50 Years Ago: Navajo taco bursts flavorfully onto scene
The Navajo Times, in its second issue of 1970, finally recognized the importance of the Navajo Taco. Dick Hardwick, the paper’s managing editor, said the invention of the Navajo taco should rank up there in importance to members of the tribe with the invention of the telephone and the steam engine.
In fact, it should be the second most important invention in Navajo history, ranked slightly below the creation of the Navajo Times in 1959 by Dillon Platero and John McPhee. The first Navajo taco was created by Lou Shepard, who worked for the tribe in the 1960s as manager of the Navajo Lodge, a tribally owned motel and restaurant located across the street from what is now the Navajo Education Center. The lodge was closed in the early 1970s and was converted into an office building that now houses the training center and other departments.
The story of how the Navajo taco was created was told to Hardwick by Allen Yazzie, who said he visited the restaurant on a cold wintery night in 1964. Because of the weather, he was the only customer. He told Shepherd he was really hungry, having spent most of the day walking and hitchhiking from Forest Lake, Arizona.
He and Shepherd were old friends and Yazzie knew that Shepard liked to blend different kinds of foods together to make a unique snack. So when he was asked what he wanted to eat, Yazzie said he wanted to be surprised. So Shepherd went back into the kitchen to see what he had on hand. Yazzie said the first thing Shepherd saw was some Navajo fried bread so he took one of them, placed it on his table and looked around to see what he could place on top of it.
The first thing he saw was some beans. “I’ll use that,” Shepherd said. He then added some red chili to put a little zing in the dish. Shepherd later said he had he no idea what he was making. “I was making it up as I went along,” he said. He looked at what was before him and decided it needed more so he went into his refrigerator and took out some tossed salad and placed that with the beans and chili.
He called Yazzie to come into the kitchen and see what he had made. When Yazzie came in and saw what Shepherd had done, he was impressed and told Shepherd to “give him the works” so Shepherd threw green chili on top of what he had made and presented it to Yazzie. Yazzie dug in and said it was one of the best things he had ever tasted.
It was so good, he said, that he urged Shepherd to put it on his regular menu, which he did the next day. It was an immediate sensation and it soon became the most popular item on the menu. Shepherd found himself making as many as 75 Navajo Tacos a day. Many of his customers would order it three or four times a week. At first, it was only called “Lou’s Special” but one day a customer came in and asked for it by calling it a “Navajo taco” and that is what it has been known as since.
Shepherd said later that a lot of people believed it was a traditional Navajo dish but he would proudly admit that he was the creator. He soon discovered that his creation was being blamed whenever tribal officials fell asleep during an afternoon meeting. The dish was so heavy in calories that people claimed it made them sleepy in the afternoon. His creation became the talk of the area and soon was being sold in border town restaurants where chefs would add their own toppings to make it their own.
Shephard himself fooled round with the ingredients from time to time. “You could take almost anything you wanted and put it on frybread and it would taste good,” he said. Martin Link, the former director of the Navajo Tribal Museum, said he went into the restaurant one day soon after the Navajo Taco went on the menu.
A tourist came in and looked over the menu. When the waitress came by for his order, he told her he wanted three of those Navajo Tacos thinking they were the same size as a regular taco. He soon found out how mistaken he was. The waitress agreed to take two of them back and Shepherd instructed his wait staff to make sure that people knew the size of the taco when they ordered it.