Even after the signage has been removed and the seven layers of grime, grit and gordita grease have been scrubbed clean from their interior walls, defunct Taco Bells — specifically, the iconic Mission-style structures with abode or tan-brick walls, red clay tile roofs and arched windows erected during the 1970s and 80s — are still very much Taco Bells. You can transform them into check cashing establishments, teriyaki joints or even proper taquerias. But at the end of the day, Taco Bell remains.
Even “Numero Uno,” the original Taco Bell — a compact structure, more a stand than anything, opened by 23-year-old fast-food impresario Glen Bell in Downey, California, in 1962 — isn’t a Taco Bell anymore.
Nice try but you're not fooling anyone, Chubby's in Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Jeffrey Beall/flickr)
And it hasn’t been since 1986.
After the closing of Taco Bell, a string of independent taco shops operated in the modest cinderblock building with walk-up windows and a gas station-style bathroom around the back. Not all of these ventures were successful but the tradition of selling cheap, mass-market Mexican food persevered. It never went the way of the bun. Or the egg roll. And the building was never, ever mistaken for an old Arby's.
It was following the December 2014 departure of Numero Uno’s final tenant, Seafood and Tacos Raul, that the dreaded “D” word — demolition — crept into the picture. Although in solid structural shape, the clock was ticking for the erstwhile takeaway taco shack, which lacks any sort of historic landmark designation.
Keep in mind that this is Downey, a Los Angeles County city (aka the “Colonial Williamsburg of fast food”), where, less than a 10-minute drive away from the first Taco Bell, you’ll find the world’s oldest operating McDonald’s. There's also a Dunkin' Donuts of some regional significance (located in an old Arby's) and pretty much every other fast-food joint you could think of.
As for the Golden Arches, Downey's historic-yet-struggling McDonalds drive-in was saved from the wrecking ball in the mid-1990's thanks in part to campaigning by local residents and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The extensively restored 1953 building, now one of the most popular gift shop-boasting tourist draws between Downtown L.A. and Disneyland, had been shuttered after sustaining significant damage during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
McDonald’s aside, things for the world’s first Taco Bell were looking decidedly grim earlier this year, as well.
When news spread of the owner’s intention to raze Numero Uno and redevelop the parcel at 7112 Firestone Blvd., people promptly freaked out.
Goodbye stucco, hello drive-through. They sure don't make 'em like they used. (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr)
And Taco Bell corporate brass promptly responded, pledging to save the imperiled building from destruction. However, it wasn’t entirely clear at the time how Taco Bell, a global fast-food powerhouse now comprised of more than 6,500 primarily franchisee-owned outlets, planned to do this.
“At this point, we’re basically just gathering all the information and seeing if there is an opportunity for us to be involved with saving it,” Matthew Prince, a PR manager for the Irvine, California-headquartered company, explained to Preservation back in February. “If we could leave it in place and restore it as-is, that would be great. It’s a big piece of fast-food history right there.”
While the future of Numero Uno remains uncertain, Prince’s hope that the historic birthplace of the Enchirito would stay put in its original spot was not granted.
Last night, while much of the Southland slept, the entire 400-square-foot structure was lifted from its foundations and loaded onto a flatbed truck.
From there, Numero Uno, accompanied by six police escorts and a fleet of well-wishers following behind, made the 45-mile journey to a parking lot at Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine where it will remain in storage for the foreseeable future until the company decides what to do with it.
While there must have been logistical reasons behind the decision to move the building during the overnight hours (a run for the Orange County border, if you will), the relocation process was carried out in the same manner that many Taco Bell patrons choose to frequent the eatery: semi-discreetly and under a cover of darkness.
Despite being carried out at night, the process wasn’t completely covert as a webcam captured the entire proceedings; the exact route the truck took from Downey to Irvine, published by Taco Bell prior to the relocation, was anything but secret. And as noted by Los Angeles magazine, “the company has designated restaurants along the route ‘watch points,’ where people can catch a glimpse of the eatery on the move.”
The entire move, which commenced at 10:30 p.m., took a little over three hours — shorter than expected. Naturally, an old-school Taco Bell cruising down semi-empty streets at a top speed of 20 mph garnered a fair amount of attention.
From the Los Angeles Times:
Ethan Daigle, 17, was pulling out of a Walmart in Orange County with his mom and siblings when they noticed a truck driving by with police lights. Officers asked them to stay in the parking lot until the shop passed, he said. When they were allowed to drive away, they decided to follow it.
'We thought it was a prison bus at first,' Daigle said before his mom, Stephanie, added, 'Like Hannibal Lecter or something.'
The relocation process, which concluded with a modest late-night celebration and photo-up, was organized and facilitated by historic preservation group We Are the Next. In addition to acting as construction manager for the move, the Long Beach-based nonprofit, hired by Taco Bell back in March, spent nine months assessing the structure and evaluating its historic landmark worthiness.
Writes We Are the Next:
The first Taco Bell is not just a fast food restaurant — it's a symbol of a man who grew up poor in the Great Depression building an empire, and how he helped develop the identity of Downey, California in doing it. This building wasn't designed by a famous architect, and it's not particularly beautiful in the conventional sense. But it does demonstrate how even the most ordinary buildings can tell tremendous stories. In Downey and the surrounding area, where much of the city looks ordinary from the outside, we need to set a precedent and demonstrate the great power that can come from unexpected histories in seemingly-ordinary places.
There you have it. No such eloquent words have ever been said, and will likely ever be said again, with regard to a 53-year-old fast-food eatery that gave rise to the Caramel Apple Empanada.
In addition to the work of We Are the Next and the Downey Conservancy, Taco Bell's quick and enthusiastic response certainly deserves recognition. After all, the company got the Chalupa Supreme-scarfing masses to listen up and pay attention to issues of historic preservation.
And even if the structure hadn't been an actual Taco Bell in decades, the company did have something of a moral obligation to watch over the structure. "We had to step in," Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol said in a press statement prior to the big move. "We owe that to our fans, we owe that to Glen Bell."
Bell died of a heart attack at his Southern California home in 2010. He was 86.