I recently finished reading Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA, an interesting combo platter of history, personal stories, and food culture. In his detailed overview of the history and evolution of Mexican food in the U.S.A., Arellano recounts many fascinating stories, like how the first English-language taco recipe got into print, the invention of the frozen margarita machine, and inventions for frying tortillas for tacos. In this post, I’m looking at that last topic, tortilla frying inventions.
In the late 1940s, tacos became a popular food in some parts of the United States. Most tacos back then were hard-shelled, so each day restaurants needed to fry lots of corn tortillas into the taco shape before filling and serving. It was a tedious and sometimes dangerous ordeal for kitchen staff, as Arellano writes in Taco USA:
But preparing the tacos was an arduous task. In the days before fast food, restaurateurs fried each taco shell to order, throwing them into hot oil in a U-shaped form held together by a toothpick. To properly fry them, cooks had to poke around the cooking oil with their fingers or clumsily use utensils to ensure that each side achieved an ideal crispiness, then take out the finished product without scalding themselves.
Naturally, restaurateurs, cooks and inventors tried to find a better way. And some even went through the lengthy process of filing for a patent on their invention.
The First Patented Tortilla Frying Device
The first patent for an improved frying device was issued to Juvencio Maldonado in 1950. Maldonado immigrated from Mexico in 1929, and although originally trained as an electrician, he ended up in the restaurant business, opening Xochitl in midtown Manhattan in 1938. His place was a big hit and tacos were a big seller. Xochitl is long gone, but fortunately for us, the incredible New York Public Library menu collection has a 1959 menu from Xochitl, which claims to be “New York’s best and only real Mexican restaurant.” Except for a few quirks — like filing tequilas under “whiskies” on the beverage menu — the menu could be dropped into nearly any Mexican restaurant today without causing a stir (and it has one of my favorite things: mole. “Always order the mole” is one of my personal proverbs).
The cover page has a helpful primer about Mexican foods, describing enchiladas, tacos, and other foods on the menu. On later pages, it has some hospitality notes that have both a 1950s feel, and a “yes, we know that our restaurant is a little unusual”:
- “It is proper to eat your fried Tacos and Tostadas with your hands.”
- “We’ll deem it a compliment if you will accept a menu as a souvenir”
- “For a banquet meal may we suggest a glass of wine with your dinner”
Maldonado also had problems with tortilla frying at Xochitl and so he tinkered with forms and holders, finally ending up with the device that he submitted to the patent office. Below is an illustration from his patent, U.S. Patent 2,506,305. The operator folds a tortilla over each of the taco-shaped molds (29 in the drawing), and then affixes the ends to hold them in place. To be honest, I don’t see how the tortillas are held in a taco shape during frying — it seems like they could flap around, especially the bottom edge. It’s worth noting that inventions described in patents don’t have to work very well — the applicant only needs to convince the examiner that the invention is useful, novel and non-obvious. And we don’t know if Maldonado ever used his patented device at his restaurant(s). He might have improved on it further but never received another patent.
The Second Patented Tortilla Frying Device
The second taco shell patent was issued to Joseph Pompa, of Glendale, Arizona. Unfortunately, Taco USA didn’t have any details about his life, but the internet came through for me with a 2012 article about Joseph Pompa and his tortilla fryer (from the Arizona Republic, via the Deseret News).
Joseph Pompa hailed from Pearce, Arizona, a small town in the southeast corner of the state. He worked quite a few jobs in his early adulthood: he was a miner, an electrical engineer, he invested in real estate, ran a bar, and finally opened a restaurant called La Perla in Glendale, Arizona. Tacos were popular and tortilla frying was laborious, requiring significant attention to keeping the tortilla moving in the hot oil while keeping it in taco shape. So Pompa put his mechanical skills to work in his shed and found a better way: a rectangular box with forms to hold tortillas in the correct shape during frying. He found a lawyer, who drafted the application and went through the patent process. After a few years, Pompa received U.S. Patent 2,570,374, “Machine for Frying Tortillas.”
The next picture is the illustration page from Pompa’s patent with four views of the device. It looks a lot more functional than Maldonado’s invention — the tortillas are draped the bottom form (14), then held in place by the top form (20). Holes in the metal allow hot oil to move around the tortillas for even cooking.
The Arizona Republic article doesn’t say if Pompa ever licensed his patent or sued anyone for infringement, but it notes that near the end of his life he was meeting with attorneys, perhaps getting ready to defend his patent (Pompa died in 1961 at age 47). Were nascent taco chains stealing his invention to power their growth? It’s not an impossibility: there was some major taco action in the late 1950s. For example, Glen Bell and his partners were selling tacos in the 1950s in many restaurants in Southern California (Taco Tia, Bell’s Drive Ins, and El Taco. The first Taco Bell opened in 1962.).
While we don’t know if Maldonado ever used his invention in Xochitl, there is confirmation that Pompa built several of these machines and they were regularly used in the restaurant, with the last original model lasting into the 2000s, after which his son created a replica to keep the tortilla frying operations running smoothly. Photos 2 and 3 in a La Perla Mexican restaurant slideshow show a successor to the original device in action. Unfortunately, La Perla closed in February 2016, and it’s not clear where the tortilla fryer ended up. If you ask me, it should be in a food history museum.
- Photo of 11 cents change from Robert Couse-Baker’s Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License
- Detail of Xochitl menu from Buttolph Menu Collection, Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1959, no known copyright restrictions
- “Form for frying tortillas to make fried tacos”, U.S. Patent 2,506,305, by Juvencio Maldonado, issued May 2, 1950, public domain (downloaded from Google Patents)
- “Machine for frying tortillas”, U.S. Patent 2,570,374, by Joseph P. Pompa, issued October 9, 1951, public domain (downloaded from Google Patents)