I’m adding one more menu from 1967 (courtesy the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org) to examine the development of Mexican cuisine in a mainstream U.S. context.
It’s from the Mexican Village, established as a small cafe in 1943 in Coronado, CA, on the peninsula of San Diego Bay. While Cafe del Sol had approximately a 50-year run, Mexican Garden did it one better, enjoying almost 60 years in business. The restaurant was enlarged numerous times, as this interesting report from 1990 explains.
Before I go further I should say I’m well aware that the type of cuisine introduced to Americans as Mexican since the 1960s, is a) not really new, and b) usually a hybrid of Mexican and American culinary traditions. It’s not new because ever since the 19th century in the Southwest, Mexican and Spanish-American foodways have interacted with “American”. The styles that emerged have been broadly called Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex, or more recently for southern California, Baja-style, aka Baja-Cal and Fresh-Mex.*
Even before the 1960s this cooking was available in Latino enclaves in the southwest and sometimes diners and other informal eateries.
There are differences among these categories and within them depending on region or town and sometimes the restaurant. Angelenos like crispy tacos, the Texans like the soft kind, etc.
As to the hybrid nature, in general wheat-based tacos (vs. corn), cheddar cheese, use of beef and more meat in general as well as guacamole and sour cream, were largely American contributions.
However, the northern belt of Mexico, especially Baja California, always ate something closer to American Mexican style than the other five or six regions which can differ quite a bit among them.
Here I will focus more on what American restaurateurs offered to diners as “Mexican” in the 1960s.
The menu below shows the approach of Mexican Garden. It was clearly more adventurous than Cafe del Sol’s as it presented not just a few Mexican dishes, or non-Mexican dishes gussied up to sound Mexican, but a full array of Mexican eating familiar to us today.
Rather than describe each dish read them for yourself but before you do, note how American dishes similar to Cafe del Sol’s were also offered: charcoal steaks, lobster, fish dishes, fried chicken, sandwiches: foods familiar to a mainstream audience. It seems Mexican Garden always hedged its bets, covering both ends of the spectrum, indeed throughout its existence.
Coronado is well south of the L.A. sprawl, not so far from the Mexican border. It had the large Navy base as a natural constituency. It’s not the same IMO as being in Santa Barbara or L.A. itself and seeking a mainstream audience. I doubt a restaurant with that menu could have done succeeded in L.A. in the 1940s although if I’m wrong I’m happy to see the evidence.
At a minimum, Mexican Village was a gateway to a new category of American ethnic dining and paved the way for restaurants like Cafe de Sol and indeed another Mexican Village, this one started in 1965 in L.A. The latter’s menu, for the core Mexican items, is not all that different to the Coronado original but it offers many more dishes. Some sound regional Mexican or perhaps reflect the current Baja-Cal cuisine.
I don’t think there was an ownership connection between the two but they are linked spiritually, surely. You can read the L.A. restaurant’s menu – it is still going strong – and its own interesting history, here.
I’ll deal with the drinks of the Coronado Mexican Village in a separate post.
* I am speaking broadly here, today, distinct Mexican regional cuisines are often available in Los Angeles. The popular Baja-style takes inspiration from the work of modern chefs in nearby Baja California, Mexico. This is relatively new though, and the hybrid, Americanized form is still the type generally understood in North America as “Mexican”.