When did Mexican food become mainstream in the USA? I don’t think I tried Mexican food
aside from Taco Bell until I went to college. The college dining hall occasionally had a build your own taco bar, but that was about it. I stated discovered Mexican restaurants when I started dating more around 1990. And, quite frankly, I initially started going for the inexpensive margaritas.
I know there was a chain called Chi Chis that I assume did Mexican food better than Taco Bell, don’t remember it at all, although I vaguely remember eating there.
So, does 1990 sound about right for the integration of Mexican food into the mainstream USA dining culture? I’m sure it was popular in the southwest way before it its way to the Midwest and the South.
It was popular — with white folks — in the 19th century in the border states. It was available as far north as Los Angeles by the early 20th century.
It took longer to take hold outside of the West and Southwest. Chicago got more Mexican immigrants than New York, so they got good Mexican food first. In the 1980s NYC was still the home of “margarita mills,” where you were expected to get so sloshed on tequila that you wouldn’t taste the slop that was served.
The first good NY Mexican restaurants opened in the late 1980s in Manhattan, and by the ‘90s there were great Calexican burrito joints everywhere. By the 21st century there was a Mexican influx into Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which led to a rush of great Mexican restaurants.
I moved to Texas at age 4 in 1962. The first restaurant I ever remember eating at was a Mexican food restaurant. It has been big here a long time. My Grandfather always wanted Mexican when they came to visit. Didn’t have any Mexican food in New Jersey. Even in the 70’s when we visited them there was no Mexican food there. In Alabama 1980 while in the Army there were a couple of Mexican food places around Ft. Rucker, not great but better than Taco Bell. I’d guess it started spreading about then.
well in Indiana they had taco john types of places in the 80s but yeah ive always been around some sort of Mexican food , there and ca ,
I don’t know from Taco Bell, never tried their food.
For about 20 years now, NYC has had Chinese-run places that serve VERY fresh tortillas wrapped around chicken, pork, or steak fajitas…soft tacos with fish or meat…and a bunch of other Mexican things that require VERY fresh tortillas.
I only order the rolled tortillas or tacos, so I cannot comment on the other offerings. But the tortillas or tacos make Avery satisfying cheap lunch.
In the late '70s, Mexican food was widely and easily available throughout South Florida. By the mid-80s, Mexican food, from taco stands to fast food to fancy restaurants, was omnipresent throughout the entire state.
I remember being taken regularly by my parents to a Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City called The Tampico as a young child in the early to mid-60s. It was good (to a 7-year-old) and still a little exotic, but not especially novel. My most vivid memory is of the authentic sopapillas we always ordered for dessert.
There was a Mexican restaurant in the part of Connecticut where I grew up, as far back as the late 1970s. It was a sit-down restaurant with waitress service, but for some reason, the floors were covered in sawdust.
I was born in Texas, and I don’t remember a time that Mexican restaurants weren’t the norm.
My mother, also born in Texas, did have a story about trying to explain to a grocer what a tortilla was when she was looking to buy some while living in Ohio during the 60s.
So, yeah, depending on where you are talking about in the US, the answer could be anywhere from 1836 to sometime after the 1960s.
I emigrated from New Mexico to New York City in 1984.
Obviously (presumably), there was a lot of Mexican (and specifically “new mexican”) cuisine in northern New Mexico.
In New York in '84, “spanish” or “hispanic” meant “Puerto Rican” or “Cuban”, mostly. Mexican cuisine was rare. And where I found it, at various tortilla fast-food places, I walked in, the people running the establishment had the visual characteristics of people from east Asia, and were speaking with each other in what sounded to me like Chinese or other Asian, definitely not Spanish, language. Stepped back out, verified that I hadn’t gone in the wrong door. Examined the menu.
Found out later: a Mexican food restaurant had once upon a time employed a diligent employee from China or other Asian country (sorry, don’t specifically recall which one) and upon learning the trade quite well this person started a chain and indicated to family members “if you come over, I’ve got a trade I can pass on to you”. And in the absence of a lot of actual Mexican people doing Mexican food, the chain thrived.
After 2008 or so there’ve been a lot more Mexican people hereabouts. Food trucks selling tacos and whatnot. Subway musicians from Mexico. Etc.
I moved from Pittsburgh to the Bay Area in 1974.
Mexican food was a revelation - unknown in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, I couldn’t find any decent Middle Eastern restaurants at all.
and in the reverse you know many “fast food” Chinese places out here in ca are mostly Mexican cooks?
a place by me was ran by a Chinese guy but his kids didn’t want any part of it so he hired the delivery boy whos Hispanic and taught him how to cook and even paid for him to take a tour of china to learn … and he was telling me that theres too many taco and burrito places in ca so a lot of the cooks that would gravitate towards them are getting jobs in Chinese places instead
he makes sone crazy stuff occasionaly like sweet and sour pork taquitos or carna asada and broccoli one Christmas for his fave customers … he made duck tamales …… they were different that’s for sure ….
I was born in Washington State in 1965 and moved with my family to California two years later. I lived there for the next 11 years in LA, the Bay Area, and Sacramento before moving back to Washington. I don’t ever remember a time when Mexican food wasn’t mainstream. Even in the early 70s, I remember eating at fast-food chains like Taco Bell and Jimboys, sit-down chains like Tia Maria, and scores of great mom-and-pop joints.
Read Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano for the full history. Great book.
TL;DR version: It happened in waves since the middle of the 1800s. Look at how tamales took over the Mississippi Delta region, for example.
For me it was some time near the late 1990s, outside of the southwest. That’s when I started noticing restaurants that were neither Taco Bell nor darkly lit ethnically-decorated places.
My father experienced Mexican food in Wisconsin in the late 1930’s, thanks to his visiting with the migrant farm worker families in his neighborhood. He was one of 9 kids so was adventurous in seeking out other food sources. He loved Mexican food and was glad when it returned to the neighborhood in the form of Mexican restaurants in the early 70’s around Detroit where we lived at the time.
Hmmm, I wonder how long Jose & Tony’s has been in Dormont. I remember eating there in the late 70s, and a search reveals they opened their doors in 1969. Their big draw was incredibly hot food and equally incredibly cold beer.
I actually have a book that sort of addresses this (“The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos”, Robb Walsh, 2004).
To paraphrase the first few chapters, the style we now know as “Tex-Mex” was essentially a combination of two things- Mexican dishes which Mexican-Americans adapted using local (i.e. Texas) ingredients, and Mexican recipes which were Anglicized by restaurateurs to appeal to the Anglo Texan tastes of the era. Chili was the first sort of Tex-Mex dish, being derived from native Mexican dishes and stews served by some of the original San Antonio settlers who were from the Canary Islands. Chili and other Mexican-style food was sold in the plaza in San Antonio in the 19th century. The first Tex-Mex restaurants opened in San Antonio in the very early part of the 20th century (like 1900-ish) and then quickly, others opened in the other major Texas cities- Houston, Dallas and Austin, all of which served an anglicized style of Mexican food meant to appeal to Anglo tastes.
I’m 46, and I can’t remember there ever being a time when “Mexican Food” wasn’t extremely common. I mean, my first memories of eating out as a kid were when I was about 3, and we met my grandparents at a place called “Monterrey House” and I got the kid’s plate of beans, rice and a tamale covered in chili. Places like Taco Bell were kind of late to the game, showing up when I was probably 10 or so.
That said, I have a college friend from rural northern Iowa, and Tex-Mex was kind of a scary thing to him when he showed up in College Station in 1993, so I guess it hadn’t fully penetrated the Midwest by that point.
I love hearing of different peoples experiences. For me, of course, “Mexican” has always been there. Glen Bell opened his first Taco-Tia 3 years before I was born, in my hometown. I’ve eaten at the Mitla Cafe, the place he ripped off for his recipes, hundreds of times.
Now good Mexican food is a more recent trend. Credit Rick Bayless for a lot of that.
It really depends on the region.
I grew up having New Mexico-style enchiladas thanks to a relative who lived there from time to time in the 40s and early 50s. There was a good Mexican rest. in town that we went to on occasion plus going to ones on trips thru the Western US.
When we moved to the NE we went shopping for tortillas. Couldn’t find them. Asked where they were. In the “gourmet” section, of course. Tortillas are gourmet? What?
Anyway during the 80s Mexican food became more mainstream even in the Eastern US. I even have a pro-Trump type relative who owns a Mexican fast food franchise. (Thankfully not a Taco Bell. Supporting Trump I can deal with. Owning a Taco Bell, that’s it, you’re dead to me.)
But still there are surprises. Went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant maybe 5+ years ago in the West in a somewhat Hispanic part of town. So a reasonably authentic place. 2 women came in and were sitting near us. They started asking each other questions on the order of “I wonder what an enchilda is?”
It’s the 2000s and you don’t know basic Mexican food dishes? How is that possible? I guess it still has a ways to go.