Why Hard Shell Tacos Are A No-Go At Traditional Mexican Restaurants

If you're heading to a Mexican restaurant — one that focuses on traditional dishes from Mexico, such as posole (or pozole) or sopa de lima, instead of a place like Taco Bell or Del Taco — you'll probably want to steer clear of ordering hard shell tacos. This isn't because hard shell tacos are necessarily bad, but rather, if you're looking for them at a traditional Mexican restaurant, you're looking in the incorrect place. It's not wrong to eat the hard-shelled version, but getting them at a classic Mexican eatery is a bit like going to a traditional Korean restaurant and asking for a Chinese dish.


Hard shell tacos originate from within the borders of the United States, and while there are some Mexican connections, you won't generally find them in Mexico itself. South of the border, tacos are typically made with soft corn or wheat tortillas, and the fillings vary widely, from slow-cooked barbacoa to rotisserie-style al pastor. So, if you're ordering tacos at a traditional Mexican eatery, you can look forward to enjoying this fresh, soft-shelled version. While there's no limit to the fillings for hard shell tacos, they tend to feature seasoned ground meat topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheddar.

Where hard shell tacos came from

Hard shell tacos do have a connection to Mexico, and while their exact origins are hard to pin down, it's generally accepted that they were probably popularized by Mexican immigrants within the U.S. Specifically, an immigrant-owned San Bernardino restaurant called Mitla Cafe is credited as the first place to serve the Americanized hard shell taco in the 1930s. Owners Lucia and Salvador Rodriguez called the tacos "dorados," and filled them with what are now considered the go-to hard shell fillings, such as ground beef and cheese, because those are the ingredients the restaurant owners had access to. Tacos dorados are also found in northern Mexico, although they're quite different in form: They're made with soft tortillas, which are rolled up and fried, with ingredients that lean more towards traditional Mexican cuisine compared to what many consider the standard hard taco fillings.


The reason hard shell tacos became so popular is because Glen Bell — founder of Taco Bell — visited Mitla Cafe and took the idea to serve in a restaurant he later opened, called Taco Tia. He later expanded this concept by founding Taco Bell, where the idea really took off, and Bell has sometimes (erroneously) been credited with inventing hard shell tacos.

What to order instead

Mitla Cafe is still open for business, and it would be more than appropriate to go there and order hard shell tacos. However, it's somewhat of an exception, as hard shell tacos are now more commonly associated with Americanized Mexican restaurants. If you're visiting a classic Mexican restaurant and still desire a dish featuring crispy tortillas, you have some options. The closest thing you can get would be Northern Mexican-style tacos dorados, which are essentially the fried version of a soft taco. They're sometimes referred to as taquitos or flautas. Keep in mind that there are regional cuisines across Mexico, so a restaurant specializing in food from Oaxaca in the south, for example, might not have them.


However, such a restaurant may offer tostadas, which are another excellent crispy option. They're made with a crispy, flat tortilla, and the toppings can vary widely, including beans, meats, and vegetables. While you might not find Taco Bell-style toppings, it should still be a delicious choice.