Over the weekend, I gave my short history of Mexican food in Orange County at the Segerstrom Center's Samueli Stage as part of its hosting of the awesome, ribald Chautauqua! show. Since I doubt I'll ever grace any stage at the Segerstrom again, I decided to focus my 10-minute lecture on OC's two greatest contributions to Mexican food in the United States: Kogi tacos and Doritos.
Now, I wanted to keep the latter story–never before documented completely, one that runs contrary to the official Doritos genesis as endorsed by the Frito-Lay Company–secret until the publication of my book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, but I've got to start drumming up publicity for the pinche tome! And since I spilled the proverbial beans at Samueli, might as well share it with ustedes gentle readers. Anyhoo, behold the abbreviated story of how Disneyland most likely gave America Doritos.
Last year, Frito-Lay exec Arch West passed away. All the obits said he was the man who helped develop Doritos, with most saying it happened after West found a restaurant in San Diego frying tortilla chips. The story is two-thirds true: West did turn on Frito-Lay to Doritos after seeing them offered at a restaurant–but it wasn't in San Diego. Rather, it was the legendary Casa de Fritos restaurant in Disneyland. Opened in 1955 by Fritos founder Elmer Doolin, Casa de Fritos offered many vacationing Americans their first taste of Mexican food–through the Fritos prism, of course, which meant a statue of the Frito Kid and strolling señoritas with baskets . . . handing out Fritos, of course.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn't Fritos who provided Casa de Fritos with its tortillas and other Mexican-food ingredients for the restaurant, but rather Alex Foods, an Anaheim-based company that had its roots in the tamale wagons that used to roam Southern California in the early part of the 20th century and probably best remembered for its XLNT tamales. Alex Foods was enough of an Anaheim institution that Walt Disney had the company stock most of the food needs for Disneyland's restaurants in the park's early years. I interviewed Michael Morales (grandson of Alex Foods founder Alex Morales) for my book, and he told me how in the early 1960s, an Alex Foods route salesman visited Casa de Fritos and suggested to the manager of the place that instead of throwing away any misshapen or leftover tortillas it got from Alex Foods, they should be cut triangles and fried, with the results offered to customers. It was a hit, but Casa de Fritos never bothered to alert Frito-Lay about its new discovery–until the day Arch West visited the restaurant around a year after these ur-Doritos made their debut.
West, according to Morales, was immediately enthusiastic and went to his bosses with a proposal to mass-produce flavored tortilla chips for a national audience. Frito-Lay agreed and contracted Alex Foods to produce Doritos, which it did out of its factory 10 minutes north of Disneyland on the corner of what's now Lemon Street and Carl Karcher Way. Doritos debuted in 1966 to immediate success–at one point, according to Morales, Alex Foods was producing Doritos 24 hours a day, so popular they were.
And then–well, I've already said enough, so you'll have to buy the book come April 10 to find out the rest of the story. But it's not only the Morales family who claim to be the inadvertent creators of Doritos–no less an authority than Kaleeta Doolin, daughter of Elmer, credits Alex Foods with creating Doritos, although she doesn't mention the Disneyland connection. So how did this bit of important history disappear, especially given that Disney maniacs know everything about the park? Such are the bumps of history . . . and the answer, of course, will be in my book!