Ground beef tacos don’t earn a lot of love in hardcore Los Angeles dining circles. A widely bastardized sub-genre of the classic styles found across Mexico, ground meat tacos and burritos — the ones often piled high with shredded yellow cheese and chopped lettuce — are almost uniquely American. Their rise in the middle of the 20th century speaks to the nation’s growing commodity farming movement, its boundless appetite for red meat, and an immigrant restaurant population looking to expand its clientele base.
The results of this particular time in American taco history can still be seen today at places like Taco Treat in Arcadia. More modern adherents marry the soul food spectrum into their tortillas, with Sky’s Gourmet Tacos on Pico Boulevard a prime example, while still others offer a kind of technicolor 2.0 version of the off-the-shelf taco kits so ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s — just look to All Flavor No Grease in Watts for a master class in that genre.
Near the beginning of this long and complicated ground beef taco history, there is Original Bill’s Taco House on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., working a menu so unique it’s practically a unicorn on the taco scene. See, Original Bill’s Taco House makes a slight ground beef taco variation known simply as the cheeseburger taco, which is exactly what it sounds like in an “I can’t believe I don’t see this done everywhere” kind of way.
A fully formed burger patty is cooked off and split in half, topped with full slices of American cheese, and all the regular burger accoutrement. It sounds novel even today, and a far cry from the often mealy ground beef and shredded cheese hard-shelled tacos of one’s youth — except they have been doing it since just after World War II.
Now, this isn’t to say that nobody in the history of taco-making started combining ground beef and melted cheese and lettuce and tomato into a tortilla before the eponymous Bill. But 1949, the year Original Bill’s opened, was a long time ago. Louis’ Lunch in Connecticut, widely credited as the birthplace of the modern American hamburger, only started making their ground beef sandwiches in 1900, with The Rite Spot in Pasadena claiming to be the first to craft a cheeseburger by 1924.
To have those ingredients, now so common in the comfort food lexicon of Los Angeles (and America as a whole) put into a tortilla and sold as tacos just 25 years later is pretty remarkable, and speaks to the quickly-changing food climate of the mid-1900s.
For some localized reference: Original Bill’s Taco House predates Tito’s Tacos by a full decade, and Henry’s Tacos even longer. Only restaurants like Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino have been at it since before Original Bill’s, and that restaurant’s hard-shelled taco model would go on to help stylize the way millions of Americans first experienced tacos for the next 80 years.
Yet here is Alex Stupak of Empellón in New York City, waxing poetic for Lucky Peach recently about his discovery of the cheeseburger taco while on a two-day trip to Mexico City. Here is Pour Vida Latin Flavor, doing their take on In-N-Out’s flavors, spread across a tortilla down in Orange County. Both well-meaning, eager to capitalize on what seems like a novel idea, and both with likely no idea whatsoever that Bill’s has been making cheeseburger tacos literally for generations.
68 years on, Bill’s is still thriving, despite a few failed franchise deals over the years that left some unaffiliated Bill’s locations scattered elsewhere. It remains a community hub for a part of town dealing with the pressures of an expanding Downtown, and a changing local demographic. There have been only three owners in the history of Original Bill’s Taco House: Bill himself, Hank Silva who bought the place in the 60s (also called Bill by many an unknowing customer), and Eva Man, a Korean female business owner who took over the restaurant 30 years ago, in the shadow of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that so drastically affected her community.
The menu still focuses on those cheeseburger tacos, wrapped in commercial tortillas lightly fried to give them an airiness and chewy texture. Ground beef patties are chopped and topped with American cheese, then the whole thing is layered off with shredded lettuce and slices of tomato.
You’ll also find regular burgers and fries, plus the Silva Burrito, a nod to Hank, the second owner. There, a flour tortilla comes packed with two half-chopped burger patties, beans, and cheese, and poured over with another Original Bill’s signature: chili gravy. No beans, no meat, just a thin enchilada-like sauce splashed around on everything from fries to tamales, and smothering the Silva burrito.
Stick around the open dining area of Bill’s long enough and you’ll find all manner of long-time regulars coming through, shouting to Eva about this or that. Most will happily tell you how long they’ve been coming to this particular location (always measured in decades), while younger kids from nearby schools stumble in with crinkled dollar bills to split a plate of fries and chili gravy.
There is no active Instagram account or flowery profile in a high-gloss print magazine for Original Bill’s Taco House. Black and white photos on the wall show off patrons long gone, or images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while the ancient sputtering jukebox at one end is as likely to play cumbia as it is country. This is what quiet, unpretentious community dining looks like outside of the food-obsessed Los Angeles bubble, even if the restaurant in question has been making one spectacularly unique food for almost seventy years.
Original Bill’s Taco House
219 E. Martin Luther King Jr.
Los Angeles, CA