Category Archives: History of Food

American Appropiations of Intangible Property: The Curious Case of Tacos Dorados and Taco Bell

A most interesting article in the New York Times on the origins of Taco Bell:

Mitla Cafe, a modest restaurant serving typical Mexican-American food, has been on this corner since 1937 and is still owned by the descendants of its founders, Vicente and Lucia Montaño. It’s the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, the vast tract of sage and scrub east of Los Angeles, now covered with housing developments and strip malls, and home to millions of Mexican-Americans. (San Bernardino County’s population is almost 50 percent Hispanic, according to 2010 Census figures.)

Mitla is not a destination for huitlacoche, epazote or a rigorously authentic mole negra. It is old-school Cal-Mex, with burgers and grilled cheese on the menu. Plenty of patrons eat fries with their enchiladas; Pepsi products, not aguas frescas, fill the drinks cooler. But Mitla does serve a signature Mexican-American dish: tacos dorados con carne molida, “golden” tortillas fried to order and folded around a spicy compressed wedge of ground beef, blanketed with iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and shredded Cheddar. (The hard-shell taco is not unknown in Mexico, but it is usually deep-fried with the stuffing already sealed inside it. These proto-tacos can still be found at Cielito Lindo on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, where the recipe hasn’t changed since 1934.)

At Mitla, the tortilla is hot and crisp, the meat is beefy and satisfying, but other than that, this specialty — which has been on the menu as long as any of the Montaños can remember — very closely resembles the taco served to more than 36 million customers every week at 5,600 Taco Bell locations in the United States.

Coincidence? Mr. Arellano thinks not.

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.” The Montaño family members are philosophical about this outcome, but Mr. Arellano isn’t.