Jimboy’s Delivers Cal-Mex History With Fried Corn and Seasoned Beef

Lake Tahoe, America and the U.S.A. star in Jimboy’s marketing copy at its Pacific Coast Highway location in Huntington Beach. The restaurant opened in June. Photo by Erik Skindrud.

My first reaction to Jimboy’s Tacos, with its good-ol’-boy name and flag-waving ad copy, was deep concern for Huntington Beach. H.B. has been taking hits lately – most unnerving the Aug. 7 PBS Frontline report “Documenting Hate: Charlottesville” – in which H.B. and the O.C. come across as a sort of breeding ground for nativist nitwits.

Thank goodness – research failed to turn up any alt-right ideologues at the helm of Jimboy’s operations. The real Jimboy’s story is less malevolent and more amusing. Jimboy, in fact, turns out to be a Norwegian-American from Minnesota – which certainly piqued my interest.

Norwegian-American-Mexican cuisine is a rare combination. Few Jimboy’s reviews are out there. Jimboy’s taco “isn’t half bad,” Gustavo Arellano wrote in August. Not much to go on, though.

My own research started with a phone call to Karen Freeman, president of Jimboy’s North America. Speaking from corporate offices in Folsom, Sacramento County, Freeman referenced chili powder and spices in Jimboy’s signature beef – an influence founder James Knudson took from his chef father-in-law in Colorado.

No chili or other seasonings seemed to make it into my tacos, however. These were sampled on Pacific Coast Highway opposite the Huntington Beach Pier following a Sunday surf. My 80-year-old father, who recently called ketchup “sharp,” pronounced Jimboy’s “pretty blah.”

From Eisenhower’s America, Jimboy’s original tacos arrive in a steel tray dusted with Parmesan cheese and accompanied by packets of signature taco sauce by Jimboy Knudson. Photo by Erik Skindrud.

Jimboy’s tacos are compared to Jack in the Box tacos in Yelp reviews. James Knudson himself called them “a guilty pleasure,” and they may fall into the category of hangover cure.

While Jimboy’s Scandinavian heritage shows through, several flavor notes stand out. One, Jimboy’s hot sauce, fine-tuned by Knudson, adds a modest kick with hints of that chili powder. Each taco is served with an application of Parmesan cheese to the shell’s exterior. While it doesn’t contribute much in the way of flavor, the “Parm dust” harmonizes nicely with the taco’s high-fat mouth feel.

Born 1916 in Alberta, Canada, James Knudson moved with a single mother and five siblings to Minnesota when he was two. Young Knudson later headed west for a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps – meeting future wife Margaret Thomas in Colorado. The latter 1940s found the couple in Eureka running the Wildwood Grill – their first food venture.

Blessed with “a sparkling personality,” Knudson was driven by his hardscrabble childhood, said Freeman – Jimboy Knudson’s daughter. (Knudson departed for the big taco truck in the sky in 2011, aged 95.)

“He never felt slighted by life,” Freeman said. “He believed if you work hard, you’ll get where you want to go.”

In 1953 the couple were running Jimmy’s 49er Café in Grass Valley, Nevada County (70 miles west of Lake Tahoe). At dinner at friend Smitty’s, Knudson was hit by a bolt. Details are lost, but Jimboy and Margaret were served a new dish – tacos – prepared by Smitty’s Latina wife.

Mrs. Smitty’s name is lost to history.

The existence of the handheld food, bursting with layers of flavor, captivated the Norwegian-American.

“I know my dad,” Freeman related. “And he probably looked at that taco and knew instantly what he could sell it for.”

The taco also tasted great, delighting the 36-year-old.

“He loved the taco and he loved the flavor,” Freeman said. “He knew it was something special and that it would sell – he just didn’t know when. But he knew it would catch on if he just hung in there.”

Knudson didn’t make money for two years. Foreshadowing taco trucks, the operation occupied a trailer – a hundred yards from Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe.

As the 1962 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics loomed, civic boosters pressured Knudson to a brick-and-mortar location. There, on North Lake Boulevard, Freeman recalls Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Michael Landon and others – perhaps in search of the miraculous taco cure following Reno nights.

A view of Knudson’s mobile location – at King’s Beach, Lake Tahoe in the mid ‘50s. The operation would soon hop to North Lake Boulevard – where Rat Pack entertainers would follow. Photo courtesy of Jimboy’s.

So despite my initial fear, Jimboy’s is no contemporary suburban marketing play. On the other hand, a few uncomfortable notes exist. Circa 1954, Jimboy stands by his taco truck, which touts “Spanish Tacos” alongside a cartoonish Mexican. “Eets good… I theenk,” the hand-lettered caption says.

Intercultural tension, and heartburn, have been there from the start of the California taco. While editor of the Mariposa Gazette in 2012, a Yosemite legend from Michoacan told me his taco story. Salvador Gonzalez arrived in 1992 in the 90-percent-white place and “at first… thought it might be a mistake.”

“If anything was too spicy, people would get a stomachache,” Sal told me. “On that, definitely, things have changed.”

Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food” appeared in 2012 – same year as Arellano’s “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.”

Pilcher, then professor at the University of Minnesota – mapped the location of Taco Bell restaurants and found none, or very few, in Mexican neighborhoods.

“The word ‘taco’ in a restaurant name was actually a way of selling Mexican food to non-Mexicans,” Pilcher told Smithsonian magazine. “What Glen Bell was doing was allowing Americans of other racial and ethnic groups to sample Mexican food without actually going in to Mexican neighborhoods.”

No similar strategy is in effect at the Folsom-based chain, Jimboy’s Freeman said, although a 2015 rebranding emphasizes its Lake Tahoe and “American” origins.

“We’ve really embraced our story as the American taco,” Freeman said.

“Because American ingenuity is what made the taco,” she said – in reference to Jimboy’s version, one hopes.

“We never specifically targeted Anglos,” Freeman added. “We just sold good tacos. The food was never created in a board room or a focus group. Our food was created organically – it’s what keeps us going.”

Jimboy’s has close to 40 locations – most in the Sacramento area but three in Orange County – Brea, Anaheim, Huntington Beach – and soon in Irvine. The restaurants are a venture by Lynette Romero – KTLA-5 news’ morning presenter – and husband David Angulo.

While my own tasting extends only to Jimboy’s legacy taco, the chain offers “street tacos” with chicken, carnitas or steak – and cilantro and onion. Jimboy’s sells cod tacos and a “spicy veggie masala taco.” You can also “craft your own” taco and “fill it up” with a choice of the above options plus “smoked brisket” and “kickin’ shrimp.”

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