Below is one more menu from 1967 (courtesy the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org) to examine how Mexican cuisine developed in a mainstream U.S. context.
It’s from the “Mexican Village”, which apparently started in 1943 – the year varies according to source, but the 1940s is certain. What became a sizeable restaurant and catering business was initially a small cafe, in Coronado, CA on the peninsula of San Diego Bay.
Another Mexican restaurant we discussed, Cafe del Sol, had an approximately 50-year run but Mexican Village did it one better, enjoying almost 60 years in business.
This news article, an obituary of an early owner, Bert Forsyth, outlines the history to the mid-1970s. By this time the restaurant had expanded from a simple takeout and bar to one seating many hundreds of guests. There is an interesting Canadian connection as well, connected appropriately to professional hockey via Mr. Forsyth himself.
For more detail on the restaurant’s origins see this excellent blog piece by Martin S. Lindsay. He sets out the history of many other early Mexican restaurants in and around San Diego, with some great period images.
It goes without saying that the cuisine introduced to Americans as Mexican since the 1960s, is i) not really new, and ii) 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 in southern California, Baja-style, aka Baja-Cal and Fresh-Mex.*
Even before the 1960s this cooking was available in Latino enclaves in the southwest, often in diners and other informal eateries.
There are differences among these categories and within them depending on region or town and sometimes the restaurant. Angelenos are said to like crispy tacos, Texans like the soft kind, etc.
The hybridization is shown e.g., by wheat-based tacos (vs. corn), cheddar cheese, use of beef and more meat in general than in Mexico, guacamole and sour cream – these were largely American contributions.
Still, 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 Village. It was clearly more adventurous than Cafe del Sol’s as it presented not just a few Mexican dishes, or non-Mexican dishes adjusted 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; in a word foods familiar to a mainstream audience. It seems Mexican Village 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 U.S. 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 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 ethnic dining and paved the way for restaurants like Cafe de Sol and indeed another Mexican Village, one that 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 and perhaps even reflect today’s Baja-Cal cuisine.
I don’t think an ownership connection existed but the two restaurants are surely linked spiritually. You can read the menu of the L.A. restaurant – it is still going strong, and its own interesting history, here.
* I am speaking broadly here, as today distinct Mexican (regional-based) cuisines are available in Los Angeles. The popular Baja-style has arisen from the work of modern chefs in nearby Baja California, Mexico. This is relatively new though, and the hybrid or Americanized form is still generally understood in North America as “Mexican”.