How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The cross-cultural legacy of Doritos

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It might seem to some who read this blog that I'm a fan of junk food. I'm not, really, unless it involves something doused in Tapatío sauce. But in recent days, after reading a series of obituaries for Archie West, the man credited with inventing Doritos, I've become fascinated with the chips' cultural legacy.

The dusty little corn-based triangles were, according to lore, inspired by an encounter that West had with real Mexican fried tortilla chips while he was traveling in California in the early 1960s. The Doritos product launched in 1964. The first flavored variety appeared a few years later, something involving brownish flavored dust dubbed "Taco" that tasted nothing like tacos, in a bag that implied something Mexicanish, but wasn't.

Doritos, what a long way you've come. The blog Now That's Nifty lists 102 flavors of Doritos, a sum that seems like an undercount. The list doesn't include Tapatío sauce flavor, a recent innovation. Still, that's a lot of flavored dust. Flavors from around the world that are listed range from the ubiquitous Nacho Cheese and Salsa Verde stateside to flavors like Sesame Chicken and Tandoori Sizzler and the intriguing Mr. Dragon's Fire Chips.

Now the cross-cultural part: In 1966, two years after the unveiling of Doritos to the general public and not long after Frito-Lay merged with Pepsi-Cola to form PepsiCo (whose fast-food brands have since worked their way into the flavored dust selections), the company bought out the Mexican snack manufacturer Sabritas.

There was once a time that Sabritas chips - typically far tastier and spicier than anything marketed to U.S. consumers, often laced with the zing of lime and hot chile powder - were found chiefly in Mexico. Buying up bags of Sabritas and competing brand chips was one of the highlights of traveling over the border to the nearest CaliMex.

But over the years, as the Mexican immigrant population has grown and marketers have gotten wise to it, Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch have given way on grocery shelves to Doritos flavors closer to those found in Mexico: Flamas (a flavor also used in Sabritas Turbos, corn-chip spirals sold in both countries), Toros ("bulls," flavored with tongue-numbing habanero chile) and most recently the Tapatío sauce flavor.

The list goes on from there. The Doritos Latino-market flavors often feature the familiar Sabritas logo on the upper right-hand corner of the bag, not typically found on the flavors aimed at the mainstream palate.

Of course, the grocery store shelves in neighborhoods where people are apt to buy these flavors are also jammed with competition from rival snack makers now, like the Mexican company Barceló's Takis. Where one shops affects the offerings - in L.A., it varies by geography as much as by store. (For the best snacks, a Latin American grocery store is the ideal destination, though a Food 4 Less just about anywhere will get you some decently spicy Doritos.)

As far as Doritos go, Nacho Cheese remains the iconic flavor, most recently making the news as a flavor of Taco Bell taco shells being test-marketed in Fresno. But after reading recently that Archie West, who died last month at 97, was still taste-testing new chip flavors in his later years, I have to think that he must have had a sample of Flamas and Tapatío. And liked them better. Maybe he even polished off the bag.

Rest in peace, Archie. Thanks for the Doritos.

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