For his new book, "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano went to the family-run Mitla Cafe on old Route 66 in San Bernardino — "the oldest continually operating Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire" — because it's the place where Glen Bell stole the idea for the food item that became Taco Bell. "He used to come over here all the time," says Irene Montaño, whose in-laws opened the cafe in 1937, according to Arellano. He writes in a piece in the LA Weekly:
Like the Virgin Birth and the Great Deluge myths, Mitla's story is just one version of the same epic tale: Southern California's romance with the taco, that meal of convenience that has entranced us for nearly a century. It's come in many forms: as the taquitos at Cielito Lindo, as the jingle for Tito's Tacos, as Kogi's Korexican marriage, as the plate of 'em eaten at King Taco by politicos looking for a photo op — vegetarian, carnitas, soft, hard, high-end, street. The fast-food taco might be our most ubiquitous Mexican migrant, and Southern California has served as America's Virgil, guiding the country through a taco landscape that is ever-shifting — and everlasting.
Although Mexicans have wrapped tortillas around a foodstuff and called the results a meal since time immemorial, deeming it a "taco" is relatively new; Mexican Spanish etymologists can trace such usage back only to the late 1800s. Its earliest-known mention in American letters came in an 1899 L.Angeles Times piece about life in Mexico City, written by L.A. socialite Olive Percival. She described tacos as "a turnover filled with chopped, highly seasoned meats," but wrote that she didn't dare eat it. Describing Mexicans as "a brave, patient, capable people — in their own land — and hopeless," Percival would be the last known Angeleno to resist the taco's allure.
The taco didn't make another documented appearance in the United States until 1914, when it appeared in the pages of California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book, one of the earliest English-language Mexican cookbooks.
Now this is history you can get your mouth around. Arellano's book lands officially on Tuesday, and he's got signings going on. He also is interviewed today at La Bloga by Daniel A. Olivas, who writes "this book will make your mouth water with every page even as you get healthy doses of history, social commentary and that classic Arellano humor." In addition to his day job, which includes food writing, Arellano writes the syndicated column Ask a Mexican.