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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Mullins: Basic Mexican food out, authentic most definitely in

The line of people sometimes stretches to several dozen at California Tacos to Go north of Tampa. People don’t complain though, and Food Network has run shows on the joint more than once for a dose of local flavor.

With that much demand, the new owner of “Cali Tacos,” Greg Lynn, is planning one of the most delicate maneuvers in the whole consumer marketplace: Taking a quirky, thoroughly authentic joint and adding more locations.

Sitting with me at a picnic table out front, Lynn winces a bit telling me this as he looks over a crowd of people ordering fried grouper tacos and marinated, roasted pork served over wavy-cut French fries.

“People are so good at picking up anything that seems fake or manufactured,” he said. One day, he asked customers if he should replace the handwritten whiteboard menu with a better one. “They almost screamed at me,” he said. “‘We love it,’ they told me. But I told them when we run out of something, we have to just cross it off. ‘Don’t change a thing,’ they said.” Clearly, the issue here is authenticity.

Hold tight, dear reader, because I’m about to take you on a tour of authenticity across the land and show why the pursuit of the “authentic” explains everything from crossbow hunting to jars of pickles. Life is like that. A true cultural trend starts to spill out across our lives like a wildfire to the point that you see manifestations everywhere you look.

It’s true that the farm-to-table movement has taken over the restaurant scene. Every item on the menu needs a back-story about its pedigree, if not the name of the farmer who grew it. Our tomatoes must be “heirloom,” our cheese “artisanal” and grains “ancient.” We’ve moved beyond requiring our beef be grass-fed and now revel in the name of the ranch where the cows spent their youth — Niman Ranch, for instance, which does raise amazing beef, if I may say so.

Anyone who hasn’t seen the takeover of television by reality TV shows must not even have electricity. I’ll venture that football and baseball reign supreme in television, partly because of the on-field randomness (i.e. authenticity) but also because we fixate on the private lives of the athletes — who was arrested for what and who may be gay or on steroids or both. In all of entertainment, we crave the “behind the scenes” view far more than anything happening on stage. Oscar speeches bore us. We want footage of the statues being engraved backstage and the “raw” video of Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence flipping a middle finger to the paparazzi at an afterparty. That’s authentic!

There’s a hysterical irony: we watch “real” housewives shows when real marriage would make terrible television. Chores, actual hugs (not air kisses), school drop-offs, mortgages, homework.

To shift gears, let’s consider for a moment the sport of archery. For decades, the bow and arrow was something most people only encountered in Boy Scouts or summer camps. Now, there’s a symbiotic boost of the sport by and from mega movies like “Hunger Games,” “Brave” and “The Avengers,” and TV shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Arrow” and others. Archery is one of the fastest-growing genres in the hunting culture, as outdoors enthusiasts crave an “authentic” experience. Hunters want to move up-close-and-personal with bows and — amazingly — crossbows, or even with a straight-up knife attack. Sniping a deer at 400 yards with a rifle may be one thing, but tackling a 300-pound wild boar with your bare hands and a knife is authentic.

Let me back that up with some data. Commercial memberships at the Archery Trade Association skyrocketed 105 percent in the last two years, and individual memberships leapt 54 percent in 2013. Taking a tour of the new Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Tampa, I stopped in my tracks at the crossbow aisle. True to the American love of gadgetry, there were rows of carbon-fiber crossbows with precision-optics sniper scopes, some with night vision.

As the gym and fitness market splinters into evermore niche genres, it’s just not enough to lift weights. There must be Russian kKettle bBell sessions. Our 5K races must now be “survival” 5Ks, or mud rRuns or zombie rRuns where the goulish undead stagger amidst the runners. It’s all great fun, and thoroughly authentic.

Craft beer is on an absolute tear of taking over the market from Budweiser and Miller, so much so that the beer industry is deploying legions of lobbyists to Tallahassee to protect theirits system of enforced corporate distribution, lest people buy a “growler” from a corner brewer. Again, there’s an irony that something like beer that’s as American as football and freedom needs protection by government regulation from the rise of hipster brewers.

Perhaps the most vivid examples of the authenticity definition appear when mega-corporations clumsily try to manufacture quirk and funkiness into products they mass produce for an entire hemisphere.

Vlassic pickles are fine on their own if you ask me, but recently Vlasic started distributing “Farmer’s Garden” sub-brand varietal, packed in what look like mason jars, complete with labels that replicate hand-drawn script. Even the paper labels’ edges are carefully cut to resemble something handmade. To pull back the veil, Vlasic is made by the Pinnacle Foods Group of Cherry Hill, N.J., which also makes Duncan Hines, Bird’s Eye and Log Cabin brands.

Just walk down the aisles of Wal-Mart and you’ll see brands almost groping for authenticity by borrowing from other seemingly more authentic brands. There’s Taco Bell-brand Kraft ranch dressing. Or is it the other way around? There’s Sriracha-sauce flavored Pringles (which are pretty amazing, actually) and I even found a Mossy Oak brand “aAll nNatural” salsa, as if the grittiness of the hunting equipment brand will infuse the flavor in my salsa bowl. Maybe it will.

Have you heard of the hot new insult lingo — calling someone “basic?” It’s rather harsh, and I don’t suggest looking it up on your work computer, but the idea is that some people become such vassals of corporate marketing formulas that they lose any independence or authenticity, and the capacity to demonstrate originality at all.

As a hilarious College Humor.com video shows, people can contract a fatal case of “basicness” first by wearing sweat pants in college that say “sexy” on the backside, when the opposite is true. Symptoms include posting Instagram photos of a trip to Las Vegas captioned with “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” when the craziest thing that happened was getting drunk and dancing.

“Basic” people tweet about their need for coffee in the morning with the hashtag #Caffeine. I’d go further, but the next few manifestations roam beyond the limits of a general-readership newspaper, so let’s just say inauthenticity reveals itself rapidly.

Which brings me back to the California fish taco, and Lynn’s dilemma. Contractors are already working on the second location, at 808 South Dale Mabry — a street that isn’t necessarily the Brooklyn of Tampa. Lynn confesses that he was once a president of the Lee Roy Selmon’s chain of restaurants, but he promises, promises, promises that he’s turned a new leaf and embraced the authentic quirkiness of Cali tacos. And he says his newfound freedom from the corporate world has him feeling 40 years younger and 40 pounds lighter.

There’s no question the recipes at the new location must not waver from the quirkiness of the original. They’ll stick with not just California-style fish tacos, but a San Diego sub-genre of sauces and styles. They’ll stick with the marinated pork on French fries and the staff will be trained to call every customer by name — just like at the location up north. Maybe they’ll even build a replica hole in the wall to place orders.

Lynn knows Cali taco devotees will be on high alert for anything seemingly corporate about the new location. Hence, it’s a big decision about how to design the menu board at the new place. Clearly, the menu board must be handwritten — better yet, in bad handwriting and mismatched colors. Anything else wouldn’t be authentic.

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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Publix devotees — and I know there are legions of them — can now get a fix of their grocery store through a new digital magazine made for the iPad named “Gather & Share.” The design and layout has that airy, dream-like idylic atmosphere of a Real Simple magazine and mixed nuts-and-bolts tips about what wine goes with what Publix-made party platter: A medium-bodied red with the Italian subs, for instance, and a medium-bodied white with chicken wings. As for interactivity, there’s room to improve, as the magazine is an app yet has no way to order the cakes or platters shown. Instead, there is an instruction to go online and order at Publix.com. Still, the pictures are pretty.

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Do you pay for zippy Internet service yet suspect your ISP has you in the slow lane? There may be reason for that suspicion. Ookla is a company that measures ISP speeds for the Federal Communications Commission, and a recent tally of data from tens of millions of tests shows grim results. Most ISPs are slower than they claim. Verizon FiOS was a winner (by a small margin) as 2 percent of tests showed faster-than-advertised speeds, while Time Warner Cable was 1 percent slower. Woe be those suffering with AT&T U-Verse or the old-style Verizon Internet Service, as their speeds are way off the advertised level, sometimes by double digits.

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Amazon will begin collecting state sales taxes May 1 in Florida, and if you’ve wondered if this will hurt their sales — yup. Ohio State University crunched some numbers in markets where Amazon goes from not charging taxes to charging and calculated that Amazon sales fell 10 percent. That sounds just about right because the tax rate here is 7 percent, except that the researchers said sales of items over $300 fell 24 percent.

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