The 10 Most Important Tacos in Taco History

This week marks the beginning of Hispanic Latino Chicano Brown People Heritage Month, a time where corporations outdo each other in pandering for pesos. We here at the Weekly are not immune to such cheap points—hell, we pander all year! So in the spirit of that, behold a listicle celebrating taco history, specifically the 10 most important tacos of all time. Why tacos? Because it's the 100th anniversary of the taco's official debut in the United States, as you'll soon find out…

10. The First Taco to be Called a “Taco”

While Mexicans have been putting food inside a tortilla, folding the tortilla in half, and calling it lunch since before the Popol Vuh, this meal took on the name “taco” only in the late 19th century. Before that, the word could mean anything from a pool cue to a stick of dynamite to getting drunk, and still means other things in other Hispanic countries to this day—hell, the Real Academia Española counts 27 definitions for the word. Who first called a taco a taco? No one knows…yet, but that genius deserves a taco al pastor.

9. Juvencio Maldonado's Taco-Machine Patent

In 1950, Juvencio Maldonado applied for and received a patent for a machine that would make taco-making a far-easier endeavor. Remember (or learn for the first time) that in those days, a taco was universally made from a fried shell, which meant each shell needed to be fried fresh, and individually folded. Maldonado, a Oaxacan immigrant who ended up in Manhattan in the 1930s, devised a machine that would allow multiple shells to be created at the same time. The effort gained him a mention in the New York Times, though it never took off commercially. Nevertheless, Maldonado's curious contraption showed to what efforts Mexicans would go through in the next decades to keep up with gabacho demands for tacos.

8. Jennifer Lopez's “Taco Kisses”

The most famous taco song of all time, and a foreshadowing of Cartman's love of Mexican food, which took him to the infamous Casa Bonita in Denver, the weirdest Mexican restaurant in the world.

7. The First Picture (and Recipe) of a Taco

Behold the earliest known recipe and photo for a taco in English or Spanish. It comes from California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, a 1914 collection of recipes by one Bertha Haffner-Ginger. The Midwestern woman was an early apostle of tacos, traveling around the country to herald the good news. “An announcement that my lesson for the day would be Spanish dishes invariably brought record-breaking crowds in any city in the United States,” Haffern-Ginger wrote in the introduction to her book.

6. The Taquitos at Cielito Lindo

The first popular tacos in the United States weren't the hard-shell ones or even the “soft” versions but rather these rolled beauties at the Olvera Street standard. Though Cielito Lindo doesn't claim to have invented the taquito (far from it; the restaurant's websites say that its founder just brought over the food from her native Zacatecas) or even be the first restaurant to serve them, all the other restaurants in Los Angeles began copying their exact method—in a small paper tray, smothered in green sauce—in the 1930s, leading to the quick spread of the taquito across the country and whetting America's appetite for the tacos to come.


5. The Korean Taco

Restaurants in Los Angeles were serving Korean barbecue inside tortillas as early as the 1990s; college kids were doing it at UC Irvine since last decade. But not until Roy Choi and his partners started up Kogi in the fall of 2008 did the Korean taco become famous. Kogi, of course, went on to spark the luxe lonchera craze STILL spreading across the country (they just reached Traverse City, Michigan!) and the Korean taco taught the United States that tacos could be multicultural—nevermind that Mexicans and Jews proved that in Boyle Heights back in the 1950s.

4. Ashley's Taco Kit

The most under-appreciated icon of taco history, George Ashley made tacos popular across the United States long before Taco Bell with two important innovations: tortillas in a can, and a metal taco mold that would allow American housewives to not bother with any real folding and just stuff tortillas into the mold. Yes, it sounds disgusting, but this just shows how desperate Americans were to taste Mexican food even going back to the 1950s.

3. King Taco

Last week, King Taco celebrated its 40th anniversary of being Los Angeles' favorite taco chain (and one that has held up surprisingly well over the years). But far more important for our purposes is King Taco's previous life as the first-ever taco truck. Hard to believe, but before Raul Martínez, Sr. fashioned a lonchera out of an old ice cream truck, no one had ever thought to sell only tacos from lunch trucks. Afterwards, of course, everything changed. The full story is here.

2. Taco Bell

Yes, Taco Bell is disgusting. Yes, Taco Bell is vile. But no single chain did more to popularize Mexican food—and tacos in particular—than this mega-chain. And it continues to push taco boundaries forward, for better or worse—consider the Doritos Locos Taco…or don't.

But even Taco Bell can't beat the most important taco of all time…

1. The Tacos at Mitla Cafe

It boils down to this: if you really love tacos, you will visit its Bethlehem in San Bernardino, at the legendary Mitla Cafe. For this is the place that's a living museum, that has a taco recipe dating back 77 years that you can shove in the face of folks who say “authentic” tacos don't come with yellow cheese, ground beef, or are hard-shelled. More importantly, this is the taco that Glenn Bell of Taco Bell infamy stole to create his multibillion-dollar empire. And most importantly: They're damn bueno.

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