The Five Most Influential Cities in the Development of Mexican Food in the United States

SO…my much-promised book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America finally hits the bookstores next month (April 10), and review copies are slowly making their way around the nation's newsrooms. So I might as well start giving out bits and pieces to entice ustedes to preorder the damn thing.

For the next couple of weeks, I'll concoct lists and drop other bits from the book to serve that end. This week? Settling once and for all what city helped define Mexican food in the United States more than any other. Note this isn't a debate about the BEST Mexican city; this is about which burg hosted the most pioneers, inspired the most people, and helped spread the cult of tacos, tamales, margaritas further than anyone.

Unsurprisingly, it's a fight to the death between California and Texas (sorry, Chicago, but as great as your city is, merely hosting an arrogant, second-rate chef isn't enoughl). The list after you-know-what!


5. El Paso

What? Dirty-ass, border-loving El Paso? Damn straight. Those who have never spent more than a gas station village in the city will never be able to love it, never be able to appreciate its beauty. And although its specific cuisine never ventured past city borders to influence American tastes, two of its companies did: Old El Paso (which was historically based up I-10 in Canutillo, Texas–but who's counting?) and Ashley's, a long-gone brand. Both of them emerged in the 1950s to change how Americans ate Mexican food at home, namely through the manufacturing of taco shells and the ability to make your own taco shells at home.

4. San Francisco

SanFran can boast of only three influential contributions to Mexican food in
this country, and one of them–Elena Zelayeta, the country's first famous
Mexican cook who was, you know Mexican instead of some scheming gabacha–ultimately
didn't prove too influential. But its two other contributions–the
Mission-style burrito and tamales–profoundly shaped the tastes of
Americans. We all know the story of Chipotle and its burritos stolen
from the Mission District–but tamales? Yep. They were America' first Mexican-food
obsession, all the way back in the 1880s, and San Francisco was the
instigator–and you'll have to read the book to discover the true,
amazing story of when and how San Francisco tamales ruled America.

3. Dallas

Many people will moan and howl about the inclusion of Dallas, whose
contributions to Mexican cuisine–the streamlining of the Tex-Mex combo
plate at the city's venerable franchises, El Chico and El Fenix, the
headquarters for Frito-Lay and its Fritos (after their creation in San
Antonio), the invention of the frozen margarita machine–some will
consider heresies. But let's be real, people. Without Fritos, the
spreading of Mexican food in this country would've been stunted by a
good decade. Without Tex-Mex, most of America wouldn't have their first
taste of Mexican food until today, when actual Mexicans live across the
United States instead of just on the border. Without the frozen margarita machine, Mexican restaurants
wouldn't have exploded the way they did back in the 1970s. There are
many reasons to hate Dallas–but it ain't the food. And let's not even
get started on the glories of queso

2. Greater Los Angeles

El Torito. Taco trucks. Taco Bell. The nation's first famous Mexican
chef (an American, of course). Regional Mexican cuisine as an industry.
Canned menudo. Doritos. The canning of chiles. All of these innovations
came from Los Angeles and its surrounding environs, from Ventura (the
original home of the Ortega Chile Company) to San Bernardino (where Taco
Bell has its roots) to Disneyland (Doritos) to San Pedro (canned
menudo) to Encino (El Torito) to, you know, actual Los Angeles. We
dominate the course of Mexican food in this country–and yet we don't
hold a tortilla chip to…

1. San Antonio

It's not even a close contest–San Antone is the Everest to everyone
else's Balboa Peninsula. This is the city that gave America one part of
its first Mexican obsession (chili con carne), whose ever-clever
gabachos gave the world the first packaged Mexican dinner (via William
Gebhardt) and combo plate (the “Regular” supper of Otis Farnsworth), and
whose ever-clever Mexis gave America packaged chips AND masa harina
(the same family). Nachos first became popular here, and ballpark nachos
were invented by the cousin of Johnny Cash's first wife. And so, so
much more–read the book!

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