There are plenty of us who were first introduced to the wide world of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine by visiting their local Taco Bell as a child.
The words we saw on the menus there—taco, burrito, nachos, and the like—are all common knowledge to us by this point, but you might be surprised by what the earliest versions of these foods looked like, and how Taco Bell helped to change the common definitions of these foods. We rounded up some of the chain’s most popular offerings, and tracked down what the origins of their names are.
Founder Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, Calif. in 1962, and by 1970 there were 375 restaurants throughout the country, many in locations that had never before been home to restaurants selling tacos and burritos. Their Americanized interpretations of these foods, which actually have roots in Mexico, became accepted as the standard, and in many ways they still are today.
For example, did you know that a real gordita is a deep-fried packet of corn-based dough with fillings? It bears no resemblance to the version sold at Taco Bell, which is essentially a taco with flatbread instead of a taco shell, but when we think of a gordita, Taco Bell’s version is usually the first that comes to mind.
So read on to wise up about the authentic versions of the foods you’ll find on the menu at your local Taco Bell. From chalupas to tostadas, we’ll not only look at the origins of these foods, we’ll translate the words themselves. Some make perfect sense, others, like burrito (which translates to ‘little donkey’) don’t make much at all. As for the MexiMelt… well, you’re on your own for that one.
Should you find yourself ordering a taco in Mexico City, you’ll be handed a small corn tortilla, folded with grilled or braised meat, chopped onions and cilantro, a sprinkling of fresh white cheese and maybe a thin salsa. No lettuce, and most likely no tomato.
You’d also be hard-pressed to find a hard-shell taco in Mexico, but they’re Taco Bell’s top seller. As for the ground beef mixture, the closest you’ll get in Mexico is picadillo, which is usually sweeter and contains raisins. The word taco translates to a wad, or plug, but also can refer to any light snack.
A real gordita is a small pouch of corn-based dough, or masa, filled with meat or cheese, sealed, and deep-fried. It’s pretty similar to an English pasty or a South American arepa. There’s also a version called gorditas de migas, where fried pork is mixed in with the dough.
Not so at Taco Bell, however, where a gordita is a warm flatbread, folded like a taco and filled with meat, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and cheese. The word translates to ‘little fat one,’ which makes a lot more sense when it refers to the Mexican version.
Nachos were invented by a (now-legendary) maître d’ named Ignacio Anaya, who whipped up the first batch for a group of hungry U.S. military wives at a restaurant called the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, near Fort Duncan. He fried up some tortilla chips, topped them with some shredded cheddar and sliced jalapenos, and served them as canapés. He named them after his nickname, Nacho, and the rest is history. But what you’ll see at Taco Bell (and at many bars and restaurants) today bear little resemblance to the original: the giant mound of chips and toppings is not only overrated, it’s a purely American invention.
Chalupas are a popular dish in south-central Mexico. To create an authentic chalupa, chefs take a small ball of corn masa and form it in a mold, so the resulting thin, crunchy, and shallow cup, which is then deep-fried, resembles a small boat. Fillings like shredded meat, cheese, onion and salsa are added.
Once again, the version sold at Taco Bell couldn’t be more different: a deep-fried wheat-based flatbread is folded up like a taco shell, and the usual taco fillings are added. As for the name? It’s a small boat typically found in the canals of Mexico City’s Xochimilco neighborhood.
Check out more famous Taco Bell food names.
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