"Mexican" foods that were invented in America

When you think of Mexican foods, there are so many potential things that come to mind: tacos, burritos, guacamole, salsas, fajitas, mole sauce, margaritas, palomas… the list goes on and on. While Mexico has very long, rich, complex and varied culinary traditions, some of those foods you think are Mexican were actually not invented in Mexico. Here are some of the Mexican foods that were actually invented in the United States.

Fajitas

According to the Corvallis Gazette-Times, the word "fajita" was used for the first time in print in relation to the dish in 1975, but it got it's start before that. This very popular dish likely originated with Mexican workers living and working near the Mexican border in West Texas in the 1930s. These men were given cuts of meat like head, intestines, and fajita (skirt steak) that likely wouldn't sell. They would marinate the meat in lime juice and pound it to make it more tender before cooking it over a fire and serving it wrapped in a flour tortilla. Perhaps the first restaurant to serve the dish was Roundup in McAllen, Texas. Now, of course, fajitas can be made with beef, shrimp, chicken, and even more. The dish has Mexican roots, thanks to the ranch workers who invented it, but it actually started in Texas.

Sopapillas

Sopapillas, which can be made savory or sweet, but are often served with a light dusting of cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar, are a little bit like French beignets and a little bit like biscuits. They're often associated with Mexican food, but sopapillas were actually invented in New Mexico.

Chile con queso

In 1928, Kraft Foods invented American classic cheese product, Velveeta, according to Texas Monthly. Velveeta is, of course, famously the base for Texas' favorite dip, chile con queso, synonymous with parties, tailgates, and gatherings of all shape and size. This dip, made with Velveeta, of course, as well as a can of tomatoes and chilies, wouldn't be quite the same without this particular cheese product. Other cheese dips, such as queso fundido, which was definitely not invented in America and is thoroughly Mexican, would, if made in Mexico, use traditional cheeses as their base.

Taco salad

Taco salad, the best of which is, of course, served in a crunchy, edible tortilla-like shell, was originally created in the United States. As noted Mexican food expert Gustavo Arellano explained in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and again in his column for OC Weekly, the earliest incarnation of a taco salad was developed by the founder of Fritos, Elmer Doolin, and called the Tacup. They were sold in Dallas (where Fritos was headquartered) and then expanded to Fritos' restaurant at Disneyland, Casa de Fritos. These items were a mixture of beans, ground beef, cheese, and sour cream, served in a Frito cup, which operated in much the same way as those massive tortilla bowls. After its debut at Disneyland, the dish became increasingly popular, which ultimately led to the creation of the taco salad as you know it today. Foods sold at Disney parks often influence popular trends and the Tacup is only one of many.

Mission burritos

It's important to note that burritos in general were decidedly not invented in the United States, but mission-style burritos, named after the neighborhood in San Francisco, were in fact invented in the U.S. According to Vox, the over-stuffed burritos that are now well-known (and enjoyed) nation-wide were originally invented at El Faro in the Mission District of San Francisco in 1961. The burrito they created — filled with so much more than the more traditional beans and rice — became increasingly popular, which led to the creation of larger tortillas and even larger burritos. The Mission burrito is likely what you're thinking of when you think about the burritos on the menus of your local restaurants. You definitely won't go hungry if there's a Mission burrito around.

Margaritas

Lots of Americans love margaritas, but they may not know that one of their favorite summer drinks was invented in the United States. According to Texas Monthly, an El Paso man named Pancho Morales claimed to have invented the margarita in the summer of 1942. He told Texas Monthly that he created the drink after a woman came in asking for a Magnolia, which he generally knew of, but wasn't sure how to make, so he faked it and told her he'd thought she said Margarita instead. That's not the more popular, well-known story about the invention of the Margarita, which is sometimes said to have been created in Los Angeles by the team at a bar, The Tail O' The Cock, and named in partnership with famous tequila importer Vern Underwood. Texas Monthly maintains that Morales created the Margarita, which became popular in Southern California several years later.

You also have the state of Texas to thank for the creation of the frozen margarita machine, according to The Dallas Morning News. The first frozen margarita machine was invented at Mariano's in Dallas in 1971 and it's been overwhelmingly popular ever since.

Chimichangas

A chimichanga is, essentially, a deep-fried burrito and, since it's invention, has become a staple at many Mexican restaurants in America. According to The New York Times, there are two competing origin stories for the chimichanga, however, both contend that the dish was invented in Arizona. 

Sharisse Johnson, president of the Phoenix-based chain Macayo's Mexican Kitchen, argued it was her father, Woody, who invented the chimichanga in 1946 while experimenting in the kitchen. Carlotta Flores, from Tuscon-based El Charro Cafe, said the chimichanga was actually invented in the early 1950s, when her great-aunt Monica Flin accidentally knocked a burrito into a vat of lard, deep-frying it. She began to say a Spanish curse word, but, after seeing there were kids around, changed it to "chimichanga." Regardless of who actually did the inventing, it seems likely that the chimichanga was, in fact, invented somewhere in Arizona. The actual origins, however, may not ever truly be known.

Pre-formed taco shells

The most important part of the taco nights of your youth, pre-formed, pre-fried taco shells, while heavily influenced by Mexican culinary traditions — there are hard shell tacos there too — are an American invention. In an interview with Atlas Obscura, Robb Walsh, a food writer and Texas food expert, said that Glen Bell, the creator of Taco Bell, was the one who originally came up with the idea for the pre-formed taco shell, in an effort to make his restaurant more efficient. It fit his plan for his fast food, McDonald's-inspired restaurant, which is truly how they came to be.

Tortilla chips

Tortilla chips are delicious, versatile, and one of Americans' favorite snack foods. They're ubiquitous in American Mexican restaurants (and elsewhere), but they weren't always this way. According to an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, an L.A.-based tortilla factory, which had recently mechanized the tortilla-making process, originally threw out any less than perfect tortillas that came off the line. In the late 1940s, El Zarape Tortilla Factory president Rebecca Webb Carranza cut some of the rejected tortillas into triangular wedges, fried them, and then served them to her family. Her family approved, so Carranza began to sell the new tortilla chips at her Mexican deli in L.A. Tortilla chips overtook the original tortilla production and became the central focus of the business in the 1960s, and ordinary dinners, family gatherings, tailgates, and the like would never be the same again.