On the menu, it’s called the “gringo,” and it has all the familiar markings: ground beef, shredded yellow cheese and, most tellingly, a crunchy hard tortilla.
No self-respecting Mexican would go for some corny hard-shell taco like this, particularly one filled with ground beef. ‘Tis the antithesis of auténtico. It’s hardly even a taco — it’s an abominable U-shaped hamburger!
Only a true gringo, oblivious to any snickers back in the kitchen, orders the “gringo” taco. And as the pure embodiment of that dubious term — a lily-white American-born, non-Hispanic, non-Latino with a Ron Burgundy–level Spanish vocabulary — I have no hang-ups about ordering the hard-shell option, even invoking the notorious G-word, at my local Calexico in Brooklyn, New York.
For folks like me, no matter what fillings you put inside, a hard-shell taco comes loaded with childhood nostalgia. It recalls family taco nights at home, using those hassle-free supermarket kits with the prefab hard shells that you simply warm in the oven. And like tater tots, the hard-shell taco was one of the few edible things offered at my public-school cafeteria.
Besides, there’s just something about the loud crunch that is immensely satisfying, even as the corn shell shatters on every bite, sending yellow shards and bits of shredded lettuce and cheese in every direction.
Yet even among my food-obsessed friends who admit to liking the things, it is commonly regarded as a “guilty pleasure.” Why?
Just like chop suey gently coaxed many skittish Americans into patronizing Chinese restaurants for the first time, the hard-shell taco played a big role in popularizing the very idea of Mexican food among non-Mexicans in the U.S.
Today, we dip our collective tortilla chips during a golden age of Mexican food in America. In many U.S. cities, you have your pick not only between hard or soft tacos, but also among several regional styles of Mexican and Mexican-inspired cuisine. Heck, some of the best contemporary tacos aren’t even borderline Mexican. They’re Korean or Vietnamese. If I want a more wholesome taco, I can just walk down the street to Varrio 408, where legitimate Spanish-speaking folks hand-make fresh soft corn tortillas right up front.
The hard-shell taco deserves some appreciation for getting us to this glorious moment. Just like chop suey gently coaxed many skittish Americans into patronizing Chinese restaurants for the first time, the hard-shell taco played a big role in popularizing the very idea of Mexican food among non-Mexicans in the U.S.
“The taco shell is crucial for taking Mexican food outside of Mexican communities,” as historian Jeffrey M. Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, tells Smithsonian. “Corn tortillas do not keep very well. They’re sort of like doughnuts — if you get a fresh doughnut, it tastes really good. If you get one that’s been setting around for weeks, not so good. If the taco shell is fried beforehand, you can wrap it up in plastic and keep it sitting around until somebody wants to use it.”
History is a bit fuzzy as to who actually invented the things. At least two separate restaurateurs filed for patents on their respective tortilla-frying machines back in the 1940s. But much of the credit for popularizing the hard-shell taco goes to Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, who began selling them at Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in San Bernardino, California, in 1951.
If you read the New York Times obituary of Bell, who died in 2010, you get a sense that the sloppiness of the hard-shell experience was all part of the fun even back in the day. In the obit, Bell recounts the story of his first taco buyer: “He was dressed in a suit and as he bit into the taco the juice ran down his sleeve and dripped on his tie. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve lost this one.’ But he came back, amazingly enough, and said, ‘That was good. Gimme another.’”
Bell’s messy legacy carries on to this day at the ginormous fast-food chain that still bears his name, and the hard-shell taco remains at the core of the business, even if the crunchy vehicle now takes many different forms: the Doritos Loco and Cool Ranch varieties, for example, which aim to elevate the standard preformed shell with the addition of snack-chip seasoning, a very popular innovation indeed. There’s also something called the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, which is essentially your basic hard-shell taco wrapped in a soft tortilla and fastened together with melted cheese. This method is a bit less messy, believe it or not — the soft wrapper and cheesy glue work to keep the cracked bits of shell in place — without sacrificing much of that sensual crunch.
But there’s just something about the basic no-frills crunchy hard taco. Maybe it’s the pure simplicity of the thing. Priced at just $2.19 in New York City (or $2.79 for the Crunchy Taco Supreme), the Taco Bell version remains a highly affordable, if guilty, indulgence.
Just watch out for falling debris.