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The Rambling Boy: Mexican Food History

The History of Tacos—and More
Gustavo Arellano is a Los Angeles journalist who writes a syndicated column called Ask a Mexican, which is loaded with colloquial Spanish words and in which he continually refers to Anglo-Americans as gabachos, a not-very-nice word that originally had to do with Frenchmen and cows. Some people think Arellano is a sabelotodo (a smart-aleck to you gabachos), but I happen to like his acerbic humor, and so I was delighted when I saw he had published a history of Mexican food in the United States, a book called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (Scribner, 2013).

Arellano’s book, as the title implies, is about the popularity of Mexican food in the U.S. How has it come about, he asks, that Brookings, North Dakota, a town of 19,000 people that is 95 percent white and has a Latino population of less than 1 percent, has four Mexican restaurants, including the town’s only sit-down restaurant, the Guadalajara.

Arellano’s answer starts in Texas, where San Antonio’s chili queens served chili con carne to Anglo customers on Alamo Plaza in the 1870s, and in California, where Los Angeles’s tamale men sold tamales from carts parked on the Plaza de Los Angeles in the 1880s. A San Francisco entrepreneur, Robert H. Putnam, inspired by the Los Angeles tamaleros, was responsible for the first Mexican food fad in the United States. In 1892 he created the California Chicken Tamale Company and placed white-uniformed vendors in major cities all over the country. He had 500 in the streets of Chicago and an equal number in New York. The hot tamale man became an American icon that lasted well into the 1920s.

At about the same time, William Gebhardt in New Braunfels figured out how to grind chili peppers into powder and make the San Antonio chili queens’ concoction available across the nation. In 1896 he established the Eagle Chili Powder Company in San Antonio; by 1911 he was distributing canned chili con carne and publishing a booklet prophetically entitled Mexican Cooking: The Flavor of the 20th Century. In 1923 the company introduced a packaged Mexican meal: two cans of deviled chili meat; two cans of chili con carne; a can of tamales; a can of beans; a bottle of chili powder, and the cookbook. They sold 250,000 of them that year.

Arellano shows in well-researched detail how the patterns established by Gebhardt and Putnam have been repeated again and again. Mexican immigrants introduced a regional folk food into an urban Mexican neighborhood; a clever innovator-entrepreneur, sometimes Mexican, sometimes not, applied modern food production technology to it and then established chain outlets to distribute it to non-Mexican consumers.

The classic example is Glenn Bell who in 1950 was running a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California and eating his lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant where he especially relished the tacos. After much experimentation he developed a deep-fryer that would fry six folded tortillas at a time and a heated rack that would keep them warm. In 1951 he opened the first Taco Bell. Arellano describes Bell as “a fast-food Johnny Appleseed.” Today there are 5,500 Taco Bells across the country and innumerable spin-offs: Taco Tico, Taco Bueno, Taco Mayo, Taco Time, Del Taco and Taco John.

The same thing happened with restaurants. Chicagoan Otis Farnsworth established the Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio in 1900 after being taken to dinner in a Mexican-owned restaurant on San Antonio’s West Side. His innovation was to combine different dishes—tamales, enchiladas, beans, rice—on one plate and call it the Regular Dinner. Soon other Mexican restaurants began featuring a Regular Dinner.

In Dallas, a few years later, Miguel Martinez, an immigrant from Chihuahua, opened a restaurant named El Fenix. He added even more combination plates and numbered them so that his Anglo customers did not have to try to pronounce the Spanish words. In 1940 Adelaida Cuellar and her sons opened a competing restaurant named El Chico with essentially the same menu. The Cuellar boys were true entrepreneurs; they expanded into neighboring Fort Worth, started offering franchising opportunities, and by 1977 there were 79 El Chico restaurants across the United States.

I have always been puzzled by the advent of the burrito. Although I have been eating Mexican food in Texas most of my life, I had never heard of burritos until the mid-1990s. Arellano explains why. The burrito, he says, was introduced into southern California in the 1940s and 50s by farm workers from Sonora and Baja California where it originated. It germinated in neighborhood restaurants in Los Angeles and then spread to the Mission District of San Francisco where it acquired its identity as the “Mission burrito.”

In the 1980s the Mission District was being colonized by young white professionals. One of them was a young chef named Steve Ells, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who had plans to open his own restaurant even before chowing down on Mission burritos in a local cafe. After a taste of those, he borrowed $85,000 from his father and in 1993 opened a place in Denver called Chipotle, which featured Mission-style burritos. Ells became the burrito king. By 2016 there were 2,225 Chipotle Mexican Grills serving burritos, including six serving burritos to French people in Paris.

Arellano’s book is a rich guisado of stories about the spread of Mexican food across the country. Two facts shine through: there is no such thing as pure Mexican dishes—the story is one of constant innovations, combinations and additions; and while it is an immigrant story, it is not exclusively a Mexican immigrant story.

An eatery in Los Angeles called the Oki Dog developed the ultimate burrito: a flour tortilla wrapped around two hot dogs, chili, pastrami, cheddar cheese and grilled onions. It was invented by the Oki Dog’s owner, Sakai Sueyoshi, an Okinawan immigrant. Arellano himself asserts that the best tamales in the United States, aside from those made at his own house at Christmastime, are at Pasquales Tamales in Helena, Arkansas, a food truck run by a third-generation Sicilian-American. Arellano missed the saga of Zarif Khan, the Afghani tamale vendor who came to Sheridan, Wyoming in 1909, which was recounted by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker last year, but then even a sabelotodo can’t sabe todo.

The one question Arellano does not deal with is how so many non-Mexicans apparently acquired an almost instantaneous taste for Mexican food. To me, the answer is obvious: because it is delicious.

by Lonn Taylor

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