While Los Angeles certainly doesn’t have a shortage of taquerias and Taco Bell locations, it’s a bit rare to find a mom-and-pop shop still making hard-shell tacos. The family behind Tito’s Tacos has been doling out the crunchy “gringo” shells for nearly 60 years to perennial long lines of customers looking for a bit of nostalgia — and a side of their famous red salsa.
The Culver City restaurant does serve other Mexican staples like burritos and tamales, but their hard-shell tacos that are stuffed with shredded beef, ribbons of iceberg lettuce, and bright-orange cheddar cheese are the main attraction here.
As for why the late founder Benjamin Davidson decided to make Americanized hard-shell tacos a business model, his granddaughter and third-generation owner, Lynne Davidson, says it’s simple, really. "That’s just how they made them. They’re the same tacos that have been sold since 1959.”
When Benjamin Davidson first opened Tito’s Tacos in 1959, his business partner Benny Vizcarra helped develop the recipes. Their first employee Amado Madera, who ended up working at the restaurant until he retired about three years ago, refined them. After a year of business, Vizcarra wanted to buy out Benjamin Davidson from the company, but couldn’t come up with the money, according to Lynne Davidson. That’s when Benjamin Davidson asked his ex-wife, who was a Mexican national, for funds to buy out Vizcarra instead — and the rest is history.
“If it wasn’t for her loaning my grandfather money, I suppose it would be a different business today if it were still there,” Lynne Davidson says.
She adds that her father, Norman Davidson, who took over the family business just a few years after it opened, “took it to a different level.” When Lynne Davidson took the reins of the company, she chose to continue to sell the hard-shell tacos “because they tasted great,” she says. “I still eat them. They’re so yummy. I eat them all the time.”
Fans have attempted to make copycat recipes of the restaurant’s mild and slushy, tomato-based salsa, but it still remains a mystery to many how to perfectly replicate it. Lynne Davidson doesn’t divulge any secrets about what’s inside the salsa, but she says the reason why it’s so good is that it’s made fresh everyday with fresh ingredients.
One thing she will admit is that she thinks she makes the best salsa out of everyone who works at Tito’s Tacos, when she does make the sauce from time to time. “You would have to work there to [be able to] taste the difference between somebody else making it though,” Lynne Davidson says. “It has some special ingredients in the salsa and I know just the right portions.”
It makes sense that Lynne Davidson would be an expert at making her family’s popular salsa since she has had a long history of working at Tito’s Tacos. She recalls that she first started working there in 1966 when she was 12. Her job was cleaning tables and her grandfather paid her 25 cents an hour. She used that money to buy her mother and herself tickets to a Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium. Lynne Davidson also paid her mother $2 in gas money to drive her to the ballpark. “That was my very first concert,” she says. “It was very exciting. I haven’t been to one since that was quite like that.” In fact, that concert turned out to be the next-to-last one The Beatles would ever perform.
Even though Tito’s Tacos played a major role in Lynne Davidson’s life, she never thought she would end up running the family business. At one point, she became the night manager at the restaurant, but left in 1977 to pursue other business ventures. She returned in 1981 and hasn’t left since. Lynne Davidson is now 62, the same age that her grandfather was when he launched the restaurant.
“I just love working there,” she says. “All the people I work with, they’re just wonderful people. . . . It's just fun. Lots of customers are happy [and] leave with full tummies.”