If you love so-called taco salads or taco bowls – essentially a taco that’s turned upside down, or might it be inside out? – you owe a special debt of gratitude to a restaurant rather ridiculously named Casa de Fritos. In 1955. At Disneyland.
Yes, the iconic theme park created by Uncle Walt was home to such a place, helping launch a “pay to play” tradition that grew into an art form by the time the same animator-turned-visionary opened Disney World in Orlando and especially sponsor-crazed EPCOT Center a few miles down the central Florida highway. In the beginning, though, there were Fritos and an owner based in Dallas who was willing to put dollars behind the brand. Turns out, he had a semi-pseudo-Mexican recipe as well.
As is now widely understood, few people even in Texas or California knew a whole lot about Mexican cuisine in those days. Yes, there were certainly tacos, particularly the closer anybody was to the actual border. Tacos were among the earliest Mexican foods to start building a national craving. And that’s what inspired Fritos founder Elmer Doolin to start selling something he called the Tacup when the original Disneyland opened.
Promotions were less subtle in those days, to be sure; so it should come as no surprise that the Fritos original didn’t celebrate our now-familiar tortilla chips – much less the oversized chip “bowl” that became part and parcel to many restaurant taco salads. No, this was seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, black beans, corn, salsa and sour cream, served in a sort-of bowl formed by – Fritos corn chips.
Anyone horrified by this idea needs to understand that the original recipe for Fritos (and the machine to make them) was purchased by Doolin from a Oaxacan immigrant in the 1930s.
Over time, of course, Fritos took their rightful place not only as Frito-Lay in Dallas but as the basis of Frito Pie. And taco salads took on their rightful identity as the fakest way imaginable to taste a lot of relatively not-fake flavors from Mexico. Turns out, they were also among the fakest ways of eating “something light” instead of” something heavy,” like Mexican food. It’s all a bit like claiming lasagna isn’t fattening if you serve it with a salad on the side.
Most taco salads are not any lighter than a whole lot of other things you can eat, even if the lettuce does take up space that might to given over to more meat, cheese, tortilla chips or sour cream. Beans and corn at least have the historical good sense to represent foods long associated with the Americas.
As with so many foods that some criticize as “inauthentic,” good taste almost always wins out. Every component of a taco salad brings something literally to the table. And if you’re sitting at that table, you surely will be glad to enjoy a little taste of Disneyland circa 1955. Thanks to the founder of Fritos, you don’t even need to buy a ticket.
HOT HABANERO TACO SALAD
This version of taco salad takes most of the best elements from taco salads far and wide to make something delicious that can feel relatively light. If you prefer a milder salsa, fear not: we like to do a 50/50 blend of our Hot Habanero and our Salsa a la Charra. The sour cream does deliver a cooking element that’s usually welcome.
2 pounds ground beef
½ cup minced onion
½ cup minced green bell pepper
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon powdered garlic
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup water
1 cup dairy sour cream
2 tablespoons milk
4 cups chopped romaine lettuce
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup cooked black beans, rinsed
1 cup kernel corn
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
2 cups Fischer & Wieser’s Hot Habanero Salsa
2 cups tri-colored tortilla strips
Cook the ground beef with onion, bell pepper and olive oil until the beef is cooked through. Strain away the fat and return to the pan. Add all the spices and the water, heating until the mixture bubbles then reducing heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Mix the soup cream with the milk in a squeeze bottle and shake once or twice to combine. Cover the bottom of four dinner plates with chopped lettuce and divide the beef atop the lettuce. Add the tomatoes, black beans, corn and cheese. Spoon on habanero salsa, decorate with sour cream and sprinkle with top with tortilla strips. Serves 4.