When does a taco cease to be a taco? In Netflix’s ‘Gentefied’, this is both a practical and an existential question.

It arises when Chris (Carlos Santos), an aspiring chef, wants to help his grandfather, Casimiro (Joaquin Cosio), save his struggling small restaurant by jazzing up the menu and drawing in new (richer) customers. One of his ideas, a tikka masala taco with curry, sounds to Casimiro like blasphemy. “Do you want tradition or innovation?” Chris asks, in English. His grandfather answers, in Spanish: “What I want is a taco.”

GENTEFIELD Image Credit: Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

The little question here is whether you can throw anything, however delicious, onto a tortilla and proclaim it a taco. (Roy Choi, the Korean-taco pioneer of Netflix’s ‘The Chef Show’, has one answer, but that’s another conversation and another binge.) The bigger question, propelling this feisty, funny and poignant comedy-drama arriving Friday, is how much its setting — Boyle Heights, Los Angeles — can be upscaled and “discovered” until it is no longer Boyle Heights.

Created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chavez (the producers include America Ferrera), ‘Gentefied’ is one of several recent programmes to look at how money bulldozes working-class and minority neighbourhoods, including Netflix’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and Starz’s ‘Vida’, which is also set in Boyle Heights. (It is an irony of TV that some of its most acute examinations of income inequality have come from paid cable and streaming outlets.)

This big-picture issue gives ‘Gentefied’ its title (a portmanteau for gentrification by upwardly mobile Latinos), its themes and many of its conflicts. But it’s powered by its little-picture focus on family and neighbours.

In part, ‘Gentefied’ is about the tension between those who stay and those who leave. While Chris apprentices in a fancy Los Angeles restaurant and dreams of culinary school, Casimiro runs the Mama Fina’s Tacos with Chris’ cousin Erik (JJ Soria), who thinks Chris is a pretentious sell-out. Their cousin Ana (Karrie Martin), is in between, an artist with a passion for the community (and a serious girlfriend tying her to home) but with ambitions pushing her beyond it.

The early episodes play up the cousins’ conflicts; Chris, who’s recently returned from Idaho, is a frequent punching bag for being overly assimilated into white hipster culture. But the 10-episode season eventually complicates their positions. Chris is dogged by the feeling that he’s not Mexican enough for Boyle Heights but too Mexican for the likes of his racist boss. Erik wants nothing more than to be a family man rooted to his neighbourhood, but his ambitious, progressive ex-girlfriend, Lidia (Annie Gonzalez), doesn’t want him in her life.

GENTEFIELD Image Credit: Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

Casimiro is the glue of the extended family, and Cosio is a magnetic, charismatic anchor of the ensemble. His character, still mourning his late wife, is proud but less hidebound than he first appears. Beneath his cowboy hat and gruff exterior, he’s a dreamer — something he shares not just with his chef and artist grandkids but also with Erik, who reveals a sensitive, bookish side.

‘Gentefied’ makes its case for the present-day Boyle Heights as much through image as through character and dialogue. In its camera eye, the neighbourhood radiates light and thrums with energy. It is neighbours sitting in lawn chairs on a sidewalk, the kaleidoscope of packaged selections at a bodega, a pepper being coaxed out of the earth in a backyard garden. The production feels connected to the place, sidewalk and soil.

The show’s voice is distinctive and assured, both figuratively and literally. It slips naturally among English and Spanish and Spanglish the same way its stories slip among worlds — from the Boyle Heights streets to the gallery world, from immigrant women sewing piecework to immigrant line cooks chiffonading herbs.

GENTEFIELD Image Credit: Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

Its tone takes longer to establish. Sometimes it wants to be a sharp-elbowed satire, as in an episode that sends up “food tours” in which epicurean hipsters wander the neighbourhood as if on safari. Sometimes — more effectively — it’s a working-class family dramedy, conscious of the cascading effects of small financial setbacks and the code-switching involved in moving across cultures. (When Ana and Erik have a run-in with a white bank manager, she reminds him, “Use your white voice!”)

Maybe most important for a show about neighbourhood-building, ‘Gentefied’ has a handle on even its smaller characters. A mariachi musician, introduced as comic relief, gets his own episode that reveals him as a soulful artist trying to keep his integrity; Ana’s mother evolves from a hectoring nemesis to a toughened survivor.

‘Gentefied’ has a lot to say, and it can turn didactic in its urge to say all of it. But the show’s likeability carries it through its rougher patches. This series puts a lot on its plate, and somehow, it all comes together.


Don’t miss it!

‘Gentefied’ is now streaming on Netflix.