Saturday, May 18, 2024
Diners eat on the patio at Naco Taco in Central Square.

Diners eat on the patio at Naco Taco in Central Square. (Photo: Naco Taco)

Public excitement over Naco Taco in Central Square is as high since its May 11 opening as it has been since the eatery was announced in February, at least as judged by media coverage, tweets and Instagrams. Most people are gushing about the food or seeking people to go with.

The delight has mostly overridden the fact that some people think “naco” isn’t such a nice word in Spanish.

“I wonder how using ‘naco’ in a restaurant name will affect business? It’s a little offensive, but I still laughed when I saw this,” freelance journalist Julia Swanson said via Instagram on April 29, upon spotting the restaurant over by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Maybe it was out of disbelief.”

“Oooooh,” tweeted Jinkies, a recent Simmons graduate, just today. “Too bad about its name.”


How bad a word is “naco”? Cambridge Day got an email in mid-May worrying that it is as bad a word as it gets: “I recently learned from a few close Mexican friends that this term ‘naco’ is extremely offensive and derogatory,” the email said. “It would be the equivalent of the N-word in the black community.”

Repeated attempts to ask the people at Naco Taco about the name failed, whether by calling the restaurant, emailing its publicist or asking chef Michael Scelfo directly. But co-owner Alex Tannenbaum talked to the Cambridge Chronicle about it, saying the word “means ‘non-conformist’ in Spanish” and that it was chosen because “we thought it was a fun, exciting name” that gave off a “funky vibe.”

Based on extensive Internet searches and follow-ups with native speakers, saying that the word means “nonconformist” is a stretch. Whether you look at Mexico-focused magazines and websites, Urban Dictionary or Wikipedia, the answer is consistently that “naco” refers to a vulgar, low-class person – basically the equivalent of our “white trash” or “redneck.” (The Instagram user and photographer Tatsu Ikeda has even another idea about what the name means.) A request was made to the emailer to talk to his Mexican friends directly, but he failed to follow through.


The term refers to having bad taste, but “not necessarily someone poor, because I know a lot of rich nacos,” said a Mexican student who responded, from Mexico, by email.

The use of the term as “nonconformist” is hardly common, and has support mainly because there are people trying to reform the term, as discussed here in looking at “NaCo, an edgy California-based clothing company”:

“Its name derives from the Mexican slang term ‘naco,’ a derogatory term for a lower-class Mexican, and the company’s founders’ stated aim is to rehabilitate this term by celebrating ‘naconess’ as an expression of nonconformist identity.”

It should also be noted that Central Square’s Naco Taco is hardly the only one.  There’s a Taqueria el Naco Taco in Olivehurst, Calif., a TacoNaco in Glendale, Calif., an El Taco Naco in Tucker, Ga., and a Taco Naco Catering in Las Vegas. Perhaps most telling about whether “naco” is a truly offensive word: There’s a Taco “Naco” – Condesa in Mexico City.

Naco doesn’t seem to mean “nonconformist,” but it surely isn’t widely perceived to be the Mexican equivalent of “the N-word.”

A good test: If you’d eat an irreverently named “White Trash Diner” or “Redneck Barbecue,” you can go ahead and eat qualm-free at Naco Taco at 297 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square. At the very least, you can stop worrying about whom you’re offending and start judging the food on its merits. And at least as judged by media coverage, tweets and Instagrams, most people are loving it.