The Crunchy Taco, Stolen by Taco Bell, That Fueled the LA Area Hispanic Civil Rights Movement


I spent some time last year in Taco Bell’s Corporate Culinary kitchen in Irvine, California, oddly enough, experimenting with their food development teams on soft taco wraps.      Taco Bell actually got its start with the taco dorado or hard taco,  the version of the Mexican taco that most Americans were first introduced.   Now, the original, and more authentic, soft taco, is the more popular version in American food.    High end restaurants serve $8 brussel sprout or tempura fried cauliflower soft tacos with craft-curated smoked margaritas.

Corporate art in the Taco Bell Headquarters and the original Taco Bell boy mascot.

But in the 1960s through the 1980s, the hard taco from Taco Bell and other me-too chains like Zantigo, were what Americans knew as the true Mexican taco.    I personally hated the hard taco, especially those from the Ortega hard taco dinner kit.   One bite of the stale, flavorless taco shattered it and sent all the fillings tumbling onto the plate.    The soft taco provides a much better vehicle to hold delicious fillings as you bite through it.

What I didn’t know was that this hard taco was stolen by Taco Bell from a much earlier restaurant, Mitla’s Café in San Bernadino, California.    Mitla Café was started in 1937 by Lucia Rodriquez as a small lunch counter serving Mexican food on Route 66.    After losing her first husband, Lucia married Salvator Rodriquez, and expanded the Café into the size it is today.

Glenn Bell, the Bell of Taco Bell, opened a hamburger and hot dog stand across from the Mitla Café in San Bernadino, in 1948.    After returning from the Marine Corps after World War II, Bell saw the success of the McDonald’s brothers hamburger drive up in San Bernadino.   This drove him to open his own competitive operation.    But he also saw the long lines that developed out of Mitla’s Café across the street and wanted in on their popular tacos dorados, or hard tacos.     He thought tacos were the way to beat McDonald’s.   He learned how to make the hard tacos from Salvator at Mitla’s, toned down the spices of the meat, adapted a red sauce he used on his hot dogs, and introduced the taco at his hamburger stand in  1951.    The Hispanics passed over the tacos, ordering hamburgers or hot dogs instead, but the non Hispanic customers loved them.    This idea led into what would become Taco Bell in 1962, which introduced “Mexican” food to many Americans, and is now a worldwide chain owned by Yum Brands.


Now into it’s fourth generation, Mitla’s served people of all walks of life, but was the meeting place of the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, which stood to end the segregation of Hispanics in schools, public pools, and other public institutions in the southern California area.    Salvator was very active in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and hosted them in his restaurant as they planned their next moves .   Cesar Chavez was a regular at Mitla’s as he helped organize the produce pickers of the San Bernadino Valley.  Mitla’s sponsored Hispanic baseball teams and Hispanic church congregations.   Parades, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience, resulting from the city’s refusal to accept the outright racism against Mexicans and Hispanics, all started at Mitla’s.


So the next time you take a bite into a  crunchy taco at Taco Bell or anywhere else, and all the toppings fall onto your plate, know that you are taking a bite into Mexican Civil Rights history.


Zoutis Candy Shop was the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter of Cincinnati’s Civil Rights Movement


Zoutis Candy Shop in downtown Cincinnati, 1980s.

When I learned about the Civil Rights movement and segregation in high school, I thought it was all a Southern thing.    To me, it all happened in Mississippi and Alabama, not here in Cincinnati.   I had later heard stories from elderly black folks in Northside who said that during their childhood in the 1950s they were only allowed to sit in the balcony of the local theatres like the Park, the Americus, and the Liberty on Hamilton Avenue.   But, I had never seen any outward signs or evidence of it here in Greater Cincinnati.     We had adeptly erased the shame of segregation from our built environment.   That was until I started interviewing folks for my book about the Candy Industry here.

One of the cool things about the Candy industry was how many Greeks, more specifically , Spartans, were involved and are still involved in the candy industry.   It’s the reason we have a custom of eating a peppermint patty after having a Cincinnati Threeway.  The most recognizable of these Spartan-immigrant owned candy shops is Aglamesis in Oakley, who still hand dip their chocolates.   Across the river in Covington, there was a three generation candy shop , whose original location and sign are still there.  That is Droganes Candy Shop.


The inside of Sam Droganes candy shop in Covington, Kentucky, looking toward the Whites Only entrance.

Last year I met Sam,  the grandson of the founder, and got to peak back in time to his family’s candy shop, which is nearly in tact as it was around the turn of the last century.    He took me into the basement to show me all the old candy equipment – the opera cream beater, the chocolate dippers, and more.  Then he took me to the back to show me where the freezer was where they made their homemade ice cream.  Then in the back I noticed the entrance had sort of a show window that looked like a smaller version of the front.  So I asked him, why does the back entrance have a show window if it was used for deliveries.   He told me that was because this was the entrance for blacks – they were not allowed to enter through the front which was for whites only.    Oh my God, I thought.   This was the first in tact evidence I had ever seen of segregation in Greater Cincinnati.

What was even more interesting was that Tony Zoutis, who owned Zoutis Candies in downtown Cincinnati, learned the candy trade at Droganes.    Zoutis had several stores throughout downtown and was one of the last holdouts of independent businesses as Urban Renewal saw the demolition of the location of many of his shops, causing him to relocate numerous times in the 1970s and 1980s.   He handmade at least five flavor of ice cream daily, and hand made chocolates like our local favorite opera cream.

But in 1949, Tony’s Government Square shop became the focus to integrate Cincinnati’s segregated community, more than a decade before the student sit-in at the Woolworth Lunch Counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  A group of white and black folks from the Cincinnati Committee on Human Relations (CCHR), an early civil rights group, sat at the Zoutis candy counter for several hours, but were refused service.   They left, but returned another time, where they were served menus with greatly inflated prices, were harassed, sprayed with soda water and again refused service.  After two more nonviolent sit-ins at the Zoutis counter, and letter righting to Zoutis, the CCHR was contacted by Marshall Bragdon of the Mayor’s Friendly Relations Committee stating that Zoutis would serve the group.   The Mayor’s  FRC had been established in 1943 to make sure that each racial and religious group felt properly represented in their community.   A fifth visit by the group proved this, and segregation at downtown counters in Cincinnati gradually became a thing of the past.

Zoutis had no hard feelings, nor did the group that was originally refused service, and many African Americans became loyal Zoutis customers.     A sign hung in his shop until it closed that read, “Laughter is God’s hand on the shoulder of the troubled world.”   Laughter and sweetness – sure elements of getting along in a diverse world.


What’s the Highest “Way” You can Eat Cincinnati Chili?

We all know that a 3-Way in Cincinnati is different than a 3-Way in Los Angeles. A Cincinnati 3-Way, of course, refers to our beloved Cincinnati Chili served over tender (never al dente) spaghetti and topped with shredded cheddar cheese. There are variations on the three way at some parlors. Skyline has its habanero cheddar cheese, and Gold Star had a srirracha cheese for a while. Some people crush oyster crackers on top or as they eat into it – but that’s not officially a “Way.” You always cut into a threeway, never swirl it like Italians eat their spaghetti. Some add tobascco or another hot sauce. My recent addition to a threeway is South African Peri Peri Sauce, which is a bit hotter than tobascco and has an interestingly different taste.

Originally, the grandfather to our Cincinnati Threeway was called Chili mac or chili spaghetti. The Macedonian brothers John (Ivan) and Tom (Athanas) Kiradjieff, at their Empress Chili Parlor, served Cincinnati chili over spaghetti without shredded cheddar cheese for the first few years. Founded in 1922, in the Empress burlesque theatre, they were actually serving an Americanized version of their Mediterranean saltsa mi kima. After seeing a ‘hoochie coo’ show at the Empress Burlesk (the sign was never correctly spelled) – a customer could sit at a small counter, order a chili mac, have a Turkish coffee and smoke an Ibold Cigar from the humidor in the corner. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that a customer suggested that shredded cheddar cheese on top would make it even better. The name of that customer is lost to history, but that day, in the height of the Depression, the Cincinnati 3-Way was born.

Later, a 4 –Way became the addition of either chopped fresh onions or beans on top of the chili, and a 5-Way became beans and onions on top of the chili. I’m a 4-way onion with habanero cheese type of guy myself.

But two of the independent chili parlors have added a 6 – Way to their menus, just to assure the evolution of Cincinnati Chili Culture. The first to do this was Dixie Chili, founded in 1926, by Nicholas Sarakatsannis, another Macedonian immigrant, who worked for Empress Chili to learn the trade. Dixie’s 6- Way starts with a standard 5- Way, and adds fresh chopped garlic on top. I’ve never tried it myself, but some people swear by it. And, there were a lot of Italians in Newport, Kentucky. In fact, the hillside neighborhood of Newport was nicknamed ‘Spaghetti Knob,’ because of all the Italians in the area. And there were restaurants like Pompilio’s where you could get garlic infused ‘tomato gravy.’ So maybe it was all the Italians of Newport that spawned the Dixie 6-Way.

Blue Ash Chili is the other independent parlor, but theirs came much later and is different than Dixie’s. Blue Ash’s starts with a standard 5-Way, but adds fried jalapeno pepper caps on top of the cheese.

No other chili parlor has stepped up to the plate to add other ingredients for a 6 or greater Way, and they should take this as a challenge. In my opinion there should be a crunch component adder, maybe under the cheese – say for example, tortilla strips, pickle chips, or jalapeno chips. Sliced black or green olives on top of the cheese might be a nice salty adder. And, I definitely don’t think all the parlors have experimented enough with different types of cheese. I would love to see a shredded horseradish cheddar cheese, or a mix of feta and cheddar.

The Franzbrotchen: A Pastry of Northern Germany born from Napoleonic Occupation



For New Year’s Eve this year, I decided to do partake in indulgence early, by doing the brunch at the Netherland Hilton Hotel, with a friend. This is hands down, the best brunch in Cincinnati. It has an omelet bar, with eggs benedict and boiled eggs with spinach and tomatoes; a seafood bar, with the best smoked salmon this side of the Pacific Northwest; a prime rib station, a charcuterie station, a salad station, and a wonderful petit four dessert station, made by their award winning pastry chef, Megan Ketover. Megan competed on Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts a few years ago. For this brunch, she made cute little personal buche de Noels, with a slice of chocolate swirl cake the size of a quarter, each with a green flocked white chocolate square and a marshmallow mushroom.

But, what Megan also bakes each morning, starting at 5 AM are the amazing German brotchen that flank the charcuterie bar. Megan’s brotchen are THE best in Greater Cincinnati. Her only competition was the Bernhard’s Bakery in Newport, that closed in 2017. They have the perfect crusty outside, with a chewy, flavorful inside. They make a great home for the artisan cheeses and cold cuts on the charcuterie bar.

I gushed so much to the Garde Manger on the floor about how good the brotchen were, my friend tried to find them on the bar, but came back with a cinnamon roll that’s reminiscent of another type of brotchen, the Franzbrotchen, that has the most interesting history as a type of food I call “Conquered Foods.” These are adapted foods that are brought into a region by conquering invaders. To me, they are probably the most fascinating type of food out there. The locals try to adapt a favorite food of their invaders to appease them. Sometimes they come close to the original, but more times than not, they morph into something a bit different. The croissant itself is an adaption of Viennese strudel, which is in itself, an adaption of baklava from the invading Ottoman Empire. So the Franzbrotchen has probably the longest legacy as a Conquered Food, with at least four morphs of itself from its travel from Turkey to Austria to France to Germany.

The Franzbrotchen could be described as the love-child of a cinnamon-sticky bun and a croissant. And, in its case, the conquering invaders were the French of Napoleonic times. They occupied the Northern German port city of Hamburg from 1806-1814, which they made into their military quarters and a garrison town. The local German bakers tried to respond to the French soldiers’ desire for their traditional breakfast fare by imitating the croissant. However, they really only understood their heavy doughs, characteristic of Northern Europe and Scandinavia (where our Danish pastries originate), so the Franzbrotchen never really took on the light and fluffy form they were meant to. And, the German bakers added spices and sweeteners to salvage what they could. This meant the addition of cinnamon and raisins to the swirled bun. Some variations of the Franzbrotchen today in Hamburg, contain various seeds like pumpkin seeds, or even chocolate sprinkles (shokoflocken).

Whether or not the French took to this variation of their beloved croissant is not documented. My fourth great grandfather Christian-Friedrich fought against the Napoleonic forces to expel them from Mecklenburg, Germany. His fight, as well as others from his town, is recorded in a plaque inside the Marienkircke (Church of St. Mary) of Penzlin. I wonder if he went into battle with any Franzbrotchen in his satchel.

After the Northern Germans, like my ancestors, finally expelled the French, they kept this new bakery variant, and the Franzbrotchen is still widely popular in other cities around Hamburg with coffee. The German bakers were inventive with their method of making the Franzbrotchen. Instead of pounding out a giant block of butter, chilling it, folding it into the dough, and repeating several times, they cut the butter into thin pieces, folded into the yeasted dough, and minimally rolled. This cut the chill time from 3 hours for croissants to 20 minutes. With the cinnamon sugar mix, the Franzbrotchen has a sticky caramelized outside like our American sticky bun, than the flaky, buttery outside of a French croissant. So, our American sticky bun may just be the fifth morph of this long-storied Conquered Food

Antebellum Eggnog in Cincinnati


Joseph Mersman, writer of the journal that would become The Whiskey Merchant Diary.

One great local pre-Civil War diary we have is that of German immigrant Joseph Mersman. He had immigrated to Cinicnnati with thousands of other immigrants from his town in 1830. His diary gives us one of the few, and very detailed pictures of daily life in urban Cincinnati before the Civil War, from working and playing, and – most interesting to me- eating and drinking as an early 20-something hipster in Cincinnati.  In 1847, he decided to write his daily follies in a book that  fit into his coat pocket. His diary was turned into a great book called The Whisky Merchant’s Diary, which was annotated and enhanced with maps and actual photos.

Although Joseph had a sister who lived very well in Cinicnnati, Joseph rented a room in the 3rd Street boardinghouse of Mrs. Jenkins. He shared his room and one double bed with Charles Brown for $3 a week, which included meals. But he supplemented the meals at home with special treats like oysters, cakes, and beverages at bars and taverns around town.

As a whiskey merchant, Mersman bought distilled spirits, and redistilled or reprocessed them to remove impurities, increase the alcohol content, or flavor them before selling to liquor retailers. So, being in the world of distilled spirits, Joseph certainly knew where to go to get a good drink.   The world around his boarding house and office was surrounded by theatres, bars, and houses that boarded ‘ladies of a certain type.’

In December of 1847, he made several notations about stopping at several hangouts for an eggnog:

Dec 20 – Went to Billy Tell’s and partook in a glass of Egg Nog or sort of a milk punch
Dec 21 – Stopped at Hunkum’s to take a glass of Egg Nogg
Dec 22 – Went with Delmar to Billy Tell’s –  he treated to glass of Egg Nogg

Billy Tell’s was William Tells Coffeehouse on 5th Street between Main and Walnut. A Coffee house at that time, was more of a place to have a drink – spirit, wine, or beer and a small bite.  Hunkums was Fredrick Honkomp’s 2nd Ward House.

Before the Civil War an eggnog was not as we know it today, mostly the heavy cream and spice drink, spiked with a small amount of liquor like bourbon or rum.   It was completely the opposite – an alcohol fortified with egg cream and spices.  Egg nogg was started with a base of liquor, cider, or beer, and was then fortified with milk, whipped eggs, and stirred-in spices.   It was served warm and popular in the cold weather months.   Think of it as the pre-Civil War Pumpkin Spice Latte in its popularity.  It was  sort of like a winter shandy. Originally it was designed to give some flavor to what at the time in England were badly brewed sour ales, cider made with rank apples, and adulterated rums and whiskeys. In Europe eggnogg was considered a drink of the wealthy, as spices, eggs and milk were expensive and available only to those with money. When the drink came to America with immigrants, it became a drink of the working class, as eggs, milk and spices were much more readily available.

Many men, especially of German descent in Cinicnnati had their own Eggnogg secret recipes and many parties thrown during the holidays had these ‘home-spun’ eggnogs as the star. My grandfather’s long lost boozy eggnog recipe was the star of the family’s holiday parties. It was known to be very thick, almost custardy, like the eierlikors or egg liquors of northern Germany, where his grandfather had immigrated. Now, with the scare of raw egg-born pathogens, these eggnogs are hard to come by.

So be thankful this holiday season, as you sip your boozy eggnog  that yours wasn’t designed to cover up the taste of bad alcohol!

A Goetta Ancestor in the Dusseldorf Studio of Emanuel Leutze


In 1849 German refugees from the 1848 revolution were sailing across the Atlantic in droves to our land of freedom. Oddly enough, a number of Americans were going the opposite way to Germany. They were artists, who were flocking to the Westphalian city of Dusseldorf for the art school that was gaining fame there. For the twenty-something Cincinnati painter, Thomas Worthington Whittredge, the studio of famed painter Emanuel Leutze in Dusseldorf was where he wanted to be. He left Cincinnati and landed as a pupil in Leutze’s studio.
Leutze was painting his epic scene of Washington Crossing the Delaware, and he needed American models to pose for him. The German men were apparently too small. So, Whittredge posed for the figures of George Washington, and the front oarsman. The image would become one of the most iconic of American images. It would also contain a total of three Cincinnatians, who modeled for Leutze. The Dusseldorf school painters were known to use political scenes to inspire. Leutze was helping to inspire the Germans who staged the 1848 uprisings against the Germanic nobility with his painting.


Portrait of Thomas Whittredge
The scene depicted the covert crossing on Christmas Eve when the American forces surprised the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day.  Like good Germans, they were drunk and hungover after partying  Christmas Eve. It was reported by one of the Cincinnati painters, Eastman Johnson, that Leutze’s studio was the same way – jolly good fun, filled with beer drinking (of the native Altbier style) and other “animations.” When Johnson arrived, like Whittredge, he was enlisted to model. A bandage was wrapped around his head, and he also became one of the oarsmen.


Portrait of Eastman Johnson.
Johnson would return to America in the early 1850s, spending some time painting in Cincinnati. Our fair city was known to be friendly to artists looking for rich patrons like Nicholas Longworth. Eastman Johnson became one of the most popular genre painters of the Civil War, painting Negro Life in the South, and his most famous painting, A Ride for LIberty –  Fugitive Slaves.

A third Cincinnatian, the wealthy John Groesbeck, made his way to Leutze’s studio in his post-graduation Grande Tour of Europe. No doubt this was because of the reputation of frivolity surrounding the studio. Leutze also used the young Groesbeck as a model for one of the oarsman, most likely the middle oarsman in the red coat. That’s a pretty cool immortalization for a vacation visit.


A young John Groesbeck during the Civil War.
So what food probably accompanied the altbier in the jolly studio of Leutze? As it happens, a goetta ancestor was a popular peasant food in the state of Westphalia and in Dusseldorf. It is called Westfalische Rinderwurst. And, like goetta, it’s a gruetzwurst or grain sausage, designed to extend a small amount of meat. It consists of beef sausage, vegetables like onions and carrots, and a grain, either pearl barley or oat groats. It’s looser than goetta, but cooked the same way – pan fried – but not as crispy as most of us like goetta in Cincinnati. It’s served along with potatoes and fried red cabbage, and never dressed with ketchup, syrup or jam, as we do with goetta.


Westfalische rinderwurst
It’s possible that Whittredge and certainly, Groesbeck, would have had goetta in Cincinnati in 1849, which probably more resembled the Westfalische Rinderwurst than it does the goetta we get at Tucker’s or any German meat market in Cincinnati today. But they also would have had the rare opportunity to taste it in Dusseldorf, and experience the rare intersection of ancestor and newly arrived food progeny.

Squirrel Pot Pie – The Featured Dish of Cincinnati’s First Christmas Dinner of 1788


The First Christmas dinner in Cincinnati, or as it was known in 1788 – Columbia – was a sparse one. There were about 50 poor souls, all badly needing a good bath with soap. But, it would be at least five more decades before Proctor and Gamble invents soap that floats.

All fifty families were crammed into four chinked-log blockhouses near what is now Lunken Airport, later called Turkey Bottoms, to protect themselves from the local Shawnee tribe natives, who were known to attack the new white Northeasterners settling on their hunting grounds. The group had arrived the week before Thanksgiving on flatboats on the Ohio River in 1788. Most of the families at Columbia were from New Jersey. And, they were all part of the Baptist Church that was fleeing persecution in the Northeast, now facing attack from another group – the Shawnees.

The family names of those first Cincinnati settlers were Stites, Gano, Bailey, Buxton, Cox, Woodruff and the Dunn family of Hugh and Mercy and their five children, who had just arrived in December. The good thing was that a party of the Columbia settlers had made a truce with the local Shawnees, after being run up into trees on a hunting expedition shortly after their arrival. So, in the spirit of good neighbors, they invited the natives to their Christmas dinner.

Only having a month to get settled, there were no cornfields to harvest or any other crops to eat. The party had brought provisions in the form of flour and probably salt cured meats to get them through the winter. That was supplemented by the local free range meat they could hunt – squirrel, possum, bear, raccoon, turkey, pheasant, and fish from the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers nearby.

In 1857, one of the Columbia settlers, Isaac Dunn, recalled that first Christmas dinner with the Indians. He would have been six years old at that time, but was in 1857, a prominent judge living in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

Dunn said that it was an unseasonably warm that first Christmas Day, kind of like the warm December we’ve had this year. And so, the Columbia settlers put up a big table near the shore of the river, and , in addition to the Shawnee, also invited a party of officers from nearby Ft. Washington, closer to what is now downtown Cincinnati. The site of the uniformed, musketed officers scared the Indians at first, but their fears were eventually quieted and all sat down for a big dinner of what ?

Isaac Dunn said in his recollection, “The principal dish in the feast was potpie, which were made in two ten gallon kettles. My mother (Mercy Dunn), being a Jersey woman, with the other ladies assisting, superintended the making of the potpies.” The fact that Mercy was the head chef makes us think that potpie was a familiar dish to New Jersians. The potpies were probably made of squirrel, which Dunn said was the most prominent meat they had available, and the crust made of flour they brought and lard. Crisco wouldn’t be invented by P & G until about 140 years.

These Jersey meatpies were probably very interesting to the Shawnee guests. The whiskey accompaniment from the Ft. Washington soldiers, who received that as part of their monthly ration, would have also been something new to the Shawnee. Everything passed off fine and the Indians departed, bellies full and in good spirits.

Unfortunately that spring there was a huge flood in the Columbia settlement, and the Shawnee decided to run off with all the horses of the Columbia settlers. Isaac Dunn’s family had enough and moved to higher ground, forming the settlement of Elizabethtown, Ohio. Many other Columbia settlers moved out of the original settlement to higher ground to areas like what would become the village of Mariemont. It was kinda like the story of the original Roanoke Colony, but we know where they went. Many of the early settlers are buried at the Columbia cemetery across from Lunken Airport, including the majority of the Stites family. Others are buried at the community church yard in Mariemont.

After the family moved out of Columbia, Isaac’s brother Micajah Dunn built a log home that is now on the site of the Shawnee Lookout Park. And the Dunn family continued to eat their New Jersey potpies as they prospered and proliferated.