How the taco arrived in America--and was stolen from us

Do you know exactly how the popularization of Mexican food, in particular the hard-shelled taco and tortilla chips, came to the U.S.? I didn't. At least not until the greatest (and only) living scholar of Mexican-American fast food, Gustavo Arellano, detailed it in his newly released book Taco USA.

In it, he details "how a few foods (salsa, tacos, chili, tequila) from the complicated and enormous cuisine of Mexico managed to slip into the mainstream of American taste." But the story isn't really a happy one, he says. With not-really-authentic Taco Bell taking over Latin fast food, what do we really know about the taco and its upsurge in American food culture?


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Gustavo Arellano points to Mitla Café in San Bernardino, CA, which has been serving tacos dorados con carne molida. They're "golden" tortillas fried to order and what he believes were the inspiration for the hard tacos of Taco Bell. In a New York Times article, they detail the order of events:

In 1950, one Glen Bell, an entrepreneur possessed by envy of the McDonald brothers' success, opened a burger stand across the street from Mitla. (The building is still there; today, it's a taco stand.) According to Mr. Arellano's research, Mr. Bell ate often at Mitla and watched long lines form at its walk-up window; later, having persuaded the Montaños to show him how the tacos were made, he experimented after hours with a tool that would streamline the process of frying the tortillas. He started serving his own tacos in 1951 (this according to Mr. Bell's 1999 biography "Taco Titan," which Mr. Arellano has practically memorized), and the business went through several name changes (Taco Tia, El Taco) before starting as Taco Bell in 1962. Now, at Mitla, the lines are gone; only the brown vinyl booths and the lunch regulars remain; while on the Taco Bell Web site, Mr. Bell is cited as the creator of the "fast food crunchy taco."

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Unfortunately for all of the wonderful Mexican-American chefs out there, there are too many non-Mexicans who have taken over the food. In his book, one of the only happy endings for Mexican cooks in the US is the story of Mariano Martinez, who invented the frozen-margarita machine. Although I am a fan of people who truly love Mexican cuisine, like celebrity chef Rick Bayless, I can understand his point about not enough Latin chefs getting the popularity they deserve. Although I still occasionally enjoy a meal at Taco Bell, I think for now I am going to stick to some of the real Latino fast food that's more authentic (and more delicious) than the restaurant that stole the taco idea.

What do you think about the NYT article on how tacos and Mexican-American food became popularized in the U.S.?

Images via KayOne73/flickr, AndersP/flickr

Topics: mexican food