Editor’s note: El Pasoans of a certain age get a little misty eyed when they mention a long-gone restaurant named Ashley’s. Located on Montana Avenue, Ashley’s served tasty Mexican food to customers in a large dining room, or seated on an outdoor patio that surrounded a cement pond full of fish.
But it was more than a restaurant. It was also a food manufacturing plant that played a key role in helping Mexican food take over the United States. Including, believe it or not, canned tortillas.
That’s one of the tales told in the book “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” by Gustavo Arellano. Here’s an excerpt:
For nearly half a century, the only tortillas available to the majority of Americans came in cans – sometimes placed in long tin cans so that the tortillas lay flat in their natural state, or stuffed into cans, sold by dozens of companies who wanted to capitalize on the growing American taste for tortillas but didn’t have access to local tortilla factories. Canned tortillas are almost extinct now, manufactured by only a handful of companies for survivalist purposes, but remain the ultimate testament to America’s desire for Mexican food of any kind, no matter how foul.
And it also remains the most influential Mexican food El Paso gifted to the United States.
The man responsible for this curious artifact was George N. Ashley, the founder of Ashley’s Mexican Foods. His place in the pantheon of Mexican food in this country is secured even if the memory of canned tortillas leaves the annals of history for good. For it was Ashley who advanced the idea of Mexican dinners: instead of just offering ingredients and giving customers recipe books to make them, Ashley was the first to can whole dinners – enchiladas, chile rellenos, refried beans, and other treats – and to also freeze them for easier keeping. The Ashley’s brand is long gone, its trademark logo of a silhouetted, dancing Spanish señorita forgotten, but it stood for decades as the best choice for Mexican food whenever there wasn’t a Mexican restaurant around.
Ashley was a railroad engineer by training who found himself out of a job in 1929, as the Great Depression gripped Texas. He opened a dairy store the following year, but wanted to serve Mexican food, partly because he and his family had long enjoyed it but also because Ashley thought Americans preferred a cleaner environment than the one offered at a typical El Paso Mexican restaurant or across the border in Ciudad Juárez. In 1932, Ashley’s incorporated Mexican meals onto their menu.
“Some Mexican restaurants [in the city] still had dirt floors, live chickens in the kitchen, and no refrigeration,” his son George, Jr. told a reporter decades later. “My dad decided then and there that he could make Mexican food and serve it in more sanitary surroundings.”
Ashley’s wife knew how to make tacos and chili; George built tables and painted their restaurant. He also bought an electric fan, to blow out the aroma of their dishes out on the street. Ashley’s sold dinners, tortilla chips, and meals-to-go, proudly disclosing in ads that the restaurant’s Mexican dishes were “made 100% by American women working under NRA.” By 1935, Ashley’s gave up selling dairy products; the following year, they expanded with a new dining hall. Fifteen years before the first patent issued for a taco fryer, George fashioned one capable of cooking 600 shells per hour, allowing George to sell tacos in even larger quantities than before and much faster than any competitors.
Mexican food, of course, was already popular in El Paso, but Ashley masterfully positioned his restaurant to attract Anglos. It also helped that the restaurant had a guaranteed, almost limitless supply of new customers because of Fort Bliss and Biggs Army Air Field – thousands of Army men and women had their first taste of Mexican food at Ashley’s, more so once World War II drew American draftees through El Paso on the way to the Western Front. Through this relationship, Ashley secured a contract with the military in 1938 to supply it with Mexican food.
That same year, Ashley’s made the move to push beyond El Paso. The military’s experience at Ashley’s ensured that the taste of Mexico traveled the country, leading to letters from veterans asking George if he might ship them some Mexican dinners. Intrigued, George experimented with canning Mexican foodstuff – enchiladas, chili and tortillas.
Requests for Ashley’s products poured in from across the globe within months. In November of that year, a letter came to the restaurant from Awali, Bahrain, from a Standard Oil Company employee. “We feel Ashley’s canned tortillas may be the answer to our longing for good Mexican food,” William R. Gentry wrote in a letter to the El Paso Herald-Post. “There are four families of us here from El Paso along with several other Texas families and a number of people from Southern California. Our mouths simply drool at the thought of Mexican food. We have made several attempts to make tortillas with more or less luck.” Ashley immediately sent Gentry two cases of his canned tortillas, damn the 70 days it’d take for the Americans to receive the taste of home.
El Paso was a hotbed of product innovation in the field of Mexican food, in part because of its proximity to military bases and the chile fields of southern New Mexico ensured a booming canning industry. Ashley’s main competitor was the Mountain Pass Canning Company, founded in 1907 in Deming, N.M., as a tomato-packing factory before relocating to Canutillo, Texas, just outside El Paso. Ashley’s beat them in the canned Mexican dinner game, also in offering frozen Mexican food (pioneered in 1949 by George Ashley with enchiladas), and in fashioning the country's first taco frying mold for household use, a crude aluminum device for housewives to place a tortilla and throw into the fryer to achieve a crispy U-shape. Ashley released it in 1952, and each mold came with instructions on how to use it, and a booklet titled “Mr. Taco Comes to America” that explained what a taco was, in pidgin English.
That last innovation came a decade before Taco Bell spread fast-food tacos across America, and seemingly poised Ashley’s for even further Mexican-food domination. But once Mountain Pass bought out the Valley Canning Company in 1955, and their Old El Paso label, the company overtook Ashley’s to become the largest producer of canned Mexican food in the United States. The Holly Sugar Company Ashley bought out Ashley’s in 1975 and the brand disappeared from American shelves soon after, forgotten in the onslaught of other, newer, more authentic competitors.
Adapted from “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Scribner, 320 pgs. $25.