This layered taco salad has amazing crowd appeal - it is always a hit at parties and potlucks! Dress it up pretty or toss it together - it's delicious either way!
What's the Story Behind this Recipe?
You don't have to have anything in common with people you've known since you were five. With old friends, you've got your whole life in common.– Lyle Lovett
Julie and I first met in kindergarten, and she lives on the opposite side of the country now. We haven’t seen one another face-to-face for probably two decades, but I still (and always will) count her among my dearest friends.
My mother was a working mom in an era when most moms weren't, and I often went over to Julie's house after school. In those early, tender years, we spent countless hours together - most often playing house, or school, or our favorite, "Little Princess."
I loved going over to Julie’s house. She had two brothers, a sister, a black lab named Licorice, and a little cat named Twinkles. Twinkles was almost always pregnant or taking care of a litter, so there were often kittens to play with.
Julie's mother was young and beautiful, and in my memory, she always had warm cookies waiting for us when we came home from school. She was patient in a way no other mother I knew was, and her melodic voice with its soft Polish accent only added to her enchantment.
Julie's father had a quick smile and looked like a business suit model in the Sears Roebuck catalog, and he spoke with a quiet assurance that always made me feel safe.
How the Chips Get Made
In second grade, Jules and I were in Blue Birds together, and our moms were our group leaders. (Blue Birds was the junior organization to the Camp Fire Girls, now Camp Fire.) That year, Julie’s dad, who worked at the Frito-Lay plant in Portland, took us all on a tour of the Doritos factory.
Now you may not know it, but it was Frito-Lay who introduced America to the first mass-produced flavored tortilla chips – specifically, Taco-flavored Doritos – in 1967. So let’s just say this all happened sometime after that… in an era before mandatory hairnets and plexiglass partitions and booties in food production rooms were the norm.
It was a time when a major food company was totally cool with it if you were to lead a dozen or so eight-year-olds out onto their production floor, with its whirring, clanking machinery and endless conveyor belts, to show them first-hand how the chips get made.
Which is exactly what Julie’s dad did.
I still remember feeling dwarfed by all those monstrous machines; the orange-gold chips tumbling down onto the conveyor, and the thick, heady scent of freshly toasted corn and exotic taco seasonings melding together.
As we gathered around and listened to him explain the chip-making process, Julie’s dad invited us to sample some chips, and he pointed to the conveyor belt. We all reached out and caught up handful as they ferried by, and as I bit the corner of one orange-colored triangle and crunched its warm, spicy deliciousness, I wished I had been brave enough to grab more.
At the end of our tour, Julie’s dad gave us each a little bag full of Frito-Lay products: Doritos, Fritos, and the like, and a little advertising cook booklet to give to our mom. When we got home from the field trip, my mom filed the little cook booklet in our kitchen cupboard alongside a collection of other similar handouts. At some point, I took it from the cupboard and kept it as my own, and it has held a special place in my recipe collection ever since.
Every time I see that worn little booklet, I think of Julie and that field trip, and those warm, delicious chips.
Which brings me to today’s recipe.
Why this Recipe Works
This post is neither sponsored nor endorsed by Frito-Lay. (However, if anyone in their corporate organization reads this and is interested in seeing more, feel free to reach out!)
By definition, most of the recipes in this vintage advertising booklet are simply branded twists on late-20th-century favorites: casseroles, Salisbury steak, fried chicken, and so forth.
A few are combinations that lunchroom kids figured out long before Frito-Lay thought to write them down, like cheesy Frito hot dogs ("Glamour Dogs") and crunchy chip-filled sandwiches. And at least one - "Chili Pie Casserole" - has transcended the plate and become the stuff of childhood memories, known more commonly among the junior camping crowd as "Walking Tacos" or "Frito Pie."
Walking Tacos aside, the "Southwest Salad Bowl" recipe is the only one I've ever made from this cook booklet, and the one upon which this Layered Taco Salad is based.
What Goes into this Recipe
Over the years, I've made many changes and adaptations to the original "Southwest Salad Bowl" recipe. The recipe is quite flexible, and it is easy to incorporate your favorites (i.e., cheese, ground meat, chips, etc.) to make this salad your own.
Ingredient Notes & Substitutions
★ Lettuce: Use your favorite lettuce or salad greens. Believe it or not, we prefer good, old-fashioned iceberg for this salad. The other ingredients are very dense, and the light, water-heavy lettuce makes a nice contrast.
★ Ground Beef: We've used ground chicken, ground turkey, ground beef, and vegetarian crumbles (Morning Star), all with good success.
If you use a poultry-based ground meat, add a splash of Worcestershire sauce to the meat, onion, and bean mixture to give it a little more body.
★ Tortilla chips: If you use Doritos brand tortilla chips, you will need the better part of one regular sized (9.75 oz) bag. Before you crush any chips for use in the salad, take some time to separate out the unbroken chips in the bag and set them aside. You will use them to garnish the salad before serving. (You'll probably also have a few extra chips to munch on when you're done.)
★ Small red beans: Use your favorite bean(s). Mr B and I are not fans of kidney beans as suggested in the original recipe, and usually use black or piquinto beans.
★ Cheese: The original recipe suggests using American cheese (as do many recipes from the late 20th-century); however, we prefer to use Jack or cheddar, or something along those lines.
★ Chili powder: Chili Powder in our part of the world has come a long, long way since we were kids. Use the ground chili powder of your choice: chipotle, New Mexico, etc; just be mindful of the spice level you want in the end, and adjust accordingly.
★ Sauce: If you don't want to go to the trouble of making the sauce, just use about 1 cup of your favorite mild-to-medium salsa.
How to Make a Southwest Salad Bowl
Prep Meat & Beans
Sauté ground meat and chopped onion together in large skillet over medium heat. Cook until the meat is browned and the onions are soft; about 7-9 minutes.
Add beans and salt and cook another 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Remove meat mixture from pan and set aside to cool.
In medium saucepan, combine Sauce Ingredients (e.g., tomato sauce, salt, chili powder, chopped onion and tomatoes). Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
Cool before proceeding.
In a large salad bowl, layer ½ lettuce, ½ crumbled tortilla chips, ½ meat mixture, ½ sauce, and ½ grated cheese.
Repeat, ending with grated cheese.
Garnish with tomato wedges, sliced olives, and reserved whole tortilla chips.
FAQs & Expert Tips
It depends on personal preference. If we are making this for a potluck or party, we assembled with the meat mixture still slightly warm, with the lettuce providing a light, fresh contrast. However, it is equally tasty cold from the fridge (especially as a midnight snack!).
This salad is complete and delicious all by itself; however, we also enjoy it with some Original Taco House Fiesta Dressing (copycat recipe) served on the side.
More Potluck-worthy Salad Recipes
Layered Taco Salad (Vintage Recipe)
- 1 large salad bowl
- 1 medium saucepan
- 1 heavy skillet
- 4 cups iceberg lettuce coarsely chopped; or lettuce mix
- 1 pound ground beef or ground chicken, turkey, or beef, or veggie crumbles
- 1 medium onion chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups cooked small red beans (i.e., one can); or black beans
- 5 ounces cheddar cheese grated; or pepper jack, cojack, or Monterey jack
- 2 - 3 medium tomatoes cut in wedges
- ¼ cup sliced olives for garnish
- 6 - 8 ounces Taco-flavored Doritos or your favorite flavored tortilla chips; crushed (reserve some for garnish)
Prep Meat & Beans
- Sauté ground meat and chopped onion together in large skillet over medium heat. Cook until the meat is browned and the onions are soft; about 7-9 minutes.
- Add beans and salt and cook another 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove meat mixture from pan and set aside to cool.
- In medium saucepan, combine Sauce Ingredients (e.g., tomato sauce, salt, chili powder, chopped onion and tomatoes). Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Cool before proceeding.
- In a large salad bowl, layer ½ lettuce, ½ crumbled tortilla chips, ½ meat mixture, ½ sauce, and ½ grated cheese. Repeat, ending with grated cheese. Garnish with tomato wedges, sliced olives, and reserved whole tortilla chips.
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