I’m adding one more menu from 1967 (courtesy the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org) in terms of the introduction of Mexican cuisine to a mainstream audience in the U.S.
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: it closed in 2009-2010, so almost 60 years in business. The restaurant was enlarged numerous times, as this interesting report from 1990 observes.
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 i) not really new, ii) usually a hybrid of Mexican and American food 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 too amongst these categories and within them, depending on the region/town and sometimes the restaurant. (Angelenos like crispy tacos, the Texans like the soft kind, etc.).
As to the hybrid nature of the food, in general things like wheat-based tacos (vs. corn), use of 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, the provinces of Baja California, always ate something closer to American Mexican food than the other five or six regions which often differ quite a bit among themselves.
But rather than go further here, I will focus more on what American restaurateurs offered to diners as “Mexican” from the 1960s.
The menu below shows the approach of Mexican Garden, which was clearly more adventurous than Cafe del Sol as it presented not just a few Mexican dishes, or non-Mexican dishes gussied up to sound Mexican, but a full array of Mexican dishes familiar to us today.
Rather than describe each one, 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. I think Mexican Garden always hedged its bets, covering both ends of the spectrum that is, indeed it seems this continued to the end.
Coronado is well south of L.A. and its conurbation, not so far from the Mexican border, and it had the 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 it in L.A. in the 1940s, although if I’m wrong I’m happy to see the results!
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. Its 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 Mexican Villages, but they are linked surely spiritually. 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”.