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Taco Bell Nation

Look around any of these fast-food franchises and you'll see the mosaic of people we've become. Maybe a little too portly. And way too ignorant of what a real chalupa is.

March 19, 2006|Dagoberto Gilb | Dagoberto Gilb is the author, most recently, of "Gritos," which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Let me describe the #3 plate at every local authentic Mexican restaurant 50 years ago. Imagine an oval, particularly thick ceramic plate being hustled over straight out of an oven, so hot it can only be delivered with a potholder and a warning to never, ever touch--it's a hot, hot plate each recipient, individually, will be told--that is set down a distance from the edge of the table so it won't burn chest hairs or whatever, and the clothes in between. The refried beans are gurgling, and the "Spanish" rice is reconstituting into its dry grain state, the peas and carrot chunks mutating away from the vegetable category, and the red sauce of the enchiladas is bubbling, the yellow and white cheese topping still sizzling from being on the verge of burning. Wait long enough so the plate can be handled. Then, go on, tip it sideways. Tip it upside down. Toss it to practice dexterity, letting it roll over and over, and catch it. Spin it on a finger like a top, food side down, or roll it on its edge across a long banquet table. Yes, the tablespoon of shredded iceberg lettuce and that thin, very thin slice of a too-green red tomato--colorful garnish--that nobody ever eats anyway, both of them wilted and dehydrated, will fall off. But the rest? Nope. It's a Mexican Frisbee!

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Seger -- In Sunday's West magazine article on Taco Bell, the last name of musician Bob Seger was incorrectly spelled as Segar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Bob Seger: In the March 19 West magazine article on Taco Bell, the last name of musician Bob Seger was spelled as Segar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 02, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In the article "Taco Bell Nation" (March 19), the last name of musician Bob Seger was incorrectly spelled as Segar.

The Mexican #3 plate was--and, of course, still is more often than not--what Americans were served at Mexican restaurants miles north of the entire stretch of the border: tortillas or masa fried or soaked in lots of heavy oil or kneaded in lard, the least-expensive ground chuck beef, fatty colored cheese packaged in huge, discount blocks.

It was this food that Glen Bell, World War II Marine Corps veteran and owner of Bell's Drive-in hot-dog stand, ate and loved and riffed on until, in San Bernardino, Redlands and Riverside, he established three stands featuring Mexican food, Taco Tia, a concept that he eventually transformed into the mega-chain all America knows for its "Run for the Border" ad slogan and "Yo quiero Taco Bell" Chihuahua dog, not to mention those famed crackly tacos.

I remember when I first encountered what might be called hippie "fusion" Mexican food. I was in Isla Vista, the university community near Santa Barbara, where a Bank of America was burned in a student riot that brought out the National Guard in 1970, an era and community where Kinko's opened its first copy shop and that incubated the health and organic food rebellion, believing both would lead to the political contrary of what are now corporate enterprises. For someone like me who'd been raised in Los Angeles--near rainbow-streaked, inky pools left from leaking oil pans, distracted by moonlit twinkles of broken half-pints and beer bottles smashed against a curb--the only green growth I really thought about was always in someone else's wallet. In Isla Vista, I saw lettuce and kale and collard grow in public hippie gardens. I was taught how to cut off fresh broccoli, and I learned to cook it, too. I even got used to cauliflower if it had a good cheese sauce on it. But I sincerely thought things were going way too wacky when I went to an Isla Vista Mexican restaurant that had the bizarre cultural audacity to put alfafa sprouts in a burrito. I grew up loving Chinese food, and even if I didn't really like bean sprouts, I didn't complain when I ate them; you just drenched it all in soy and hot sauce. But alfalfa sprouts in a burrito? N'hombre, que pinche desmadre!

Until I started liking it. And then I began to like the idea of it. I liked, for example, the idea of frijoles without that yummy bacon fat that was saved in the coffee can by the sink, or refried days and days later in a scoop or so of Crisco. I was changing with the times, too, sure, but I had always loved fresh-cooked mushrooms and corn served in butter or lemon, and avocado raw or mashed, and fresh jalapenos and serranos, and there was no kind of fruit that I didn't seek out. Where I came up, if you were a guy who made a point of eating that decorative slice of tomato--you know, intentionally and not by accident--there were dudes around who would ask you how hot pink your panties were. I was the kind of tough who'd shake his head at one of those panzones, especially if he wasn't too much bigger than me, and reach over and take the slice off his plate, too.

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