Whether you love them or hate them, there’s something admittedly iconic about the crisp, U-shaped taco that has become synonymous with American Tex-Mex. Its form is so iconic that it’s become shorthand for Mexican food, both in our emojis and in our food delivery apps. Those pre-formed hard shells are generally not exactly considered authentic fare, however. On the contrary, they’re more often associated with cheap fast food.
There’s good reason for that association. Fried tortillas stuffed with fillings have always existed in one form or another in Mexican culture; for example, tacos dorados, literally golden tacos, are just tacos that have been fried until golden. Some might also call fried tacos taquitos or flautas, depending on what ingredients they contain and what region of Mexico the person is from. No one person can be credited with creating the hard shell taco, as an oral history in MEL Magazine points out. Pre-formed, cheap hard-shell tacos, however, weren’t a commodity easily available until the 1940s, when Glen W. Bell Jr.—the future founder of Taco Bell—decided that he wanted an easy and quick way to sling out inexpensive Tex-Mex food.
According to his New York Times obituary, Bell was one of dozens of proprietors opening up drive-in stands in San Bernardino, California. His nearby competitors, located only a few miles away? The McDonald brothers. (Yes, those McDonalds.)
Back then, the trending food for those who frequented the drive-thrus was fast burgers, fries, and shakes, and Bell dutifully sold those for a time. He loved Mexican cuisine though, and he was sure that if he could find a quick way to serve up tacos, his customers would love it. The problem was the shell. Most Mexican stands fried the shells to order. If you wanted more than a couple of tacos, you could be waiting a long time.
To make his shells more quickly, Bell asked a man who made chicken coops to make him a wire mold he could use to keep the tortillas in place. This allowed him to finish up the shells before customers arrived, meaning he could sling out quick tacos at $0.19 a piece. Bell’s Tacos were a hit, and while it would take Bell a couple more decades before he opened his first Taco Bell, his preformed taco shells continued to be at the base of his ingenuitive success in the fast food world.
Related: How to Make Your Very Best Tacos Yet
Bell’s tacos might not be as authentic, or delicious, as a freshly fried taco made by a local establishment, but they introduced a number of people throughout the United States to tacos in the first place. Bell once said that he was delighted whenever he learned that his restaurant was someone's first exposure to Mexican food. That first experience, if enjoyed, could very well prod someone to branch out and experience other delicious dishes, including those that are closer to traditional recipes.