A Trip to Where It All Began for Taco Bell

It's easy to make fun of Taco Bell–very easy–but in more genteel circles than this infernal rag, I defend the company quite often. Sure, their food is slightly edible, but it's their take on Mexican that allowed the cuisine to further spread around the country, spawn a boatload of imitators, and spur people aghast with the idea that Taco Bell was defining Mexican food for a country to further innovate. To most, Taco Bell food is as Mexican as high tea, but those people are all foolish Bayless-istas who don't understand the concept of Greater Mexico.

All of this doesn't mean I'm a fan of Taco Bell–I'm not, and when you read my book on the history of Mexican cuisine in the United States, neither should you–but I still give it its respect. It's that respect that had me brave the nasty weather we're experiencing and visit where Taco Bell all began: San Bernardino.

Above is a direct descendant of the first taco Glen Bell ever fried.

This taco comes from the above restaurant, which is the exact location where Bell's Hamburgers and Hot Dogs opened in 1952: on the corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and Sixth Street, in the city's West Side barrio. It's here that Bell decided to try and sell tacos–although tellingly, the largely Latino clientele he had forsook his Mexican offerings in favor of the hamburger and hot dogs. But Bell nevertheless had an instantaneous following, because Mount Vernon was originally Route 66, ensuring he got all that famished cross-country traffic.

Interestingly enough, the red-tile roof and wrought-iron fencing aren't original; Bell hadn't yet learned the value of exotifying Mexican food. Bell only stayed at this location for a couple of years, because he lost it in a nasty divorce. Amapola Rico Taco has sold tacos at the stand since 1975; this was its second location, and it's now its own successful chain, located only in the Inland Empire. The taco, by the way, was delicious–nothing like its ancestor.

In his self-published biography: Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story, the author relates that Bell would buy the tortillas for his experiments in creating a pre-fabricated shell from a tortilla factory across the street. That's a bit of a lie; the only tortillerĂ­a in the immediate area is this one, and it's a brief walk east on Sixth. In Bell's days, it was called Julia's but has been Casa Trejo since last decade. Great flour tortillas–and yes, they sell taco shells.

We end this small excursion into Taco Bell's past with the original location for Taco-Tia. In 1954, flush from his success selling tacos at his original Bell's Burgers and a couple of other locations (one, in Yermo, became the original Del Taco, but no way I'm driving out to Yermo unless I'm off to Vegas), Bell decided to open his own taco house. For its opening, he hired mariaches, Spanish señoritas, sombreros and all the Mexi stops for the celebration. That Googie-like bump at the top of the restaurant's roof used to say “Taco-Tia” in florid letters, and the boarded-up white section wasn't there, but the interior is almost immaculate. Bell chose this location–off Baseline Street–because he lived in nearby apartments. Not only that, it's just two miles away–up Mount Vernon, right on Baseline) from that original Bell's Burgers.

I'm not sure how long this Taco-Tia lasted, because Bell divested himself of the chain soon after, starting up the El Taco franchise–but that's a photo essay for another year…

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