History of Tacos: 20 Facts Behind the Evolution of Tacos

When people hear the word “tacos,” most think about Taco Bell as the origins of tacos in America. But tacos have a rich history that goes back much further than the first Taco Bell opening.

Modern tacos did not exist in Aztec society, but they may have existed in Mexico’s silver mines when workers brought similar food with them for lunch. Many taco shops sprung up to feed the Mexican working class, and women known as ‘chili queens’ sold the first street tacos in America.

Tacos have a unique history that you may find fascinating, so keep reading for the full history!

These are 20 facts about tacos:

1. Tacos May Have Origins in the Silver Mines Of Mexico.

In the 19th century, Mexican workers who worked the silver mines brought food wrapped in corn tortillas for lunch, as they were easy to pack and keep warm until it was time to eat. They were named tacos after the sticks of dynamite wrapped in paper used to blow up the rock. 

2. Taco Shops Served the Working Class Mexicans.

Tacos were known as the food for the working class in the late 19th century in Mexico. Street vendors sold tacos to the miners from their carts, then later from small shops near the silver mines where the workers were mining.

3. Mexican Immigrants Brought Tacos to the West Region in the 1880s.

During the 1880s, when Mexican migrants came to the West area to work the railroad and other lucrative jobs, they brought their food with them. They began selling tacos to people during festivals and other events, but they did not use common ingredients until the mid-20th century.

4. Glen Bell Founded Taco Bell to Bring Tacos to Americans.

Glen Bell owned several burger joints by the time he realized that tacos were getting popular with Americans. He opened a taco stand, which immediately was successful. In 1962, Bell opened the first Taco Bell. Today, there are over 7,000 stores around the world.

5. Modern Tacos Did Not Exist in Aztec Society.

While the ancient Aztecs did not eat tacos like they are known today, they did have food that resembled tacos. For instance, tortillas were filled with fresh fish, or even insects.

6. The Origins of the Word Taco Come From the Nahuatl Word ‘Tlahco’. 

“Taco” is a generic term in Mexico that means a tortilla with filling. However, it’s believed that the origin of this Spanish word is from the Nahuatl word ‘tlahco’, which refers to “in the middle”. The Nahuatl is a Uto-Aztecan language. 

7. Modern Taco Fillings Evolved in the First Half of the 20th Century.

During the first half of the 20th century, Mexican fillings started evolving to match the ingredients available in America. Up until this point, the fillings were traditional Mexican ingredients, like organ meats. But tacos began having ground beef and chicken added to the fillings instead. 

8. The First Taco Truck Appeared in 1974.

Raul Martinez is thought to be the first person who started the taco truck trend, as he converted an old ice cream truck into a taco truck, and in 1974, he parked it in front of a popular Los Angeles bar. Six months later, he made enough money to open his first restaurant, King Taco. Other taco trucks popped up after his success.

9. 2008 Saw the Rise of the First Fusion Taco.

Because of the success of the food truck business, Roy Choi and his partner, Mark Manguera, came up with the first fusion taco, which had Korean BBQ in a tortilla. But they weren’t selling very many, until December of 2008, Roy had the brilliant idea to park outside of a UCLA dormitory during finals week. 

It was the break they needed, and it started the gourmet food truck business

10. The Aztecs Had a Similar Food, but It Wasn’t a Taco.

In the 1500s, Hernando Cortez arrived in the New World and discovered that the Aztecs made flatbreads from corn, resembling tortillas. They used these flatbreads to wrap fish, pigs, and other foods with.

11. ‘Chili Queens’ Sold the First Street Tacos in America.

Tacos are incredibly portable and cheap and are easily sold from food carts. Mexican women who sold tacos to Americans were known as “chili queens,” and they sold them on the streets. Americans were unused to these new flavors and thought they were exotic.

12. Mexican Tacos Evolved in 1920 to Use American Ingredients.

Mexican immigrants began using American ingredients in 1920, which was more acceptable to the American palate. The taco was quickly becoming an American-Mexican fusion, and it popularized the taco in America.

13. The U-Shaped Shell Came About in the 1940s.

The U-shaped shell did not exist in authentic Mexican cuisine. In the 1940s, Mexican cooks invented this shell to streamline the serving process, and ten years later, Taco Bell used the U-shaped shell in their operations. 

14. Mexican Restaurants Are Bringing Authentic Mexican Tacos Back.

While tacos were once Americanized to appeal to the masses, restaurants are now going back to authentic Mexican flavors because more people are demanding authentic flavors. 

15. Tacos Were Once Eaten With Insect Fillings.

While tacos were not a thing until the late 19th century, the Aztecs in the 1500s had food that resembled tacos. They used corn flatbreads to wrap around other food, including insects.

16. Early Cookbooks Featured Unique Taco Recipes.

The early 1900s saw several cookbooks with unique recipes that would seem strange today. Among those recipes were pig snout tacos, liver tacos, and cream cheese tacos. Taquitos, or small tacos, also earned their place in these cookbooks.

17. Fish Tacos Became Popular in the US in 1983.

While Mexicans enjoyed fish tacos since the birth of tacos, they didn’t come to San Diego, California, until 1983 when Ralph Rubio came back from Baja, Mexico, after spring break. Ralph had a street vendor friend, ordered crispy fried fish in a tortilla, and the rest is history. 

18. Tortillas Were Once Used As Spoons.

It is said that in 1500 BCE, Moctezuma used corn tortillas as a spoon. The tortillas were used to scoop up beans or chili while eating. Women would also send food wrapped in tortillas with the men working in the fields.

19. Basket Tacos Became Popular in Mexico in the 1950s.

During the 1950s, during the Mexican economic crisis, and jobs were scarce, basket tacos became popular. Taco vendors put tacos in baskets, which included jars of green and red salsa, and rode all over the city, selling them to workers and students. 

20. The Taco Al Pastor Has Its Origins in Lebanon.

Taco al Pastor means “shepherd’s style taco,” and it is made with strips of spiced pork cut off a loaf of meat standing on a vertical spit in front of an open flame. The vertical loaf of meat came from Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. 

All in all

While tacos, as we know them today, are not an ancient Mexican dish, they are loved throughout the US and Mexico today. Tacos are customizable, can be as healthy as you want them to be, and are inexpensive to extend your food budget. 

According to some, there are no breakfast tacos like breakfast burritos, but breakfast tacos have a place in Mexican cuisine. Breakfast tacos contain eggs, seasoned breakfast meat, and cheese, and are available at several street vendors in Mexico and the US. 

The short history of tacos shows that if a food tastes good and is affordable, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been around, only that it’s here to stay.

+ posts

This article was co-authored by our team of writers and editors who share one thing in common: their passion for food and drinks!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco works as a New York-based editor at Foodrinke, driven by his lifelong love for food. His culinary journey began in childhood, as he eagerly assisted his mother with her local sandwich and bakery business, relishing every opportunity to sample her creations. Known among family and friends as an easy eater, JC has a particular affinity for Chinese, Italian, Mexican, and Peruvian cuisine. At Foodrinke, he channels his passion for food into his work, sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with readers.