Taco Bell Nation

Special to The Times

Let me describe the #3 plate at every local authentic Mexican restaurant 50 years ago. Imagine an oval, particularly thick ceramic plate being hustled over straight out of an oven, so hot it can only be delivered with a potholder and a warning to never, ever touch—it’s a hot, hot plate each recipient, individually, will be told—that is set down a distance from the edge of the table so it won’t burn chest hairs or whatever, and the clothes in between. The refried beans are gurgling, and the “Spanish” rice is reconstituting into its dry grain state, the peas and carrot chunks mutating away from the vegetable category, and the red sauce of the enchiladas is bubbling, the yellow and white cheese topping still sizzling from being on the verge of burning. Wait long enough so the plate can be handled. Then, go on, tip it sideways. Tip it upside down. Toss it to practice dexterity, letting it roll over and over, and catch it. Spin it on a finger like a top, food side down, or roll it on its edge across a long banquet table. Yes, the tablespoon of shredded iceberg lettuce and that thin, very thin slice of a too-green red tomato—colorful garnish—that nobody ever eats anyway, both of them wilted and dehydrated, will fall off. But the rest? Nope. It’s a Mexican Frisbee!

The Mexican #3 plate was—and, of course, still is more often than not—what Americans were served at Mexican restaurants miles north of the entire stretch of the border: tortillas or masa fried or soaked in lots of heavy oil or kneaded in lard, the least-expensive ground chuck beef, fatty colored cheese packaged in huge, discount blocks.

It was this food that Glen Bell, World War II Marine Corps veteran and owner of Bell’s Drive-in hot-dog stand, ate and loved and riffed on until, in San Bernardino, Redlands and Riverside, he established three stands featuring Mexican food, Taco Tia, a concept that he eventually transformed into the mega-chain all America knows for its “Run for the Border” ad slogan and “Yo quiero Taco Bell” Chihuahua dog, not to mention those famed crackly tacos.

I remember when I first encountered what might be called hippie “fusion” Mexican food. I was in Isla Vista, the university community near Santa Barbara, where a Bank of America was burned in a student riot that brought out the National Guard in 1970, an era and community where Kinko’s opened its first copy shop and that incubated the health and organic food rebellion, believing both would lead to the political contrary of what are now corporate enterprises. For someone like me who’d been raised in Los Angeles—near rainbow-streaked, inky pools left from leaking oil pans, distracted by moonlit twinkles of broken half-pints and beer bottles smashed against a curb—the only green growth I really thought about was always in someone else’s wallet. In Isla Vista, I saw lettuce and kale and collard grow in public hippie gardens. I was taught how to cut off fresh broccoli, and I learned to cook it, too. I even got used to cauliflower if it had a good cheese sauce on it. But I sincerely thought things were going way too wacky when I went to an Isla Vista Mexican restaurant that had the bizarre cultural audacity to put alfafa sprouts in a burrito. I grew up loving Chinese food, and even if I didn’t really like bean sprouts, I didn’t complain when I ate them; you just drenched it all in soy and hot sauce. But alfalfa sprouts in a burrito? N’hombre, que pinche desmadre!

Until I started liking it. And then I began to like the idea of it. I liked, for example, the idea of frijoles without that yummy bacon fat that was saved in the coffee can by the sink, or refried days and days later in a scoop or so of Crisco. I was changing with the times, too, sure, but I had always loved fresh-cooked mushrooms and corn served in butter or lemon, and avocado raw or mashed, and fresh jalapeños and serranos, and there was no kind of fruit that I didn’t seek out. Where I came up, if you were a guy who made a point of eating that decorative slice of tomato—you know, intentionally and not by accident—there were dudes around who would ask you how hot pink your panties were. I was the kind of tough who’d shake his head at one of those panzones, especially if he wasn’t too much bigger than me, and reach over and take the slice off his plate, too.

The #3 plate is not the national plate of Mexico. Mexican food is diverse, if not one of the most complicated cuisines, competitive with Europe’s. Even enchiladas aren’t really a lasagna of cheese and carne picada and chopped onion wrapped in an oil-sodden tortilla. At its purest an enchilada is, first, dredged in chile (hence, “in chile,” equals enchilada), then filled with what amounts to a taste of meat or cheese, which then, traditionally, gets a sprinkle of crumbly white fresh cheese, or queso fresco. Enchiladas and tacos are most often not primary meals. Fish is plentiful because there are ocean coasts on either side of the country. And vegetables, including nopales, peppers and squash. One of my favorite tacos was of sweet onions with rajas de chile in Matamoros. I love the ceviche both in Ensenada, Baja California, and Echo Park. I love the huevos rancheros, with extra chile de árbol over it, at Lucy’s in El Paso. My favorite Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, offers tacos de espinaca y hongo, and, I’m sorry, that’s not hippie, that’s Mexican. I have eaten the best pozole ever in Mexico City, and taquerias there only cook straight off a grill near the sidewalk, no fried or ovened anything.

Mexican food is not, by nature, unhealthy—or not more so than French or even Chinese food is. Yet Taco Bell romanticizes the most fattening character of both popular American and Mexican food. It cannot be only a historical irony that this business symbiotically evolved out of and alongside the hot dog and hamburger culture. (Like Bell’s original taco stand, the first McDonald’s opened in San Bernardino. Meanwhile, an early Bell business associate became a cofounder of the Del Taco chain, and Bell’s wife supposedly came up with the ungrammatical German name for another friend’s fledgling business, Der Wienerschnitzel.)

I would even go so far as to claim that the #3 plate was and is not the most common meal in Mexican American homes, in the same way that chop suey was and is not in Chinese American homes. Inexpensive dishes are often created and eaten in the hungriest, make-the-best-of-it times, and poor people eat poor meals with poor products. But I’d even go a step further: The #3—well, maybe the #5, with two beef tacos as well, the corn tortillas and the meat inside deep fried—is what Anglos, not Mexicans, identified as Mexican food because the Mexican restaurants catered to them, and their dinner money, as one in San Bernardino did to Mr. Bell.

But consider what has happened in the most populated Mexican American cities near the Texas border—El Paso and San Antonio. El Paso, in particular, is overwhelmed by fast-food and national chain restaurants and virtually nothing else. Even Chico’s Tacos is a city institution most adored for its cheap hot dogs, burgers and French fries, while the Hamburger Inn is known for the best of Sunday menudo—fresh oregano and dried chile and chopped onion and limes—on any late night.

It might be that San Antonio has an equal number of chain food joints, but what has to be three-fourths of the central city’s restaurants are making tacos, and it seems like the competition hinges on which is the closest to 99 cents. Breakfast tacos are always of egg and chorizo or potato or papas con chorizo or wienie or ham or country sausage or machacado. Lunch tacos can be carne guisada, picadillo, chicharron, country sausage, beef or chicken fajita, carnitas, lengua, carne asada—OK, one of guacamole, another of beans, but aside from that and a spoonful of tomate blended for the salsa de chile, not a vegetable can be found in the place. And there are no fruits for dessert, either. These are not tacos made with deep-fried corn tortillas. They are handmade on the spot and toasted on a grill and they are flour. They are good. The fluffiness of flour tortillas comes from the manteca. The fluffier they are, the more lard.

Though I do love healthy food, like everyone, I also love fluffy flour tortillas, the same as everyone does chocolate cake. I happen to love a lightly fried corn tortilla—sprinkle salt on it while it’s still hot, even a little limón, and I don’t even need a filling. I love French fries fried with chorizo. I love too much cheese. There isn’t a taco listed above I don’t love to eat. I love fast-food burgers, especially if I can layer one with some slices of fresh or marinated jalapeño. I love Polish hot dogs. Hijole, I love fried bologna sandwiches with Tapatío hot sauce! I love tamales, green, red or sweet. But. But, except, the problem is: It’s the fluffiness quotient again, and “the best” tamales are like 50% manteca fluffy!

While the filming proceeded on the latest version of “The Alamo” a couple of years ago, the gossip around the Austin movie scene was that there was trouble casting a Mexican Army, which, in that other century, was especially hungry—which is to say, not so fat. I have not checked to see if the gossip was true, but you don’t have to be looking for extras to notice.

For example, I was in the sweetest, hidden-away taco restaurant in San Antonio on a recent Sunday. Decorative tinsel frills of blue, silver, green, gold and red crisscrossed the ceiling. The walls were lime green, the plastic tablecloths were blue-white, the dark carpet had lavender flowers, the chairs were orange vinyl, and there were probably 75 of them, and you had to wait for a table for lonche. The only thin person there was a woman maybe 90 years old with a walker. How many breakfast tacos can possibly fit between a tight belt and the memory of a small waist? How many flour tortillas? Let’s not play around with it—just look at the schoolyards! Of course the explanation is not that there’s such an overabundance of wealth, that we feast at a gluttonous Henry VIII banquet table. Some like to defend the bulk, calling it all a genetic propensity. Probably it is, especially when even that thin slice of tomato is avoided. It’s lo barato sale caro: Cheap costs the most. That is, it’s poverty, the food of the undereducated and underpaid, unexposed and untraveled, ones who find tacos de espinaca y hongo weird, and who find in a taco of huevos con wienie and a Texas-sized Coke the satisfying comfort of home.

Although it’s really meant to be a drive-through experience, I recently spent an hour, 6 to 7 p.m., with a muy sugary sweet lemonade inside a South Austin Taco Bell. I will say, no offense, it brought on a strange motel-like experience. The music: Elton John, Natalie Merchant, Carly Simon, Bob Seger. The patrons: a fat, graying, kind-looking white guy with a baseball cap and a mentally disabled Mexican American he clearly took care of, who was probably the same age, give or take. A very fat black couple. A way fat Mexican American guy alone. A Mexican American mom, a little heavy, and her cute, overweight daughter who went to refill her oil-drum-sized soda cup before they left. A family walked in, or what seemed like one: Mexican American, a mom and her three big teenage sons. Only one of the boys carried a lot of soft belly; the others might just be called big kids. They were laughing, happy, which resonated in the punishing stillness that had been there. Just because that Taco Bell advertising push has driven me insane, I approached the cashier who sold me my drink—a scrawny white teenager with black-rimmed glasses—as he came near to pull out the full trash bag and replace it with a new plastic liner. I asked him to tell me what a chalupa was.

Bob Seger: In the March 19 West magazine article on Taco Bell, the last name of musician Bob Seger was spelled as Segar.

You see, BTB—that is, Before Taco Bell—I thought I knew what a chalupa looked like, but then I am dumb. He described the meat and the cheese and lettuce, and that it was inside a fried shell. I mean, I asked, how’s it different from a taco? It’s bigger, he said. That is exactly how it seems in its beautiful photo-shoot poses: just like a taco, which beside the big chalupa looks like a little boy, while his daddy is a hefty NFL pro. So, I asked, how’s the shell different from the taco’s shell? It’s thicker, he answered.

This South Austin Taco Bell is in a compact neighborhood of very rich, rich, middle-class, lower-middle, poor and homeless. All the racial cross-section is seen here. Sharing the same asphalted area is, on its east, an old-school McDonald’s, and on its west a Goodyear Tire center. Across the street is, among others, a Radio Shack and a Dollar Store and a popular Family Thrift Store, a Rosie’s Tamale House (not so great) and a Mandarin Chinese place (kind of too sticky and spooky dark inside to even trust the takeout). It’s not more than a couple of blocks away from good Mexican restaurants. La Nueva Onda specializes in breakfast tacos and fideo bowls. Curra’s serves the best from the interior of Mexico, like cochinita pibil, and maintains the finest tequilas. And it’s not that far west to Polvo’s, where lots of vegetables come with most platos, or to the meat market El Moreliana, where tacos are like tacos across the border, and the chile de guacamole makes both Mexicans and non-Mexicans want to celebrate with a grito.

What I’m saying is that when I went into the Taco Bell the next time, for lunch, it was willful. I couldn’t remember what one of those tacos tasted like. Like everyone else, I had relented, to be polite to others, once or twice in my teenage years. So long ago, it seemed like before BTB. And here’s the truth—I was afraid I would outright like the taco. I mean, I know I shouldn’t, but, bad, I sneak a mega- grab Doritos now and then, and I eat too many tortilla chips at Polvo’s before I get my favorite fish dinner, and I used to really like cheap hamburgers, and so how could I not think, if unhealthy like the aforementioned, I wouldn’t like a taco that would be a combo of all those with some curls of cheese and ribbons of iceberg lettuce and a few tomato chunks that were now a settled source of a labor dispute?

I arrived at the same moment as a cute, thin Chicana. I opened the door for her and she ordered first. She was eating there. I say, by her voice, that she didn’t know Spanish. At my turn, I asked the cashier, just to hear his answer, what a chalupa was. This cashier, I swear, is the same black dude who usually hangs out at the corner up the street, at the highway on-ramp, who up and back walks a cardboard sign, “Anything Will Help.” He turned and pointed to the image of a big chalupa on the framed plastic menu. What’s in it? I asked. When he started to read to me, very slowly, the description off the menu, I stopped him. I ordered one chalupa and one taco, to go, and I waited, listening to Norah Jones. At the drive-up window, a young woman with a headset was talking in English comfortably into the mike but switched into a more comfortable Spanish with a another woman employee I couldn’t see—one who spoke Spanish so strong I’d bet she probably struggles with English. A black woman announced my number, knowing it was mine before I could find first the receipt and then the number on it, winking, and I grabbed a handful of the Fire packets of hot sauce and threw them into the “Spice Up The Night” bag and set myself up once I got home.

How’s a Taco Bell chalupa not like a Taco Bell taco? It is a lot bigger, maybe by two. The beef one I bought had sour cream in it. But the shell, well, it is not corn like the taco’s but is a thick, white flour pita bread that has been fried on the outside so that it keeps its U shape but isn’t hard inside. The main filling in both is the meat, the beef, what would be picadillo on a Mexican food menu. I ate them both, and let me tell you unambiguously, reflecting my complete and utter surprise, how genuinely awful the meat was. It was spiced, if you’ll excuse the expression, somewhere between very lousy chili and the worst jar of spaghetti meat sauce, only a lot less good. It was so bad it doesn’t even matter for me to say I didn’t like the taste of that chalupa shell much or that the taco’s shell wasn’t nearly as good as the cheapest generic grocery store tortilla chips, because those are complaints along the lines of griping that Wal-Mart doesn’t have a fine enough selection of clothing.

I won’t even bother to be polite and say that I liked the sour cream, you know, to think of something nice to say. Because it doesn’t matter. Both the chalupa and taco were so sincerely awful, a food thinking so outside the bun, that I can’t even praise the few chunks of tasteless, if still possibly a little healthy, tomato.

Putting that all aside—I know, but putting all that aside anyway—there is something uniquely American happening because of the Taco Bell phenomenon. The people working there describe exactly the diversity of the American culture, an economic accident where a Mexican national who speaks English poorly works with a nerdy white kid and a honey-talking black woman, where the manager, with two young children, might be named Jim or Ernesto or Tamiqua. And so what if this food’s no more Mexican than a Big Mac is from Hamburg, Germany—and if they think they like Mexican food, and then they want to try tacos at real Mexican restaurants, they may learn that they like not only the food but Mexican people and Mexican culture. That is not how it has been in even the recent past. It represents a positive when other American people might come to understand how American Mexican Americans are—seeing that mom and her three sons talking, laughing, eating the same bad chalupas that they do and not knowing any better. It’s an Oprah’s Book Club bringing culture to the dinner table—OK, so maybe to the coffee table in front of the tube, or maybe through the driver’s window and spilled onto the car seat.

Taco Bell’s seasoned ground meat isn’t picadillo because it isn’t Mexican. The taco and its filling are American now. Like spaghetti that really isn’t very Italian, like potatoes that are not only for the Irish, like French bread that isn’t French, like a kosher dill pickle that isn’t only Jewish anymore, a taco from Taco Bell is what food from Mexico has never become because of its variation and specialties in different regions not only on the other side but even on this, the American side: Burritos, huge in popularity and girth in California, are exotic in the borderlands of Texas, while breakfast tacos, craved by all who live in a city like San Antonio, go virtually unthought of from El Paso to Los Angeles.

Taco Bell’s non- or pan-regional taco crosses every state line, and carries across the country an idea, if not the reality, of an American culture that comes from Mexico. It is, in other words, an American food. Tacos in those crackable, mass-produced shells (which Glen Bell claims to have pioneered) purchasable in sealed, airtight plastic, sold in grocery stores in Maine or Montana, are now no more ethnic than pizza. Tacos are as everywhere as hamburgers and hot dogs, sweet and sour and soy sauce, ketchup and salsa. This is an American taco born into a culture without any relatives in Mexico or in the borderlands anymore, that mispronounces a few words in Spanish the same as it does a couple in Italian and Greek and German.

And yet Taco Bell’s success is not only that it has institutionalized an American taste for not very healthy glop. It has also been the commercial inspiration for at least two fast-food chains—Taco Cabana, originally from Texas, and Baja Fresh, which started in California—that dare to feature what would have once upon a time been considered an exotic and Mexican Mexican taco. And that fusion of Mexican culture and the healthy hippie—which bloomed sunflower big into a demand for a nouveau gourmet—is transforming the architecture of food in the Southwest and Texas and California.

In Austin, for instance, where Bush lost big time in 2004, menus posted outside chic restaurants bear Mexican-dish names as stylized as if they were French or Italian influenced. And in a development unheard of when Mr. Bell first ate the #3 plate, Mexican restaurants themselves, owned by Mexican immigrants who stay near the cash registers and in the kitchens, no longer look to hire petite waitresses from Tamaulipas or Monterrey, but tattooed, slacker-hip white dudes who wear ball caps and cool T-shirts and say “dude” at various times as part of their personalized service.

One last thing, just for the record: That freaking “chalupa” is not a chalupa! The word “chalupa,” like the word “taco,” draws up a specific, historical image—with a rimmed tortilla that’s closer to a tostada than a taco. If any old Mexican word can be attached to the Taco Bell creation, they might as well call it an “enchilada.” Maybe most of the customers won’t know the difference, and in time restaurants will have to explain what those items on a plate that used to be called enchiladas are. Given that this doesn’t have Mexican corn in it, why not name it after a Spanish dish, like “paella,” an exotic name there, or, like a car, give it the name of a famous Spanish city, like Toledo, maybe with a little vowel variation on it, so it might be called a Tolido Taco. Or how about making up something new:

El Perro Caliente.

Dagoberto Gilb is the author, most recently, of “Gritos,” which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.