By Lee Musho
Take the formula for a good instagram photo and let it go a little haywire until it borders on kitsch. Next, slap some lipstick on a bad taco. Now you have XO Taco.
XO Taco is surrounded by an empty lot, a parking lot, a newly constructed apartment building, and the oldest African American church in Syracuse, which has been boarded up due to lack of funding for more than a decade.
Inside, glowing pink neon lips hang against a wall of plastic greenery, matching the “hey, hot stuff” sign written in script across the restaurant. Plastic vines and wind-up rattling teeth hang from the joists. There are approx. 272 lipsticks encased in glass by the hostess station and the screen behind the bar streams Rick and Morty off a Hulu account once service starts.
The owner, Chris Bily, has opened arguably the “trendiest” spots in Syracuse. He’s jumped from Modern Malt, a twist on American diner food with items like Barney Rubble French Toast, to Original Grain, known for its poke bowls and matcha drinks to XO, a taco spot. He could be mistaken for a college student. His Dodgers baseball cap is on backwards, and his floral shirt is buttoned to his neck, the sleeves rolled. He’s wearing no socks with his orange Nikes.
“When people think of you, what do you want them to think of?” I ask, trying to find a correlation between his eateries. He leans forward.
“Um that I’m just like a worldly and global thinker, I have no specific like target or concept when I go to do the next restaurant I wait for the signs…I didn’t know I was going to do a f*****g taco bar, you know but like I asked people and they were like, yeah tacos would be awesome.” He goes on to explain that he thought of the brand first. He thought XO would be sexy. The tacos came after.
“Then why tacos?” I ask.
“Chef Steve [Samuels] who’s been my chef since OG [Original Grain]. He has a background in Mexican, he has a background in Asian, he’s done everything.”
So I ask Chef Steve,
“Chris said you have a background in Mexican—“
“No, no, no, no, no I just actually um I worked for some uh wonderful people in this area that do Mexican. Yeah, so. But you know what, I just love the fun of tacos.” He responded.
So two white men without a substantial background in Mexican cuisine opened up a taco spot. The question of appropriation is bound to be asked—but as long as there aren’t sombreros hanging from the ceiling (there aren’t) then where is the line?
“Meet ‘the Mexican” is written in curly white chalk on a board by the bar. When I ask Chris about the obviously problematic sign, he laughs and explains that The Mexican is their version of a Manhattan. Instead of calling it The Mexico City, it’s called The Mexican. Pretty important restaurant rule: don’t put people on the menu. Especially not the people who’s cuisine you’re ripping off.
When I asked if authenticity matters, they say XO is their spin on the tacos “we grew up on.” Their ten dollar platter of french fries with queso on the side is meant to make fun of Taco Bell’s “Nacho Fries.”
So if it’s a spin off another spin, is the food far enough removed that cultural appropriation isn’t a problem? I hoped it would be. I was promised a “really f******g good taco” that would “honor” the great tacos that came before it, and I was let down.
The tacos, $3.50 to $5.50 per three-bite taco, are served family-style on metal serving trays. The entire menu, except the dessert and kids menus, is gluten free, and there are enough vegan options for anyone, no matter their dietary restrictions, to be able to eat a full meal. Which is commendable.
But the tortillas, which they make each day in-house, are stiff, a little dry, and undercooked. Each taco is made up of only one, not the traditional two layers of tortilla, which means after one bite, it breaks in two. No limes are included with my table’s tacos, or the tables around me, and the fillings, both meat and vegetable, are crying out for salt and acid.
The churros are greasy, dense, and not cooked through. The guacamole is noticeably chilled, like the kind you find next to the pre-packaged salads in the produce aisle.
Megan Choate, a Syracuse student eating with a few friends, shrugs when I ask how the meal was. “It felt like it needed a bit more.” The word bland was used.
Steve, the chef, tells me he has nine months of “intensive” training in Southeast Asia where he cooked “everywhere they have food and pots and pans.” Guess what the one enjoyable taco was. The “asian-inspired” shrimp taco with chili tamarind sauce for $5.50.
I sign the check with a red golf pencil and spend a minute figuring out how to place my credit card into the wind up rattling teeth given with the check, until I give up.
I ask my friend eating with me if she’d like the one taco left untouched on our metal tray. After all, it costs $4.50. She shakes her head. She isn’t full, she just…doesn’t want it. And neither do I.