The Great Taco Robbery

By Gustavo Arellano

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Posted September 13, 2012 in Feature Story

How Taco Bell’s Founder Stole the Recipe of Mitla Café in San Bernardino to Launch his Empire

The corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and Sixth Street in San Bernardino isn’t the prettiest intersection in the city. One corner is an empty lot; the other one has two abandoned businesses. Graffiti sullies fences, light posts, even the sidewalks. This is the Garden of Gethsemane for the American taco industry.

On one side is Mitla Café, the oldest continually operating Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire, since 1937 and this year celebrating its 75th anniversary. It’s a roadside classic befitting Route 66, of which Mount Vernon is a part of, the final stretch before the highway went directly west, toward the sea. One part of the restaurant is a counter, where patrons eat and gab while watching the television; the other side is a cavernous room with few decorations, as spartan as it is classic save for the big picture of the restaurant’s founder.

The menu is almost unchanged since its opening—chile rellenos, enchiladas, chile verde and pork, and a dish called the Gloria, after a longtime server: two tortillas wrapped around juicy chicken chunks, bathed in a light salsa, then placed on top of baked cheese, a sort of backward enchilada. But the best seller are its hard-shelled tacos, fried upon order, bursting with ground meat, hiding under a blizzard of shredded cheese. It’s a refreshing take on the meal, one light-years away from the prefabricated mess America has worshiped for nearly two generations—and it’s the taco that created Taco Bell, the world’s largest Mexican food chain, a multi-billion-dollar powerhouse whose offerings—CrunchWrap Supremes, Doritos Locos Tacos and so many other abominations—are light years away from Mitla’s versions.

 

An Entrepreneurial Streak

It makes no sense. But in the story of Mitla Café and Taco Bell’s appropriation of their beloved tacos lies the story of Mexican food, and San Bernardino’s integral role into making the cuisine one of the most important in the United States. And it all started with an ambitious resident of San Bernardino named Glen Bell—yes, the Bell behind Taco Bell.

Glen Bell’s maternal grandparents, hardy Minnesotans, moved to California in 1914. His mother grew up in the trappings of luxury, as her father had invested wisely in the Southern California real-estate market of the early 20th century. Glen, however, the second of six children, spent his childhood and teens in unfortunate poverty, with an itinerant father who abandoned the family and a mother too proud to ask her wealthy parents for handouts. In his self-published biography, Taco Titan: The Glenn Bell Story, the millionaire bitterly recounts the embarrassment he felt as a teen when a girl realized the shirt Bell wore at school was sewn together from used cement sacks.

World War II finally earned Bell a steady paycheck, and he joined the Marine Corp, assigned to a ship heading toward Guadalcanal. He never saw any action; instead, luck had him work mostly in the mess halls as a waiter and server. Upon returning home, Bell often met his best friend at McDonald’s Drive-In in San Bernardino, run by the McDonald brothers. Bell always had an entrepreneurial streak in him—at age five, he supposedly blurted, “When I grow up, I want to be a businessman like my grandpa.” And in the parking lot of this restaurant, enjoying the hamburgers that launched the ultimate fast-food empire, Bell simmered with jealousy. “You could look in the carport behind the restaurant and see their new Cadillacs,” Bell told his biographer in Taco Titan.

 

Too Spicy

San Bernardino was in its initial stages of becoming America’s fast-food incubator. Long a center of agriculture, near deserts and mountains, the city was best known nationally as the last major city on Route 66, the famed highway that brought so many people to California, before the Mother Road swung into Los Angeles. After World War II, with veterans looking for an affordable existence away from inner cities, San Bernardino and the towns around it—the region we  later dubbed the “Inland Empire”—grew rapidly. Car culture demanded quick meals, and the McDonald’s were already mastering the form. Across the Southland, restaurants expanded beyond cafeterias and jacket-only places to keep up with the demand for this new fast dining experience.

Bell wanted in, and opened Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in San Bernardino in 1948, not far from the original McDonald’s; within a year, he sold that stand to his sisters-in-laws and opened another. On days off, Bell patronized the Mexican restaurants on San Bernardino’s West Side, the city’s historic barrio. He noticed how more and more non-Mexicans were eating Mexican food—this in a city that had just desegregated its swimming pools and was about to desegregate housing and schools. Feeling that tacos were the way to beat the McDonalds, Bell passed the idea by his wife, who dismissed it as foolish: whites wouldn’t buy the food because it was too spicy, she argued. When Glen suggested toning down the heat was the answer, his soon-to-be-ex retorted, “Then even Mexicans won’t buy it.”

Undeterred, he opened a third Bell’s Burgers in 1950 in the West Side, across the street from a Mexican restaurant and down the street from a tortilla factory that enveloped the barrio with the smell of fresh masa every morning. Bell ate at the neighboring Mexican restaurant frequently, especially the tacos, which he dismissed as “delicious but dripp[ing] melted fat.” He’d return to his stand to sell food, but spent late nights after closing time trying to decipher the rival restaurant’s tacos, so popular that they opened a walk-up window next to the kitchen so the lines for their ten-cent tacos ran faster.

 

The Taco Bug Bites

Frying each shell to order wore on Bell’s fingers. He fashioned a wire basket that fried six tortillas at a time, and a “taco rail” that allowed him to hold those shells until someone placed an order; at that point, all Bell needed to do was dump on the ingredients. “I figured if Mexican food was successful, potential competition would write it off to my location and assume the idea wouldn’t sell anywhere else,” he’s quoted as saying in Taco Time. “No one would copy what I was doing, and that would give me time to perfect it.”

Bell’s tacos debuted in December of 1951. They were simple constructions: pre-fried shell, ground beef, chopped lettuce, shredded cheese and a chili sauce Bell modified from the same condiment used on his chili dogs. Tellingly, the Latinos who frequented his stand eschewed the tacos in favor of hot dogs and hamburgers. He racked up sales that opening day, but no one wanted the tacos. Finally, a white man ordered one, mispronouncing it as “take-oh.” The shell was already cold, waiting for its fillings; Bell prepared it and handed it to the gentleman. Juice from the ground beef inside dribbled on his pinstriped suit, but the man ordered another. Bell was ecstatic.

“I didn’t invent the taco,” Bell opined, self-sanctimoniously, “but I believe I improved it.”

The pleasure was short-lived: Bell was so driven by success that he neglected his family, prompting his wife to file for divorce; she took the West Side stand as part of the divorce settlement. But the taco bug never left Bell. He opened two other burger stands further east, in Barstow and Indio. The original intention with the Barstow stand was to sell only tacos, but Bell decided just before opening to also sell American fast food. The tacos outsold any other items, however, giving Bell the courage to go only Mexican. The following year, 1954, Bell planned for a Mexican restaurant on Baseline Street, about a mile away from his original West Side restaurant and a mile away from the original McDonald’s. He leased a former diner with a soaring marquee and neon lights, and hired an art student to conceptualize a look that was Mexican enough to entice eaters but not so Mexican that it reminded them of the nearby West Side. The art student suggested he name the new restaurant “La Tapatia,” a flowing name that referred to the women of the Mexican city of Guadalajara, long famed for their beauty, and a moniker attractive to Mexican customers. Bell’s business partner vetoed the suggestion, arguing it was too ethnic, and suggested the nonsense Taco-Tia (“Taco Aunt”), which he felt was easier to pronounce.

For the opening of Taco-Tia, Bell bought thousands of sombreros made from shredded palm leaves extending off the brim of the hat, standing up, so that it looked like some culinary Medusa; all read “Taco-Tia” on the brim. His brother nailed the hats to a truck and drove around town, hoping to attract people to the restaurant’s opening that night. Children stole the hats at every stop sign and proceeded to wear them, providing even more advertising. The opening-night crowd numbered in the hundreds, all looking to try these newfangled tacos. Bell also hired strolling mariachis, women dressed like Spanish maidens snapping castanets and spotlights highlighting the black desert sky. It was an opening Bell repeated for decades whenever he opened a new restaurant.

 

The Full Enchilada

Bell became a fast-food Johnny Appleseed. One of his workers, Ed Hackbarth, created Del Taco in Barstow. He sold Taco-Tia and opened another chain, El Taco, along with former NFL players Harland Svare and Charley Toogood and Phil Crosby, son of entertainment legend Bing. They opened six before Bell sold his interest in that chain in 1961, opening a hot-dog stand in the oil town of Wilmington; he gave that business to John Galardi, a longtime Bell employee who started at Taco-Tia and moved with him to El Taco; that wiener business became Wienerschnitzel, a name suggested by Bell’s second wife. Bell’s ideas were endless, but he kept the best one to himself: Taco Bell, in 1962 in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.

At this point, Bell’s taco restaurants were only ostensibly Mexican—a Spanish title, the fiesta-themed grand opening and a mascot. El Taco’s mascot was a massive sombrero emblazoned with “El Taco” worn by a Mexican man with a drooping mustaches, face clenched as if constipated. For his newest venture, Bell went the full enchilada. His template for all future Taco Bells buildings used the Spanish Revival architecture style popular in Southern California so that each outpost looked like a mini-mission, archways looping around the mock adobe exterior, tiled roof and even a mock bell tower topping each restaurant. At each restaurant would be a statue of a little Mexican boy, wearing the sandals, white pajamas and massive sombrero outfit seared into the American psyche by the Speedy Gonzalez cartoons of the 1950s. It was a slice of fantasy Mexican California plopped into suburbia, and a motif that has influenced the aesthetic designs of Mexican restaurants ever since.

Taco Bell only sold five items at its opening—tacos, tostadas, burritos, a side order of pinto beans and chiliburgers—but America didn’t mind. Bell launched a franchising platform in 1964; by 1967, 100 Taco Bells existed in California. By the end of the decade, Bell was opening two new spots a week. He ventured away from the Southwest, to places where Mexican food was a rumor. In St. Petersburg, Florida, he took out ads with pictures of his menu and a pronunciation guide, taking that idea from other competitors. The eateries succeeded in Texas, the Midwest—everywhere. By the time Bell approved a merger with PepsiCo in 1978, the number of Taco Bells numbered over 800. Today, there are over 5,800 Taco Bells, spanning the globe, with annual revenue reaching billions.

“We changed the eating habits of an entire nation,” Bell states near the end of Taco Titan, and for once, he isn’t merely self-mythologizing. Bell showed other Americans that their countrymen hungered for Mexicans grub sold to them fast, cheap and with only a smattering of ethnicity. Tacos the way Mexicans ate them were out of the question: tortilla factories were still concentrated in the Southwest, and tortillas didn’t last long. Pre-formed shells, on the other hand, lasted weeks and just needed reheating before getting filled.

 

“Real Mexican Food”

But what was that mysterious restaurant, which Bell never named in Taco Titan, where he stole the taco recipe to launch his empire? Mitla Café.

“He used to come over here all the time,” says Irene Montaño, whose in-laws opened the restaurant. She’s in her 70s; a feisty and commanding waitress.

“My father-in-law would say Mr. Bell kept asking about the tacos, how he made them, and so my father-in-law finally invited him into the kitchen to teach him.”

Does Montaño feel cheated that Mitla’s tacos spawned a worldwide industry? She smiles—she’s of a different generation, one that doesn’t easily lob insults or engage in jealousy. “Good for him,” she says, repeating it. “He was a self-starter, and he did push those tacos.” She smiles again, and walks into the kitchen.

The building that housed Bell’s Burgers’ still stands across from Mitla, a tiny building with a menu not far removed from what Bell envisioned—tacos and burgers. Except the menu has now expanded to serve soft tacos, and a banner advertises menudo on Saturday and Sunday. Nearly 60 years after Bell, it’s now Mexican immigrants who sell tacos to Mexican immigrants from this place, now called Amapola Rico Taco, and itself a San Bernardino institution (the building that housed the original Taco-Tia still stands, now housing Whatta Steak.

When a customer asks for a hard-shelled taco with ground beef, the order is repeated in Spanish—taco dorado con carne molida. A cook grabs a corn tortilla, places it in a canister, and fries it. No prefabricated crap here—it’s the real deal, the opposite of what Bell envisioned. The young lady running the counter doesn’t know the history of the building, doesn’t care. It’s a chilly afternoon, the wind blowing and the clouds unleashing the heavy mist that classifies the typical Southern California rainstorm. Across the street, Mitla Café’s mascot stares directly at the former Bell’s Burgers, stares with a smile, just next to the slogan “Real Mexican Food.” Mitla might not have the riches, never capitalized on its tacos, but it gets the last laugh.

The Taco Bell taco is dead. Long live the taco.

Adapted from Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.


3 Comments


  1.  

    Thanks to Mr. Bell we have had the joy of eating Mexican food in a fast, efficient way. Delicious!





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