Charting Mexican Restaurant Chains

Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr

Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on FlickrThis post was inspired by Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano (2012, Scribner), an ambitious and entertaining book that reviews the history of America’s love of Mexican food using profiles of business people, restaurateurs, cooks, and more (my 2017 review of Taco USA).

Chain restaurants played a critical role in expanding Mexican food’s popularity across the USA 1. And so Arellano spends many pages discussing their rise (and fall, in some cases).

As I read those sections, the restaurant counts caught my attention — a chance to make charts! So I wrote down what I saw in the book, and later went to the library and internet to find more data. Annual reports were on-line for Taco Bell and Chipotle, and often had restaurant counts. For the smaller or departed chains of Chi-Chi’s and El Torito, my internet searches brought me to the company profiles at Funding Universe and an article in Louisville Business First.

Although the dataset is incomplete, I thought it worthwhile to post what I have — perhaps a commenter will fill in the blanks or suggest other chains that should be charted. (For an autosized view of the chart, visit the my chart of Mexican restaurants at Tableau Public.)

Taco Bell’s major growth was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, reaching a peak near 7,000 locations in 1999. Chipotle’s year after year growth continues and they plan on opening new stores (although the company’s food safety issues hurt their revenues, its effect didn’t have much impact on the location count). Both Chi-Chi’s and El Torito hit their peaks around 19902.

One other factoid from the annual reports is a breakdown of where people buy Mexican food. The 2002 Annual Report from Taco Bell’s parent company (Yum! Brands) claims that market share for Mexican quick service restaurants was 72% for Taco Bell, 18% for independents, and 10% for 4 other chains3.

Image Credit


There’s Devil’s Tongue in My Stew

Photo of konnyaku (yam cake)

Photo of konnyaku (yam cake)One of the many interesting ingredients in the Japanese pantry is konnyaku — a versatile, low calorie food with a highly distinctive texture. It’s rubbery and springier than even finger jello1.

Also called “devil’s tongue jelly,” konnyaku is more or less flavorless until it is simmered in broth, and so it is almost always part of a dish that has a flavorful broth or dressing. Besides soaking up the flavors of the broth, it provides an interesting textural element to stews and soups — for example, in the vegetable stew recipe below, you get soft vegetable, soft vegetable, soft vegetable, some fairly soft tofu, and then springy, resilient konnyaku.

The calorie label is a bit hard to believe: a 9 ounce (255 gram) package has only 30 calories, just 0.12 calories per gram, compared with a carbohydrate’s 4 calories per gram or a fat’s 9 calories per gram. The reason for this is fiber: the magic of konnyaku is that it form a resilient mass of fiber with nearly no starch, fat or protein.

Konnyaku is made from the root of the Amorphophallus konjac plant, which is peeled, boiled, and mashed, before a coagulant is added to cause the paste to set into a gel. Sometimes hijiki (a sea vegetable) is added for flavor, nutrition (calcium), and color. (The konnyaku in the photo above contains hijiki — the konnyaku noodles in the photo below do not.)

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Which Country Grows the Most Avocados?

Avocado Production from 1961 to 2014 - Data from FAOSTAT

At the 2017 International Food Blogging Conference in Sacramento, one of the sponsors was Avocados from Chile1, the avocado promotion agency from that nation. The logic behind their promotional efforts in California is sound:

  • United States avocado growers can’t meet growing U.S. demand
  • The California avocado harvest is typically between April and September
  • Chile is in the southern hemisphere, so the harvest is shifted by six months and runs from September to March2

Avocado toast photo by T. Tseng on Flickr CC-by 2.0
Photo by T. Tseng on FlickrCC-by 2.0

Which Country Grows the Most Avocados?

Avocados from Chile’s presence at the conference got me thinking: Who grows avocados? Where does Chile fit in?  Is production from Chile on the upswing?

Fortunately, one of my favorite statistical databases — FAOSTAT — had the answers3 and Tableau Public made it fairly easy to tell the story with charts.

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Bring Zing to Your Posts with Public Domain or Creative Commons Images

Winslow Homer Gulf Stream - from the Metropolitan Museum of Art DP140858 Unswept floor mosaic from ancient Rome Owl person drawing by W.M. Thackeray from Thackerayana (1875) - page 387 Heade - Hummingbird and passionflowers DT2080 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art "Her Bitter Awakening", book cover from the British Library Hiroshige woodblock print - Fugu and Inada Fish, from the series Uozukushi DP123586 Banana, from Flora de Filipinas by F.M. Blanco, ca 1880 Woman stirring a saucepan on a stove, lithograph by Charles Philipon, from the Wellcome Collection Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr Passenger Pigeons by Audubon 1840-1844 from NYPL digital collections Cacao from Flore Medicale by Chaumeton et al, 1820.08

Main Reading Room at the U.S. Library of CongressSoon after I started blogging 10+ years ago, I learned about Creative Commons licenses, which some creators apply to their own work so it can be shared with certain restrictions (note that this blog is currently licensed with a CC BY-NC-SA 2.5, and my Flickr collection also has a CC license).  After figuring out the mechanics, I started using CC-licensed items to add visual elements to my blog posts (the first CC image I used was a lovely black and white photo of a crow in flight from Mark Lorch’s collection for my random musings about a Los Angeles street).  I continued to use Creative Commons art, mostly from Flickr, when I wanted a picture of a carrot, or a wheel of cheese, or something similarly relevant to my post.

As time went on, new collections of images appeared and I learned about existing collections, and started to use them as sources of the art for my blog. Eventually, however, my tastes changed slightly and I started being attracted to the ‘vintage’ material in the archives. I liked adding quirky or unusual images to my posts — instead of a picture of a finished dish that I was writing about, I’d include something from an old seed catalog or a fairy tale (as in my post about turnip pickles and turnip greens).

In the spirit of the Creative Commons, I’ll share a few of my favorite sources and list some of their good and bad characteristics:  Flickr Commons, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CCSearch, Wellcome Collection image library, and Google Books/Hathi Trust.

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The Seven Kinds of Catsup (Ketchup) You’ll Meet in a 19th Century Cookbook

Mushroom Catsup (Ketchup) Ad from Mrs Beeton's book of household management

Woman stirring a saucepan on a stove, lithograph by Charles Philipon, from the Wellcome Collection
Lithograph by Charles Philipon, from the Wellcome Collection

As I’ve discussed before, in the olden days, catsup/ketchup was about much more than tomatoes. Cookbooks from the 18th and 19th century are ripe with recipes for catsup/ketchup that contain ingredients that are decidedly non-ketchup ingredients, like walnuts, anchovies, and oysters.

In the early 19th century cookbook The Cook’s Oracle, author William Kitchiner shares seven recipes for catsup 1. He is a fan of DIY catsup, noting at the end of his mushroom catsup recipe that

What is sold for mushroom catsup, is generally an injudicious composition of so many different tastes, that the flavour of the mushroom is overpowered by a farrago of garlic, anchovy, mustard, shallot, beer, wine, spices, &c.

Ready made catsup is little better than a decoction of spice and water, with the grosser parts of the mushrooms all beaten up to a pulp.

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You Like Tomato, I Like Tom-ah-to, Dr. Kitchiner Likes Apples

Pizza with Mock Tomato Sauce (Mock Tomata) from the Cook's Oracle by William Kitchiner

Pizza with Mock Tomato Sauce (Mock Tomata) from the Cook's Oracle by William Kitchiner
The pizza sauce isn’t yellow because I used yellow tomatoes, it’s because I used a “mock tomato sauce” made with apples

After posts on 19th century complaints about plagiarism and the evolution of recipe writing style, we finally get to the recipe that originally attracted me to William Kitchiner’s 1818 book, The Cook’s OracleMock Tomata Sauce [sic].

When I first saw Mock Tomata Sauce on my screen, I had a few thoughts. First: ????. Next: I need to try this. And then: this reminds me of the delicious mostarda spread / sauce in the Gjelina cookbook (a concoction of lightly fried apples, coarse mustard, rosemary, etc.), so I can see it working.

Here’s Kitchiner’s recipe (mid-sentence capitalizations and “tomata” in original):

Mock Tomata Sauce. — (No. 293.)

Reduce sharp tasted apples to a pulp as in making apple sauce; pound them in a mortar with as much turmeric as will give them colour, and as much Chili vinegar as will give the same degree of acid flavour that the tomata has; add to each pint a quarter of an ounce of shallots shred fine; put all into a well-tinned saucepan and mix them well together, and give them a gentle boil; when cold, take out the shallot1 and put the sauce into small stone bottles; your sauce should be of the consistence of a thick syrup 2; this may be regulated by the Chili vinegar.

Obs. — The only difference3, between this, and genuine Love-apple Sauce, is the substituting the pulp of Apple for that of Tomata, and colouring it with turmeric.

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Save the Basil! A Tip to Keep It Fresh

(Updated with alternative method to preserve fresh basil)

Believe it or not, the bunch of Thai basil in the photo below is three or four weeks old (it’s been so long that I don’t remember). And yet it is almost as bright green and lush as it was on the day I bought it.

Fresh basil preserved for several weeks

I don’t remember where I heard this tip, but since it works so well and it is basil season, it’s worth sharing.

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Cookbook Author Rants about Cutting and Pasting in Cookbooks

Baker's Kitchen. Engraving by Benard. Wellcome Collection m2wrjvfj

Baker's Kitchen. Engraving by Benard. Wellcome Collection m2wrjvfj
A baker’s kitchen, engraving by Benard

The following Receipts [Ed. note: recipes] are not a mere marrowless collection of shreds, and patches, and cuttings, and pastings, from obsolete works, but a bona fide register of practical facts, accumulated by a perseverance not to be subdued, or evaporated, by the igniferous terrors of a roasting fire in the dog-days. The Receipts have been written down by the fireside “with a spit in one hand, and a pen in the other,” … the author submitting to a labour no preceding Cookery-Book-maker, perhaps, ever attempted to encounter; having eaten each Receipt, before he set it down in his book.

So rants William Kitchiner, in the preface of his 1817 The Cook’s Oracle 1, a collection of cooking instructions and over 500 recipes for all types of foods.

Later in the preface, he continues his tirade:

Most of these books2 vary but little from each other, except in the prefatory matter: cutting and pasting seem to have been much oftener employed than the pen and ink: any one who has occasion to refer to two or three of them, will find the receipts almost always “verbatim et literatim;” equally unintelligible to those who are ignorant of, and useless to those who are acquainted with, the business of the kitchen.

Yes, Dr. Kitchiner3 is passionate about his work and doesn’t think much of his contemporaries and predecessors.  He backs up his claims with hundreds of pages of (supposedly) original content, clear writing, and fully tested recipes.  

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Torta Verde: a Savory Pie from Italy

The crust of a torta verde, an Italian savory pie. This one is filled with chard, potatoes and feta.

The crust of a torta verde, an Italian savory pie. This one is filled with chard, potatoes and feta.
The crust of a torta verde, an Italian savory pie. This one is filled with chard, potatoes and feta.

Now and then a food magazine contains a recipe that becomes a standard my kitchen. Even more rarely, a single issue will contain two standards. The May/June 1998 issue of Saveur was one of those rarities, with two recipes that I have made many, many times and consider critical parts of my cooking repertoire.

The first is clafoutis;, a dessert of fruit embedded in a custard, a dessert I make a few times during the cherry and apricot season in the spring. Although it can be adapted to fall fruit like apples and pears, I haven’t tried those variations. The second is torta verde, a savory pie from the Liguria region of Italy. In this torta, a thin olive oil crust holds a mixture of Swiss chard, feta cheese, onion, potato and eggs.  I probably make it once a month, all year round, especially before long domestic flights because it is superbly portable and has robust flavors that stand up to taste-killing aircraft cabins.

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