Hard Shell Tacos Aren’t As Hardcore Gringo As You Think

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Growing up in Arizona, eating Sonoran-style Mexican food with a family raised on Mexican food, I developed embarrassingly strong opinions, and what I thought of as a discerning palate, by my teen years. Opinion 1: Tex-Mex was trash. Opinion 2: Mission-Style burritos were an affront to all burritos, stuffed with worthless lettuce and rice. Opinion 3: Do not put sunflower seeds or squash blossoms inside my tamales. Opinion 4: Hard shell tacos weren’t true tacos, they were more vertical tostada sandwiches, a Frankenstein abomination that Taco Bell unleashed to give white America something “exotic” to eat without leaving the comfortable confines of its white world. Opinion 5: I was an asshole. Actually, #5 was a fact. I also still stand behind Opinion 2, but as an adult I can see that, like so many teenagers, I hadn’t read much food history. I ate. I opined. I talked out of my behind. Thankfully age has softened my opinions and high self-regard, and I have read what author Gustavo Arellano calls “taco history.” To that history Andrew Fiouzi at MEL Magazine has added an oral history of the hard shell taco that examines its origins, authenticity, and the way fast food appropriated it. Turns out, Taco Bell is still culpable, but hard shell tacos started as authentic Mexican cuisine, though certain details are hazy.

Arellano: Now, if you’re trying to talk about who created the taco shell in terms of mass marketing them, you could make the argument that George Ashley of Absolute Mexican Food did that, because in the late 1930s, way before Glenn Bell or Juvencio Maldonado [the first guy to apply for a patent to do hard shell tacos in mass quantities], he was selling these metal taco molds for making your own taco kits at home.

Pilcher: Of course, the next step was transferring the taco to the taco shell. Glen Bell, who becomes the founder of Taco Bell, claims that he invented this Mexican-American version of a Mexican dish for a fast food audience in the 1950s in San Bernardino, California. But in fact, we have the patent application for various versions of this taco shell that were filed in the 1940s already by Mexican entrepreneurs.

The fact is, my teenage years were fueled as much by Taco Bell tacos as by traditional red chile burros. But Enchiritos? I mourned the day the chain discontinued this weird, enchilada-like Tex-Mex item smothered in cheap red sauce. Nachos? Done right, they were divine, and by “right” I meant anything using shredded cheese instead of that liquid bowling alley cheese gringos pump from a metal drum. I eat Tex-Mex now, but I also know that taste is too subjective to hold over people, and comfort food and trash are universal loves that we must respect. Find your own liquid nacho cheese and claim it. I will: I love hard shell tacos, the kind filled with simmered ground beef, anemic iceburg lettuce, and waxy cheddar cheese. As much as I looked down on them as a snobbish teen and college kid, and as much as I still prefer real street tacos filled with birria, carnitas, and even — snort — pig snout, once in a while I want a shitty, white-as-rice hard shell. 

My wife grew up in parts of the Midwest with fewer authentic Mexican restaurants. She loves hard shell tacos, and her love reminded me how much I used to, too. The first time I went to Chicago, I sought out Chicago dogs and beef sandwiches. On our last day, we found a hot dog place that sold hard shell tacos, and we ordered a bunch of them instead of char-dogs. They were as cheaply made as we like, and it reminded me that I had always loved the tacos dorados that certain Phoenix Mexican restaurants sold, which where often made with corn tortillas and fried whole, individually, and tasted like the fried tacos my parents made, based on a recipe my Granny picked up somewere in southern Arizona. Sorry. I’m going on and on about myself, but what I’m tryin to say is that before I read Fiouzi’s piece, I knew where my culinary snobbery came from, but I didn’t know where hard shell tacos came from, and how they became associated with gringo fast food. Reading this brief piece will inform you as much as make fellow cheap-taco-eaters feel seen, though surely others will feel more justified in their snobbish hatred of the hard shell. We don’t care what those people think.

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