The Great American Taco: A Brief History of Mexican Tacos in the U.S.

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Enjoying an American made carne asada with salsa de guacamole at a recent event at Facebook HQ in Los Angeles CA.
The great American taco craze shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Learn about the history of Mexican tacos and how they became so popular in the U.S.

Did you know that the founder of Taco Bell actually invented the great American taco as we know it today?

In 1952, a man by the name of Glen Bell opened a Mexican food stand called the Taco-Tia. From there, he would sell soft flour tortillas that would go bad after a few hours. Bell hated wasting these taco shells and began plotting the design for the modern day taco.

After a lot of research and testing, he came up with the U-shaped design for the taco that we know today. Read on to learn about Bell’s invention, what came before it, and how the taco emerged on the scene as one of America’s most favorite foods.

The Early History of the Taco

The history of the taco actually doesn’t start as early as you might think. It was not a food of the South American indigenous people. It was invented in the 1700s as an easy meal for miners in Mexico.

The name came from the “taco” charges that they had to put in the mines to excavate various ores. The “taco” referred to the small piece of paper that would wrap around the gunpowder to hold the charges. They would then stuff the tacos, filled with gunpowder, into holes in the cave walls to plant the charges.

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Fresh hand-pressed tortillas ready to tantalize your palate and detonate in your mine.

Miners would bring tacos into the mines for their lunches filled with beef or chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, beans, cheese, and sour cream since they were a convenient and easy way to eat a balanced meal.

Later, as the dish spread from outside the mines, women began to push carts in major Mexican cities selling tacos as street vendors along with other traditional dishes like the taquito and tamale.

Over time, the street food became known in working-class neighborhoods and was enjoyed by many Mexican immigrants who brought the food with them when they entered the United States opening small taco stands here as well.

The taco would remain a lower-class street food for many years before Taco Bell came along to popularize the food. Since many of the people in America at the time were of northern European descent, they weren’t used to that much flavor in their food and it took time to catch on.

Bell and Beyond

Glen Bell is an American entrepreneur that saw the value in making the taco a central focus for his fast-food empire.

When he began his business, he served primarily hot dogs to soldiers returning from the war but was always looking for another stream of income. Eventually, he installed a take-out stand at the side window of one of his hot dog stands where he sold 19 different tacos. The taco stand was immensely successful.

Over time, Bell realized that many of his taco shells were going to waste since they only had a shelf life of a few hours and he put his mind to work coming up with a way to keep the shells fresh longer.

He came up with the U-shaped tortilla design as a way to repurpose his soft shells. All he had to do was fry them into a U-shape and they could be served much longer after they were originally made.

SOHO TACO Gourmet Taco Catering - Taco de Cangrejo - Orange County - OC
Tacos de Cangrejo served in a crispy shell we know “U” would like.

Though there is some debate over whether Bell was actually the first to make the U-shaped design, he is certainly the person who popularized it and brought it into the American mainstream.

Bell couldn’t have known how well his tacos would take off, but he was quick to respond. He soon got a business partner and began opening taco restaurants in the San Bernardino area.

The Invention of Taco Tuesday

The term “Taco Tuesday” has its own history. While you may have thought it was a television writer who came up with a Taco Tuesday episode that started off the craze, it was actually the four-hundred-plus taco giant, Taco John’s that first marketed the term.

They went as far as trademarking it and have sent out cease and desist letters to hundreds of restaurants who offer Taco Tuesday specials on their menus.

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Tacos are great anytime of the week.

The original Taco Tuesday special was created in the 1980s when Taco John’s locations around the nation would begin to sell two tacos for 99 cents driving a ton of sales on what was otherwise a slow day for business.

The Emergence of the Great American Taco in Pop Culture

The great American taco emerged in pop culture through extensive marketing campaigns aimed at getting new customers in the door. They were solidified into the American culture, however, by their extensive references in movies and television shows like Saturday Night Live, The Lego Movie, Reservoir Dogs, and more.

Today, they stand as one of the two most popular foods to mention on your online dating profile – tacos and sushi. It seems the taco is truly a food that brings people together.

Where to Get a Great Taco for Your Next Event

Now that you understand why the great American taco has such a special place in all of our hearts, you may be looking to integrate them into your next event.

Tacos can make a great accompaniment for business conventions where people are walking around, as well as a low-cost dish for weddings that sets the tone for celebration.

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One of our carts at the San Diego Botanic Garden grilling up some of our finest fare in the good ol’ U S of A.

But not all tacos are created equal. At Soho Taco, we take the time to give our tacos the attention they deserve and the result is intoxicatingly delicious.

Don’t take our word for it, try our tacos and request a quote for your next catered event today.

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