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Our Tacos, Ourselves: How Southern California Reinvented the Taco 

How Southern California discovered, gave birth to, reinvented and loved the taco for more than a century

Thursday, Apr 5 2012
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Click here to order Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano.

The corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and Sixth Street in San Bernardino isn't the prettiest intersection in this working-class city. One corner is an empty lot; another has two abandoned businesses. Graffiti sullies fences, light posts, even sidewalks.

Yet here stands Mitla Café, the oldest continually operating Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. It's a roadside classic befitting Route 66 — of which Mount Vernon is a part — with a counter, big booths and a menu serving Cal-Mex at its best: the type of place whose platters are buried in yellow cheese, then drowned in meat gravy; where everyone is Chicano and speaks English; and the television is tuned to basketball and soccer while Vicente Fernandez roars on the jukebox, followed by New Wave classics.

click to enlarge Irene Montano's father-in-law taught Taco Bell's founder everything he knew about tacos.
  • Irene Montano's father-in-law taught Taco Bell's founder everything he knew about tacos.

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While all the dishes excel, the best-sellers are the hard-shelled tacos, fried upon order, bursting with ground beef, hiding under a blizzard of shredded cheese and lettuce. It's a refreshing take on the meal, one light-years away from the prefab mess America has worshiped for nearly two generations — and yet it's the taco Glen Bell stole, the one that set him on the road to create Taco Bell, which just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first outpost opening in Downey.

In his self-published biography, Taco Titan, Bell admitted to eating tacos at a Mexican restaurant again and again, which he dismissed as "delicious but dripp[ing] melted fat." But Bell was on a mission: He knew the taco was about to explode. Mitla was just across the street from his Bell's Burgers and Hot Dogs, so Bell would eat, return to his stand to sell food, then spend late nights after closing time trying to decipher those mysterious tacos.

Although Bell never named the restaurant, the Mitla crew remembers him well.

"He used to come over here all the time," says Irene Montaño, whose in-laws opened the restaurant in 1937. She's in her 70s, a feisty field general commanding the waitresses. "My father-in-law would say Mr. Bell kept asking about the tacos, how he made them, and so my father-in-law finally invited him into the kitchen to teach him."

Does Montaño feel cheated that Mitla's tacos spawned a worldwide industry? She smiles — she's of a different generation, one that doesn't easily lob insults or engage in jealousy. "Good for him," she says, repeating it. "He was a self-starter, and he did push those tacos." She smiles again, and walks into the kitchen.

Like the Virgin Birth and the Great Deluge myths, Mitla's story is just one version of the same epic tale: Southern California's romance with the taco, that meal of convenience that has entranced us for nearly a century. It's come in many forms: as the taquitos at Cielito Lindo, as the jingle for Tito's Tacos, as Kogi's Korexican marriage, as the plate of 'em eaten at King Taco by politicos looking for a photo op — vegetarian, carnitas, soft, hard, high-end, street. The fast-food taco might be our most ubiquitous Mexican migrant, and Southern California has served as America's Virgil, guiding the country through a taco landscape that is ever-shifting — and everlasting.

Although Mexicans have wrapped tortillas around a foodstuff and called the results a meal since time immemorial, deeming it a "taco" is relatively new; Mexican Spanish etymologists can trace such usage back only to the late 1800s. Its earliest-known mention in American letters came in an 1899 L.Angeles Times piece about life in Mexico City, written by L.A. socialite Olive Percival. She described tacos as "a turnover filled with chopped, highly seasoned meats," but wrote that she didn't dare eat it. Describing Mexicans as "a brave, patient, capable people — in their own land — and hopeless," Percival would be the last known Angeleno to resist the taco's allure.

The taco didn't make another documented appearance in the United States until 1914, when it appeared in the pages of California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, one of the earliest English-language Mexican cookbooks. Another Angeleno authored it: Bertha Haffner-Ginger, whose cooking classes on Mexican food across the country drew hundreds. Her book includes both the oldest known taco recipe in the United States and a picture of it. This ur-taco would be familiar to us even today: a fried, glistening mass, its iconic arc waiting for someone's mouth.

But the taco was still a newcomer to these parts during the 1910s; it had yet to make it onto the menus of Mexican restaurants. That changed forever with the Mexican Revolution, which sent refugees from Mexico's Taco Belt — Jalisco, Guanajuato, Mexico City, Zacatecas, Michoacán and the other states of central Mexico — to Southern California, bringing with them an appetite for tacos. While tacos first made an appearance in the tamale wagons in downtown Los Angeles during the 1920s, the first superstars of the genre were the shredded beef taquitos sold by Aurora Guerrero and her family at Cielito Lindo in Olvera Street, starting in 1934: compact, crunchy beauties that other restaurants quickly copied, thereby setting a taco template that has repeated itself ever since.

From Olvera Street, the taco's spread was almost biblical. Taco house begat taco house in the 1940s; Bell's initial Mexican fast-food operation, Taco-Tia, begat El Taco, which begat Taco Bell. And Glen Bell, fast food's Johnny Appleseed, begat Del Taco by hiring its founder, Ed Hackbarth, back when he owned Bell's Burgers; Hackbarth, in turn, begat Dick Naugles of the much-missed Naugles chain. King Taco begat other soft-taco operations, which begat loncheras, which begat Kogi, which begat the Bell and other fast-food operations to offer those specials. And the days of tacos after its introduction to downtown have been wonderful.

We Southern Californians can't claim all the innovations in taco technology. The first patent for a taco shell–making machine went in 1950 to Juvencio Maldonado, a Guanajuato native, who operated a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. During the 1950s, the El Paso–based Ashley's Foods pioneered the sale of prefabricated taco shells and also fashioned an aluminum taco mold, sold to American housewives so they, too, could fry like their Mexican counterparts.

Yet we remain Tacolandia, U.S.A. That's thanks to the Reconquista having its base here, sure, as well as our tendency to customize food to the trend of the time. But the taco also speaks to who we are. Like the taco, we come in different forms, sizes, shapes and levels of tolerability, but we are still fundamentally the same: Whether our shell is hard, soft, crispy, puffy, flour, corn, whatever, we live life in the name of creating a better Southern California — and, hence, the world — for everyone.

OK, enough of this PC crap. I need to get me cuatro de asada with a hell of a lot of green salsa. Anyone else hungry?

Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly and author of syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! His book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, will be released April 10. He'll sign copies that evening at L.A. Plaza, 501 N. Main St., dwntwn., at 7 p.m.; free, book is $25. (213) 542-6200.

Reach the writer at garellano@ocweekly.com

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