Nachos and Hard-Shell Tacos: The History of Two American, Mexican-Inspired Foods (and Why Authentic Mexican Food is Better)

To the uninitiated in Canada or the US, when you say “tacos”, people think of a hard-shelled, u-shape creation filled with chicken or beef, sour cream, grated cheddar cheese and lettuce, or more generally, they’ll think of Taco Bell, Chipotles and a variety of other Tex-Mex-style food joints.

News flash: it’s not authentic Mexican food.

Sort of.

The Hard-Shell Taco

According to a wonderful article in the SF Weekly, Glenn Bell, founder of Taco Bell, pioneered the hard-shell taco by deep frying them while pinned in a bent, u-shaped to prevent the contents from spilling out.

Voila!  A ready-for-take-out, hard-shell, u-shaped taco.

Competing restaurants jumped on board and soon everyone was selling them. But you won’t find one in Puerto Vallarta. Not on your life.

And it’s a good thing too because the Mexican version is far healthier especially since you won’t likely adorn it with sour cream and cheddar cheese. Oh, and they ain’t deep fried.

In fact, most authentic Mexican food is reasonably healthy due in part to fresh veggies, non-fried tortillas, a host of salsas, liver-cleansing spices, cucumbers, radishes, onions, and fresh meat.

Got Any Nachos, Amigo? They’re Hard to Find in Vallarta too.

Nachos are another misappropriated Mexican idea that was popularized in the U.S.

According to Wikipedia its roots are in the northern Mexico city of Piedras, just across the border from Texas.  And it was created by accident.

“In 1943, the wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in nearby Eagle Pass were in Piedras Negras, Mexico (across the border) on a shopping trip, and arrived at the restaurant after it had already closed for the day. The maître d’hôtel, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, invented a new snack for them with what little he had available in the kitchen: tortillas and cheese.”

The fantastic food history blog, The Kitchen Project, fills in the blanks on how it became a favorite staple all over the US and Canada. Nachos were popularized by a waitress named Carmen Rocha, employed  at El Cholo Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles in the late 1950’s.

“Jack Nicholson remembers her as a friendly outgoing lady that loved to make this special snack for special guests that was no even on the menu.  It spread like wildfire and she is credited for the fire. ”

So, If You’re New to Mexico, ask for Chilaquiles Not Nachos

Indeed, chilaquiles – although served during breakfast – are the same principle; a bed of chips smothered in goodness.

In fact, if you’re looking to swap your favorite American or Canadian versions of Mexican favorites for the real deal, this article in Business Insider tells you how.

Instead of a burrito, order tacos de tortilla de harina.

Instead of fajitas, try cochinita pibil.

And so it goes.  You’ll find the entire list of suggestions here.

So, as you prepare to integrate with authentic Mexican culture and food, be prepared for tastes you thought you knew back home.

Simply put, you won’t find A Taco Bell or Chipotle, and you’ll likely be happy that you won’t.

Trust us.