always about dishing out the largest super-sized taco on the block. It’s also about paying homage in smaller, but equally creative, ways. After all, there’s a reason antojitos locos (or “crazy snacks”) have also gone viral throughout Mexico and Central America, and have now reached the United States.

A recent favorite of mine is the Tostielote, an open-faced bag of Tostitos buried under esquites, parmesan cheese, sour cream, butter and mayonnaise. I recommend the version at Junior’s Roaster, a food truck located in the San José Flea Market. There, you’ll encounter an old-school roasting machine that is used to prepare elotes, esquites and papas horneadas (baked potatoes). You can add any mix of meats (carne asada, al pastor, pollo asado), junk food (Flamin’ Hots, Ruffles, Takis) and hot sauces for a customized perfection.

A foil-wrapped burrito and a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos on red and white checkered butcher paper.
The Flamin’ Hot Cheeto burrito is by far the most popular item at Taqueria El Mezcal, which has locations in San Pablo, Hayward and San Lorenzo. (Alan Chazaro)

Taqueria El Mezcal, a humble local chain with three locations scattered throughout the East Bay, is known for its fiery, snack-inspired dishes. Officially recognized by Chester Cheetah for its Hot Cheetos burrito, the restaurant unveiled a new botana-inspired masterpiece this summer: the Doritos chilaquiles burrito. It includes a bag’s worth of spicy nacho Doritos, refried beans, three fried eggs, crema, guacamole and your choice of meat.

None of these Latinextravagant foods are exactly calorie-conscious. And for the most part, that’s okay: The restaurants themselves wouldn’t suggest that customers eat this stuff every day, and they aren’t necessarily challenging anyone to take down a giant burrito or pupusa on their own, either. The super-sized dishes are meant to be novelty foods — a memorable experience rather than your daily source of sustenance. And in many cases, immigrant foodmakers are simply tailoring their menus in response to their TikTok and Instagram numbers, even bantering and discussing ideas with commenters in the reply sections.

It’s a recipe that has, at least so far, proven itself successful for the times.

“It’s mostly a marketing thing, but [Latinx businesses] do really think out of the box,” Arroyo, the influencer, says. “Some people don’t like it, but I believe in food bringing people together.”

When done well, the Latinextravagant approach to food attracts more people to the table than ever. At our core, Latinx diasporas are simply too big to be boxed in, and our foods could never fit inside any one nation’s stomach. But still, we try our best to share it with everyone else.

Rubber gloved hand sprinkles chopped cilantro onto an oversized pupusa topped the meat.
The finishing touch: sprinkling chopped onions and cilantro onto a giant — and truly Latinextravagant — pupusa. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

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Pupuseria Las Cabañas is located at 30030 Mission Blvd. in Hayward. Taqueria Azteca is located at 7155 Amador Plaza Rd. in Dublin.

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