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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Where Did Crispy Tacos Come From?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge Joy of Cooking's first taco recipe (1964).
  • Joy of Cooking's first taco recipe (1964).

While researching this week's review of Tacko, the Nantucket-themed taco shop in the Marina, I started asking around to find out the history of the anglo taco. Now, Nick Fasanella's crispy tacos have far more complex, Mexican-inspired flavors than the recipes in 1960s American cookbooks, but their overstuffed character and crisp shells are red, white, and blue, not red, white, and green (with an eagle holding a snake).

Gustavo Arellano, author of the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican!" and the forthcoming Tacos USA (to be published in 2012), pointed me in a direction that surprised me:

Multicultural tacos emerged in San Antonio, with Polish tacos (kielbasa with beans and cheese in flour tortillas) and German tacos (bratwurst) dating back to at least the 1970s. That was due in part, of course, to San Antonio's long tradition of immigrant communities incorporating Mexican food and changing it to their tastes -- it was a German immigrant, William Gebhardt, after all, who created Eagle Brand chili, one of the first Mexican-food canning companies.

But gabachos have been appropriating tacos forever, especially since the 1950s and the dawn of fast-food and packaged-food industries. Glen Bell was really the pioneer, but don't forget the guys up in Oregon who founded TacoTime, or the food companies like Rosarita's and Old El Paso who sold cocktail tacos (!), which were essentially bite-sized fried slop.

Robb Walsh, author of the Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos, agreed. "I've never seen an authentic Mexican place with crispy tacos," he told me. "They definitely come from our side of the border." He elaborated:

Now, there are Tex-Mex restaurants like El Matamoros, which calls itself the "Home of the Crispy Taco." But in Texas, certain places were making something more like the puffy taco. They'd take a raw tortilla, put it on a griddle to dry it out, then fry it fresh. That was a crispy taco - and there are a couple of places that still make those.

It was the anglos in Los Angeles who came up with the preformed taco shell. Glen Bell started Taco Bell in San Bernardino right about the same time as McDonald's. He was trying to create a McDonald's inspired taco. Around Los Angeles, there were taco stands that made crispy tacos by dipping a tortilla in oil to soften it. Then they'd put a filling inside of it, toothpick it shut, and drop it in hot oil. That was really the most common style of crispy taco in LA.

Bell invented the preformed taco shell to speed up the process. In LA, restaurants with the word "taco" in the name - Taco Band and Taco Land, etc. -- were in the suburbs. If it was "Taco something," it was for anglos. Mexicans went to the old-fashioned restaurants in the south end.

Guys like Rob Molina, who owned Tex-Mex restaurants in Texas, told me when Taco Bell hit Texas, people who were driving around loved its drive-ins. So they started to clip tacos to a bent coffee can to submerge in hot oil to shape it. Tex-Mex restaurants started doing crispy tacos in order to compete.

Taco Bell and TacoTime didn't necessarily invent the crispy taco, but they brought it to the rest of the United States. The anglo taco that I grew up with in Indiana in the 1970s and 1980s -- crisp shells, ground beef coated in taco seasoning, fresh lettuce and tomato, pre-shredded cheese -- owes its existence to American fast-food companies. And, by extension, so does Nick Fasanella's signature dish.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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