Los Angeles is in love with neon. It’s a city that adores tacos too, but the alluring glow of a roadside stand, lit up in warming hues of yellow, red, and green ... that’s a Southern California thing, through and through.
And so it may be that the first time you ever noticed Taco Treat in Arcadia was because of the neon, wrapping the slanted building and its 1950s Googie-inspired standalone sign. Though, if you’re of a certain age, it’s entirely possible that Taco Treat means much, much more to you. After all, the place is something of a San Gabriel Valley hard-shelled taco legend — yes, even with Taco Lita just down the street — and is closing in on the 65 year mark.
To understand Taco Treat is, really, to understand greater LA’s enduring fascination with the 1950s, its quirks and cars and fast food revolution and sprawling suburbs, all draped in the hollow glow of a neon sign. As food writers like Gustavo Arellano in Orange County have thoughtfully noted at length, the ‘50s and ‘60s were a time of great social and culinary upheaval, as the Civil Rights Movement crashed against the shores of a changing landscape in Southern California.
Heavily segregated communities in the San Gabriel Valley and greater Inland Empire suddenly found themselves answering some very tough questions, especially as people like Taco Bell namesake Glen Bell crafted ways to make money from recipes remarkably similar to those long on the menu at Latino community restaurants like Mitla Cafe.
The result of so much change, so fast, was expansion, both demographically and geographically. A booming white middle class hungry to elbow into new markets and cuisine types began demanding things like fast food hamburgers and hard-shelled tacos. The late 1950s and early 1960s also saw the rising unification of California’s highway supersystem, with the timeline capper the Hart-Cellar immigration act of 1965 that would, in the decades to follow, help draw in millions of Asian and African immigrants to America.
Neon signs like the one outside Taco Treat became important cultural markers, ways for new and often multicultural small business owners to proudly display their wares while drawing eyes off the road and into their shops. Googie architecture, with its blown out color schemes, sharp corners, and big windows, achieved much the same thing.
Taco Treat began capitalizing on this unique time in Southern California’s history around 1953, though its ‘current’ iteration dates to 1969, when the Morrow family began running the joint. Pretty quickly the restaurant became known as a great place to get the usual fare: burgers, fries, chili, soda, and Mexican-leaning menu favorites like hard-shelled tacos and bean and cheese burritos.
But the real quirk to Taco Treat is in their burritos, which come deep fried as a matter of course. They’re thinner too than the bulbous Mission monstrosities now more prevalent across the U.S., wrapped in a shatteringly light fried tortilla that holds near-molten innards when first bitten into. Think of it like an inverted plate of nachos, where all the ingredients you’re hoping to scoop up in each bite are already on the inside. Genius, and more than a little disconcerting health-wise.
And then there are the hard-shelled tacos, that leftover vestige of true last century nostalgia. Much more famous places like Tito’s Tacos in Culver City still inspire fans many decades on for its adherence to the shredded yellow cheese and spiced ground beef taco model, but to some old-timers it’s Taco Treat that offers all the charm.
Much like Highland Park’s own Taco Fiesta, there was for a time more than one Taco Treat. Another outlet existed in nearby Monterey Park, while a third location in South Pasadena earned the most notoriety. Both are decades gone now, with only the Arcadia stop still in the hands of the Morrow family. Original owner Harold Morrow passed away in 2011, and today Taco Treat carries on thanks to his daughter.
So too do the diners, friendly types who continue to pull in under that faded sign for a couple of tacos and a deep-fried bean and cheese burrito should they feel up to it. The place remains cash only as always, and on Monday and Tuesday you’ll find discounts on burritos and tostadas. There are picnic tables for eating in, though lots of folks just pack their sacks for the road. This is still a freeway city, after all.
Like all good bits of nostalgia, not much has changed at Taco Treat in the nearly 65 years since first being built. Or, looked at another way, just about everything around the place has changed, from the politics to the demographics to the highways themselves. After all this time, it’s Taco Treat that has remained exactly the same.
74 E. Live Oak