“Never, ever. It’s an abomination for Mexican taste,” says Pablo Valdes, a cultural anthropologist from Veracruz and currently living in Mexico City. This past week I asked Valdes about whether hard-shell tacos were a thing in his country. The idea has not been embraced kindly there in any capacity. Valdes indicates that there are dishes like tostadas, where the tortilla is fried, but nothing even remotely like the U-shaped boats found here in the United States
Here, however, hard-shelled tacos filled with lettuce, tomato and shredded cheese has become a standard weeknight meal and — for better and worse — the face of Mexican food in the country.
The history of the dish may surprise some though. While Glen Bell and his Taco Bell franchise often gets credit for its nationwide popularity, the true origins are completely Mexican. Los Angeles Times food writer Gustavo Arellano wrote about the history in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. The hard-shell dish that inspired Taco Bell’s legacy was originally found at Mitla Cafe, a restaurant in San Bernardino, California. The restaurant was opened in 1937 by Lucia Rodriguez, who crafted the popular taco recipe using available ingredients to make something familiar to the food she grew up with in Tepatitlan, Mexico, yet completely new at the same time. Unlike today’s global market, actual Mexican ingredients were difficult to get during this time period, even at border towns. Unable to find things like cilantro and spices, the community adapted using ingredients like lettuce and shredded cheese.
The beef taco seems basic, but it was born out of trying to make the best out of the situation at hand. Not inauthentic, but actually completely honest in that it was the best that could be done with what was available to the community at the time.
Glen Bell, who happened to own a hamburger and hot dog stand across the street at the time, walked across the road to eat at Mitla Cafe daily. He became enamored not only by the tacos, but also their popularity in the community.
Arellano describes Bell’s fascination in Taco USA:
“[Bell would] return to his stand to sell food, but spend late nights after closing time trying to decipher the rival restaurant’s tacos, so popular that they opened a walk-up window next to the kitchen so the lines ran faster.”
The technique for creating the iconic U-shaped tortillas at Mitla daily is daunting: fresh corn tortillas are folded into a pan of oil and pressed down gently with a ladle until fried and fully shaped. Bell, eager to find a way to replicate this, not only developed his own recipe but also fastened a wire basket that could fry six U-shaped tortillas at a time. Despite some early successes here and there with Mexican restaurants during the 1950s, it would take over a decade of ups and downs before Bell finally found his stride and launched the first Taco Bell in a Los Angeles suburb. Today the chain has more than 7,000 restaurants worldwide rakes in annual earnings of nearly $11 billion (according to the Orange County Business Journal).
Though hard-shell beef tacos are the most well-known, the idea of crispy tacos goes back somewhat further in American history. Tacos dorados, a general term for any kind of fried taco (but typically filled first and fried together) was a popular item among Mexicans in Southern California as far back as the 1910s. (According to Arellano, “When a customer [at Mitla Cafe] asks for a hard-shelled taco with ground beef, the order is repeated in Spanish — taco dorado con carne molida”).
Taquitos, the rolled up tacos often filled simply with beans or ground meat, is a popular version of the deep fried taco that’s become so common it’s a staple in the frozen goods section of most grocery stores. Other variations of dorados covered in different sauces and toppings span the Southwestern U.S.
Here in Columbia, nothing exemplifies the love of the hard-shell more than the famous Taco Tuesdays at The Whig. The simple pleasure of lettuce, tomato and cheese over the well-seasoned ground beef or black beans is hard to beat. For years, locals have constantly flocked to the ubiquitous dive bar for cheap, nostalgic tacos. Similar tacos can be found at many places, including taquerias like Moctezuma’s Mexican Restaurant, which quietly serves generously stuffed beef tacos on their lunch and dinner special plates.
There’s no better display of hard-shell taco evolution though than down Percival Road at Tacos Nayarit. Using a Chipotle-style setup where you pick from traditional Mexican taqueria fillings, Tacos Nayarit lets you choose from the classic corn tortilla, flour tortilla or hard-shell dorados These aren’t premade hard shells from the store either, but rather yellow corn tortillas that they fry in an actual slotted basket built for shaping tortillas into the iconic U-shape. The fry takes less than a couple of minutes, yielding beautiful golden receptacles ready to be filled.
The tacos are then dressed any way you want. Carnitas with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and cheese? Marinated chicken with corn relish and guacamole salsa? The options are plentiful and fit perfectly snug in the warm, fresh fried hard shells. There’s something odd at first when you eat one of these at Tacos Nayarit. Unlike The Whig, which just bursts with American nostalgia, this plays with everything you know about a taco. Layers of crispiness, from the hard-shell to the lettuce to the bits of carnita or al pastor, give the food a fresh perspective. Is it traditional? No. But the spirit is still there in the flavors and feeling. And it’s delicious.