The tiny adobe structure behind a chain-link fence on a busy Southern California street doesn’t look like much today. But the first Taco Bell played a big role in the fast-food revolution, and more importantly, it helped to introduce the idea of Mexican food to US diners.
The first place many Californians tried a new food called “burritos” has been lifted onto blocks in preparation for a 45-mile journey starting tonight to its new home at Taco Bell’s HQ in Irvine. Should you not be one of the lucky folks along the route, you can watch the whole thing via Taco Bell’s webcam. (Hey, it’s not a space shuttle, but it should be pretty cool to watch regardless.) Although this particular location was only a Taco Bell until 1986, this building is taking some pretty amazing history with it.
The building was repainted for its journey to make it look like the original. Fans, don’t worry, there’s a Taco Bell/Pizza Hut across the street.
Taco Bell was named not for the Mission-style bell atop its logo but actually for founder Glen Bell, who decided to sell tacos out of a walk-up window in 1962. He wanted the experience to feel authentic to Mexican culture—even if the food itself might not have been—so he designed the restaurant using stucco and brick, which eventually became the signature look for future locations.
Bell’s model was successful and ended up helping to usher in the birth of fast-food culture. The only other drive-in nearby at the time? The first-ever McDonald’s. In fact, according to Chris Nichols at Los Angeles Magazine no less than seven additional chains started nearby: Burger King, In-N-Out Burger, Del Taco, Carl’s Jr., Wienerschnitzel, Fatburger, and Jack in the Box.
Interestingly enough, Taco Bell’s culinary roots are actually deeply intertwined with that of Mitla Cafe, a tiny cafe 60 miles away in San Bernardino. Milta Cafe was locally famous for delivering the specific brand of Mexican food that will be familiar to most Americans: meat-heavy toppings on crunchy tortilla shells, all smothered in that gloriously gloppy, traffic-cone orange cheddar cheese.
Apparently, Bell wanted to sell this kind of taco to his diners, according to a story that was told (for the first time, I think) in Gustavo Arellano’s fantastic book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America:
Bell wanted to sell tacos but didn’t know how to make them. He opened Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in San Bernardino’s West Side barrio in 1950, across the street from Mitla Cafe, which even then was famous for its hard-shell tacos. The wily gabacho would eat the tacos and go back to his kitchen to try to decipher the crispy mystery; when that didn’t work, he asked the owners to teach him how to make them. Bell sold his first taco in December 1951, and an empire was on its way, with the first Taco Bell opening in Downey in 1962.
The first tacos sold at Taco Bell were exotic, even by Southern California standards—a marked departure from the hot dogs and burgers offered by other fast-food joints. Bell offered phonetic pronunciations of the menu items since they were, for the most part, completely unfamiliar to diners. This approach worked and Taco Bell was a runaway success, quickly expanding across the country, and, it could be argued, priming American palates for more authentic cuisine from South of the Border. Taco Bell was sold to PepsiCo in 1978.
While Taco Bell Numero Uno makes its way to Irvine tonight for an undisclosed future, you can celebrate by grabbing a Fiery Doritos Locos Taco Supreme at any of Taco Bell’s 6,500 locations. But it’s good to know you can visit Mitla Cafe—still in its same location, 75 years later!—to get the crispy shredded beef tacos that started it all.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA