Mexican food has become an integral part of American cuisine and culture. Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, guacamole and margaritas are enjoyed across the United States today. But how did Mexican food make its way north of the border into the US?
When did Mexican food first come to America?
Mexican cuisine first started making its way into what is now the Southwestern United States in the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries settled in areas like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. They brought with them key ingredients like corn, beans, rice, garlic, onions, chili peppers and livestock like pigs, chickens, cattle and sheep. The blending of Spanish cooking techniques with native Mesoamerican ingredients and flavors laid the foundations for what would become Tex-Mex and Mexican-American cuisine.
In the 19th century, more Mexican territory was acquired by the US and the border continued pushing south. This led to further mixing of traditional Mexican dishes with Anglo tastes and cooking styles. Mexican cooks started improvising by using available ingredients. For example, Mexican wheat tortillas were replaced with corn tortillas while beef and cheddar cheese were used instead of traditional Mexican proteins and dairy. This early fusion cuisine appealed to English-speaking settlers and Anglo cowboys in Texas.
When did Mexican restaurants first emerge in the US?
The first Mexican restaurants are believed to have opened in the 19th century in California shortly after it became part of the United States. One of the first documented Mexican eateries was the El Cholo cafe which opened in Los Angeles in 1923. It started off as a simple Sonoran-style taco stand operated by Alejandro and Rosa Borquez who were born in Sonora, Mexico. Their restaurant introduced LA locals to dishes like tacos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and tamales.
In the 1930s, Mexican cafes and food stands started popping up across LA and Texas. Restaurants like El Cholo in LA and The Original Mexican Restaurant founded by Felix Tijerina in Houston in 1926 helped popularize Mexican cuisine. Many influential restaurateurs such as Alessio and Assunta Rodriguez, Juan and Amalia Martinez and Gilbert Cardenas opened LA’s first upscale Mexican restaurants like El Tepeyac, El Indio and El Torito, bringing dishes like combination plates and margaritas into the mainstream.
When did Mexican food spread across America?
After World War II, more Mexicans immigrated into cities like Chicago and New York looking for work. They brought along their native cuisines and opened restaurants serving authentic Mexican food. Following the end of the Bracero Program in 1964, many Mexican agricultural workers also moved to cities and introduced their regional dishes.
In the 1970s and 1980s, spurred by rising Mexican immigration and Latin American travel, Mexican cuisines like interior Mexican fare, Yucatecan food and Baja fresh seafood started gaining popularity across the US. Chefs began experimenting with traditional ingredients like chilies, avocados, beans and tortillas by combining them with European and American cooking techniques. This modern fusion fare was popularized by pioneering chefs like Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless and Roberto Santiba??ez.
By the late 20th century, Mexican food was solidly entrenched nationwide thanks to the growing Hispanic population, rising interest in Mexican travel and culture, and the proliferation of chains like Taco Bell and Chipotle. Surveys showed Mexican was America’s second most popular ethnic cuisine after Italian food. Salsa even overtook ketchup as the leading table sauce.
How did specific Mexican dishes make their way to the US?
Tacos have become one of the most popular Mexican imports to the American diet. They originated in 19th century Mexico as street food. Miners and other working-class Mexicans would frequent taco stands for quick, cheap, hot meals wrapped in small corn tortillas. Ground beef was added as a filling later on. The first taco recipes using commercial hard taco shells appeared in the 1930s. Glenn Bell founder of Taco Bell is credited with bringing tacos into the mainstream after he opened the first Taco Bell in 1962 in Downey, California.
Burritos also evolved as portable Mexican street fare. Wheat flour tortillas filled with machaca, carne asada and other meat items alongside beans, cheese and chiles could be folded into a large easy-to-eat package. Burritos became popular in America, especially California, in the 1960s and 1970s. Businessman Juan Mikes opened the first burrito outlet El Taco in LA in 1961. He is credited with introducing the large, overstuffed grilled burritos wrapped in aluminum foil that are now a Mexican food staple across the US.
The nacho was invented in 1943 by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, a ma??tre d??? at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico. When wives of visiting US army officers asked for a snack, he improvised by taking fried tortilla chips and topping them with melted cheese and sliced jalape??os. The dish was a hit and “Nacho’s Special” was soon put on the menu. American tourists and soldiers later helped popularize nachos in the US.
Quesadillas have their roots in colonial Mexico when Spaniards introduced a flat grilled cheese sandwich called a quesadilla without fillings. Later, various ingredients like meats, beans and vegetables were incorporated. Quesadillas rose to popularity in California in the 1980s as a fast food and as a component item in Tex-Mex combo plates. They are now a Mexican restaurant favorite across America.
Guacamole also originated in early Mesoamerican cuisines using mashed avocados seasoned with spices. After avocado farming expanded in the early 20th century, guacamole dips and salads became fashionable in California. It was initially mistaken as a French sauce called “avocado”. Guac’s association with Mexican food grew thanks to Los Angeles restaurants and chains like El Torito and Chi Chi’s in the 1970s. It is ubiquitous today as an appetizer in Mexican restaurants.
Margaritas were developed in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s. Many apocryphal stories attribute its invention to Carlos “Danny” Herrera, restaurateur Albert Hernandez or bar owner Do??a Bertha. It likely was derived from the Spanish tequila slammer drink called the salty tequila, sweetened with orange liqueur and lime juice. Margaritas became hugely popular in America after WWII when American tourists started flocking to Mexico’s beachside bars and cantinas. Frozen margarita machines helped transform it into a mainstream American cocktail in the 1970s and 1980s.
How did Mexican food become part of American cuisine?
Several key factors came together in the 19th and 20th century to make Mexican food become an integral part of American cuisine nationwide:
New territories and settlers
As America expanded west, new territories like California, Texas and the Southwest fell under US jurisdiction from the 19th century onward. American settlers moving into these areas readily adopted and adapted local Mexican food traditions, ingredients and cooking techniques.
Railroads and highways
Improved infrastructure like railroads and highways helped expand the geographical reach of Mexican restaurants and products. For instance, the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880s California allowed fruits, produce and canned goods from the border to be transported countrywide more efficiently.
Waves of Mexican migration into American cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City introduced regional Mexican cooking styles to non-Hispanic urban dwellers. Demand for authentic cuisine encouraged restaurants serving traditional fare to thrive outside the border states.
Maize and NAFTA
The abundance of corn in America enabled Mexican staples like tortillas and tamales to be sustainably produced nationwide. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) from 1994 also allowed ingredients to be imported cost-effectively from Mexico.
Fast food chains like Taco Bell, Chipotle and Qdoba made Mexican fast casual mainstream, introducing young generations across America to Tex-Mex style tacos, burritos and more.
Media and popular culture
America’s fascination with Mexican culture through films, TV shows, music and tourism encouraged greater appetite for Mexican food and drink like tequila. Chile con carne cookoffs, Cinco de Mayo and D??a de los Muertos also helped build enthusiasm.
California cuisine movement
Innovative chefs in California championed Southwest and Mexican ingredients in the 1970s and 1980s through fine dining establishments. This helped position Mexican fare as sophisticated, creative and quality cuisine rather than just cheap, roadside food.
Mexican-American and immigrant ingenuity
Hard-working Mexican restaurateurs, street vendors and home cooks across generations tirelessly adapted traditional family recipes to local American tastes. This helped Mexican become one of America’s most loved, ubiquitous and profitable cuisines.
Mexican food has become an integral fabric of American cuisine and culture thanks to centuries of imported traditions, ingredients, immigration, adaptation, transportation networks and shifting appetites. What originated as regional fare in America’s southwestern frontier states has become a beloved culinary movement across the US. Mexican restaurants are now found in every city and town from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to fine dining establishments.
Key factors that helped cement America’s love affair with Mexican food include its reliance on corn, proximity to Mexico, influx of Mexican immigrants, advancements in food supply chains, American vacationers seeking an authentic Mexican experience and the mainstream dominance of Mexican-American fast food.
As Mexican-inspired dishes, produce, restaurants and food media continue proliferating nationwide, America’s appetite for more unique, quality and authentic Mexican cuisines will keep growing. Taco ’bout a delicious cultural exchange!