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'Criminals and Tacos' owner responds to concerns over restaurant's name

Photo by Achint Raince

Last month, Rutgers students and faculty members voiced concerns about a Sept. 15 article published in The Daily Targum about a new Mexican restaurant opening on Easton Avenue called "Criminals and Tacos."

Andrew Schiff, the restaurant owner, said in the article that his restaurant would "bring real Mexican food to the East Coast," and the shop's "true flavors" would be "unlike anything this city has seen before."

In response, a letter to the editor to The Targum, Peter Guarnaccia said, "Given the inflammatory statements of Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates about Mexican immigrants as criminals and undesirables, it seems insensitive, at best, to name a new restaurant in our city this way."

Guarnaccia, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology, noted in his letter that New Brunswick is already home to a "wide range of delicious and economical Mexican food along French and Handy Streets and Joyce Kilmer Avenue, among others." Schiff's restaurant would definitely not be the first authentic Mexican restaurant in a city whose population is 26 percent Mexican, according to a letter written by Aven La Rosa, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. 

More recently, a small group of Rutgers faculty, alumni and Highland Park residents also responded by mailing a letter to Schiff via the restaurant’s address on Wednesday, Nov. 4. The letter contained the group's concerns with Schiff's comments and with the name of the restaurant.

Jessica Hunsdon, a Highland Park resident, is part of the group who sent the letter to Schiff. The group hopes to meet with Schiff in person to discuss their collective concerns.

"I do not know whether or not Andrew Schiff intended to access this negative stereotype in naming his restaurant ... out of a desire to respect and honor diverse cultural backgrounds and connect rather than divide, Chef Andrew should change the name," she said. "Regardless of intent related to his concept, (Schiff) doesn't have control over how people interpret the name, which accesses negative stereotypes."

DT: Can you explain the name Criminals and Tacos?

Andrew Schiff: I didn’t choose the name, the name has always been out there. It is something that is associated with the most important culinary history. It’s so important. It is probably one of the most exclusive dining clubs ever on the planet. It is one that dignitaries from around the world would fly to eat there. It stands for the ultimate culinary expression against oppression. It was made by people who were anything but Mexican. Sling arrows at other people, but I’m bringing back something that is incredibly important and has been talked about for over 80 years. We are doing something within the community for people, giving people second chances that mean more than tossing them aside and leaving them for refuge like most other communities. It’s not about privilege. It’s the antithesis. We are about love and second chances.

DT: How do you feel about the responses to the name of the restaurant?

Schiff: This idea is so much older than Donald Trump. Someone who is saying that, seems like they might have a political agenda or absent knowledge of what the concept (of the restaurant) is.

The one I heard about was a professor, which is even more embarrassing because here’s a person who is actually imported with the function and role of teaching children and young adults how to go into the world and help educate them, and he has published something which is tortious. It’s intentional interference with business and it’s libel. I do have a law degree and I’ve been in the business a long time, and something like this I’ve never seen, especially from a professor, who is an educated person, who publishes these wild accusations without any knowledge of the facts. Had he called me and said ‘You know ... I was wondering, are you a Donald Trump puppet or are you someone who might have something important to say who might be reviving something that is culinarily historic or revolutionary?’ I always say, come to class if you’ve read the assignment. Outside of class, there’s a bully on every campus. Generally you don’t see the bully as being the professor.

I’m someone who has invested a tremendous amount of money in this community. I’ll be giving a lot of jobs to kids here. (I’ll) be paying a lot of taxes... If someone were to light a bag of dog poop on your door, to prevent people from opening up because they think you’re saying something, that is unfortunate. Even the educated sometimes publish an error or speak before they think. That’s okay. We are about love. This place has always been about second chances.

DT: Can you understand the response from students and faculty to the name of the restaurant?

Schiff: I appreciate everyone’s emotions and feelings and freedom of expression. Publish what you want. We are about forgiveness and second chances. We take it with more than open love. Unfortunately, there comes a line where you might want to wait until something comes out. Most people don’t start writing what the book is about until it hits the shelves. If it is what they think it is, and they express their opinion, then I understand that even more ... It is what it is. Do I appreciate it? Yes. Do I find it responsible? No ... The Cold War wasn’t called the Cold War because it was very frigid (and) it wasn’t about the temperature of the war environment. I know that now. I think this community is absolutely beautiful. It has so much potential, it just got accepted into the Big Ten ... I love the potential that’s here and I’m excited to be in this environment. The people I’ve interacted with are very excited about what is coming here. They know it’s about food, love, respect and more important, something that is more favorable to the students pocket.

DT: In the Sept. 15 article, you said the Mexican cuisine of Criminals and Tacos showcases “true flavors” that will be “unlike anything this city has seen before.” Were you not aware of the many other Hispanic restaurants in the city?

Schiff: I’m more than aware of the demographics. I don’t remember what the question was before it. I responded that way, but hey, if there’s other places, there’s other places. God bless.