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.