MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The taco. For 50 years, it's been a part of American culinary life. You can find it in school lunches and Michelin starred restaurants. The taco even inspired this famous Chihuahua.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TACO BELL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yo Quiero Taco Bell.
SIEGEL: A new book "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America" tracks the history of the taco along with other Mexican imports such as chili, tamales, margaritas. Carolina Miranda took a ride with the book's author, Gustavo Arellano, to find out why this Mexican snack food looms so large in American bellies.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How are you doing today?
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Very, good. Thank you. Yeah, can I get a Doritos Locos Taco Supreme, please?
CAROLINA MIRANDA, BYLINE: Gustavo Arellano is a food writer and editor at the OC Weekly in Orange County, California. He is taking me on a 150-mile journey in search of the taco grail.
ARELLANO: We're taking a taco trip through time, charting the evolution of the taco, specifically here in Southern California, but also on the bigger scale.
MIRANDA: Our first stop is Cielito Lindo, a tiny, family run stand on Olvera Street, the historic center of Los Angeles.
DIANA GUERRERO ROBERTSON: These are four freshly made taquitos. They start at our warehouse in Lincoln Heights, where we make our tortilla from fresh nixtamal, no preservatives.
MIRANDA: That's co-owner Diana Guerrero Robertson. Since the 1930s, her restaurant has been famous for its rolled, fried tacos - taquitos covered in avocado sauce.
ROBERTSON: Then we hand roll them with our steamed seasoned beef that's the style of barbacoa. And our salsa is also made there, which is made with spices, chili and avocado.
ARELLANO: So this taquito that Cielito Lindo really introduced, people all over Southern California start copying it - the exact same way to fry it, the avocado salsa, everything.
MIRANDA: Cielito Lindo's taquitos were so popular they gained a following among Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. The United States had discovered the taco.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HORN)
MIRANDA: From L.A., Arellano takes me 60 miles east to San Bernardino. It's a horizontal place, full of truck yards and train depots. It's from here that the taco eventually went national.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TACO BELL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: When you think of tacos, think of bells. When you think of bells, think of tacos.
MIRANDA: Taco Bell was launched in an L.A. suburb in 1962 by Glen Bell. Prior to that, he lived in San Bernardino where he owned a burger stand, and later a small chain called Taco Tia, Taco Bell's precursor.
ARELLANO: If tacos had become popular in Texas first, before Southern California, I don't think tacos would have spread as far as they currently have because where we're going in San Bernardino, this is the birthplace of the fast food industry. This is where McDonald's was born.
MIRANDA: It was fast food and Taco Bell specifically that was instrumental in taking tacos beyond the Southwest. Today, the company has 6,500 locations in all 50 states and almost a dozen countries. They sell more than two billion tacos a year. Tom Wagner is a vice president for the company.
TOM WAGNER: If you go more to the Midwest and to the Northeast, often times, Taco Bell defines people's experiences with Mexican food. So even though we call ourselves Mexican-inspired, in much of the country, Taco Bell defines what Mexican food is.
MIRANDA: The chain also helped make Mexican food palatable to a country that had historically regarded it with suspicion, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, a food historian at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming "Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food."
JEFFREY PILCHER: There's this fascination with Mexican food. This is totally different. And yet, it's seen as being dangerous. It's hot, obviously, but there's also this fear that it's contaminated. So, really, what I think Glen Bell was successful in doing was in franchising and selling Mexican food to a mainstream audience to, frankly, across the lines of segregation that still existed in 1950s California.
MIRANDA: But where did the recipe for the Taco Bell taco come from? Arellano says he's figured it out, and the answer can be found in San Bernardino.
ARELLANO: Here, we're at the intersection of old Route 66 now called Mt. Vernon and Sixth Street.
MIRANDA: Here stands Mitla Café, a family diner that's been serving up Mexican food since 1937. Mitla's crunchy tacos are strangely familiar: crispy, stuffed with ground beef, iceberg lettuce and a pile of yellow cheese. Irene Montano is the cafe's owner. Her in-laws started the business.
IRENE MONTAÑO: Glen Bell had his hamburger stand across the street, and he used to come over here and talk to my father-in-law and ask him how to make tacos and how to - how they did different things, but especially the tacos.
MIRANDA: Mitla's tacos may look like a Taco Bell taco, but they certainly don't taste like one.
ARELLANO: I could tell, you know, eating this, you could tell why America fell in love with this type of taco so fast.
MIRANDA: The tortilla is light and crisp. It dissolves the minute it hits the tongue.
ARELLANO: It's the ur-taco. If Cielito Lindo's little taquito is like the ancestor of what we know now as the taco, this was the ur-taco, the taco that launched a thousand tacos.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TACO BELL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Put a smile on your face at Taco-Taco-Taco Bell. Everybody loves the taste of Taco-Taco-Taco Bell.
MIRANDA: Tacos have become so American they sometimes barely seem Mexican.
ARELLANO: Mexican food is as American as nachos. You find nachos all over ball parks in the United States. It's just part of the cuisine at large.
MIRANDA: There are now spaghetti tacos, Korean tacos and broccoli pine-nut tacos. The taco, it seems, is right up there with hot dogs and apple pie. For NPR News, I'm Carolina Miranda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.