Meet The Gracious Family That The Creator Of Taco Bell Ripped Off
Any foodie with a Netflix subscription is at least aware of the Netflix original docu-series “Ugly Delicious.” Each episode takes a cultural look at staple foods like pizza, fried rice, and tacos. Hosted by David Chang, each episode is essentially a visual essay of a taken-for-granted cuisine. The team travels to the birthplace of the food and sees how it’s evolved in its different iterations around the world.
During the taco episode, the all-male team travels to San Bernadino, California to Holland to Mexico to understand what makes a good taco. They even go to Taco Bell and the restaurant that “inspired” the franchise.
Along for the ride is taco expert and Mexican-American foodie Gustavo Arellano.
We first see the team driving around Los Angeles past rows of food trucks. When asked what are the tell-tale signs that set apart one taco truck from another, Arellano gives these non-Spanish speakers these pro tips:
- Find a menu that includes words you’ve never seen before. That means the food will be regional and not mass-produced.
- Go where the “salsa game is strong.” Especially if they’re just giving away roasted serrano peppers.
- Look for the homemade tortillas. If you see a bag of mass-produced tortillas in sight, walk away.
Chang is a New Yorker. He didn’t get tacos until he rolled through Los Angeles.
“This is definitely much better than the ‘Taco Night in America’ type of taco,” he proclaims after a single taco de camarones. That’s because Mexicanos run LA taquerías, Mr. Chang.
Eventually, Arellano takes us to ground zero of the Taco Bell franchise.
After a quick trip to Taco Bell, Arellano, who authored “Taco USA,” takes viewers to the eatery that inspired a now global fast food franchise meant to represent Mexican cuisine.
Mitla Cafe’s home is San Bernardino, a community born out of being a road-side stop off Route 66.
The restaurant has been around since 1937.
At this point, the country is just edging out of the Great Depression. San Bernardino was heavily segregated. Mexicans were only allowed to live on the west side of the city, where Mitla first opened its doors.
The real story of Taco Bell begins with Lucia Rodriguez.
She had emigrated from Tepatitlán, México to California and brought her recipes with her. According to her grandson and now the owner of Mitla, Michael Montaño, “These are her recipes. Those are the things that were available to her: ground beef, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce. She made it work.”
True to its original menu, Mitla has been a home base for immigrant assimilation.
“When my grandmother opened the restaurant, she wanted to have American style food on the menu,” Montaño tells “Ugly Delicious.” “The first item on the menu is a T-bone steak.”
Mitla became a home base for the Mexican community to gather and strengthen. The story goes that the local activists that would take up booths at Mitla went on to form the Mexican Chamber of Commerce.
Taco Bell founder, Glen Bell, saw an opportunity and decided to steal the recipe.
Bell would eat at Mitla every day after work, trying to deconstruct their taco. According to Gustavo Arellano’s book Taco USA, Bell befriended the staff and family at Mitla Cafe, eventually making his way into the kitchen to learn the family secrets.
Glen Bell was making hamburgers across the street, but the original McDonalds was creating competition.
This guy was just looking for a way to make money. He knew how to make a hamburger, but McDonald’s was creating too much competition.
Bell opened up the first Taco Bell in Downey in 1962.
With the start of a fast food franchise that would normalize and make Mexican food mainstream, Taco Bell was born. Now, the Montaño family recipes are met with criticism from Latinos who don’t know the story–that they serve fake Mexican food.
The original flavors, story, and heritage still reside in San Bernadino with the Montaño family.
We are so glad Arellano asked Montaño, “How do you feel that your family’s recipe—your heritage—was taken by Glen Bell and turned into a multi-billion dollar empire?”
Montaño is ultimately proud that his family recipes have forever given America a little more flavor.
“We don’t talk about it in the terms of what could have been or what he did to us or anything like that,” he tells Arellano. “It’s more of like look at our connection to the history of food in this country. When you hear stories of salsa being the No. 1 condiment, or that tortillas are right there next to the wonder bread … that’s what the country’s about.”
“That’s what the immigrant story is about—is assimilating but not only assimilating to the culture, but having that predominant culture assimilate some of your beliefs, some of what you do well and make it part of the general population.”