Orange County's contribution to the development of Mexican food in the United States is deceptive. We are the longtime home to Taco Bell, Del Taco and El Torito—but those iconic companies started in Downey, Barstow and Encino, respectively. Roy Choi, founder of the Kogi truck, is an OC boy—but his Korean-Mexican marriage of a taco happened in Los Angeles County. Even the creator of the frozen burrito, Duane Roberts, who got the idea for the meal from a Santa Ana butcher in the 1950s and now lives in Laguna Beach, did most of his innovating in the Inland Empire.
Really, we can only claim credit for one Mexican-food innovation, but what an innovation and story: Doritos.
Just months after Disneyland opened in 1955, Frito-Lay founder Elmer Doolin convinced Walt Disney to let him open Casa de Fritos, a Mexican restaurant, in Frontierland. The food was straightforward Tex-Mex—a combo plate, tamales, chile, Frito pie, enchiladas and the “Ta-Cup,” the standard fast-food taco about to colonize America but in a Fritos shell, the ancestor of the modern-day taco salad. Fritos came complimentary with every purchase.
Casa's first location was in a strip of attractions called New Orleans Street; nearby was Aunt Jemima's Pancake House. Marquees outside Casa de Fritos simultaneously announced it sold “authentic Mexican” and Spanish food. Ethnic confusion aside, the restaurant exceeded all expectations, swarmed by tourists who sought to taste Mexican for the first time, and Casa de Fritos relocated to a larger location in 1957, dropping the French Quarter architectural feel for a new building designed to look like an adobe, complete with faux-peeling whitewash that revealed faux-brick. Guitar players strolled the grounds, while peppy workers dressed in Mexican-peasant garb carried baskets filled with bags of Fritos for sale. The effort lasted until 1982, when the Lawry's food empire took it over and turned it into Casa Mexicana; today, La Victoria runs Disneyland's Mexican restaurant as Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante, its menu a better reflection of Mexican eats with items such as four-cheese enchiladas and charbroiled chicken.
But the Frito Co., for all of its innovations with corn, didn't make the tortillas or taco shells at Casa de Fritos; that was contracted out to the Alex Foods Co. of Anaheim, whose factory was just about 10 minutes up the street from Disneyland, on the corner of what's now Lemon Street and Carl Karcher Way. In 1906, Sonoran immigrant Alex Morales sold his wife's tamales from a wagon he commandeered through Anaheim. A ditch digger by trade, Morales grew the concept into a restaurant, then a tamale factory, then Alex Foods, a multimillion-dollar empire now known as Don Miguel Mexican Foods and based in Orange.
“I never saw our original tamale wagon,” says Michael Morales, Alex's grandson and president of XLNT Tamales, a Southern California classic that spun off from Don Miguel long ago and still uses his grandfather's original 1906 recipe. “That was before my time.” Asked if he knew its fate, Morales laughed and said his grandfather “probably burned it.”
By the 1950s, Alex Foods had a fleet of 32 shiny trucks that delivered tamales and other food products across Southern California, along with distributing produce. It was that latter operation that won the company a contract to service many of the food venues within Disneyland, among which was Casa de Fritos. One day in the early 1960s, one of the route salesman saw discarded tortillas and told the cook to make them into tortilla chips instead of just tossing them in the trash. At that point, tortilla chips weren't part of the Frito family, so the restaurant had no use in offering them as other Mexican restaurants did. The throwaway snack was a hit with guests, so Casa de Fritos put them on the menu—without the knowledge of the Frito Co.
About a year later, Arch West, marketing vice president for the new Frito-Lay Co. (the result of a merger between Fritos and H.W. Lay & Co. in 1961), passed by Casa de Fritos and noticed customers eating the chips. He asked the Morales family to mass-produce those chips. West presented his bosses with a plan to market tortilla chips for national release, with Alex Foods its makers. Frito-Lay bought all the equipment the Morales family needed to make the chips, which were to be called Doritos (“little golden things”). The snack debuted in 1966 to immediate sales.
“We were running our plant seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to make the chips,” Michael remembers. “We just couldn't stop, they were selling so fast.” But the success meant “they took us out of the picture.” Frito-Lay transferred the production line to its Tulsa plant and opened a plant in Birmingham as well. Alex Foods didn't seethe; instead, it produced its own line of tortilla chips and became a co-packer for most of the supermarket chains in Southern California.
“Losing Frito-Lay was a big deal,” he admits, “but it didn't kill us.”
Excerpted from Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano; Scribner; books.simonandschuster.com/buy/Taco-USA/9781439148617/from-other-retailers#book_retailers. Hardcover, 320 pages, $24.95. Available April 10 at your finer bookstores, online retailers and swap meets selling pirated goods everywhere.