Clash of the Tacos


Fast food tacos.  They could almost be a symbol for our nation’s weight crisis, if it wasn’t for the more media-friendly Big Mac to lampoon.  The fast food taco has more or less been reduced to a flour tortilla or a corn shell, stuffed with a meat mixture that contains cumin and chili powder, pre-shredded lettuce and processed shredded cheese of unknown variety.  It seems like there are now more taco than hamburger quick-service franchises.  Some might try and tell you that it reflects a shift in demographics in our nation’s population, but I don’t see a whole lot of Hispanic people dining at Taco Bell.  So what’s wrong with fast food tacos?  Not a damn thing.

The concept is simple.  You take a traditional Mexican recipe, the taco, and you whore it to the American Consumer, pairing it with something deep-fried drenched in cheese sauce, with bonus points being awarded based on the number of times you can describe menu items as “tangy” or “zesty.”  If you’ve ever had one of these delicious bastardizations, I’ll bet you wondered why your napkin was stained day-glow orange after your meal.  If you ever worked for one of these establishments, you probably quit right after you got out of treatment for chemical dependency.  The fast food taco isn’t a meal the way a burger and fries are, it’s a food designed for specific circumstances.  On the way home from the bar when you are bullying the designated driver to swing into a drive-thru, it is not hunger motivating your behavior.  It’s survival.  By some bizarre physiology, further poisoning yourself with cheap tacos lessens the effects of those Jägerbombs you spent the night swimming in.  Like a botox treatment for a hangover, if you will.

From personal experience, I have to give the taco a high rating for a road trip meal as well.  While of similar pricing per meal as any quick-service restaurant, the taco provides more motivation to stop and take a few minutes to rest on your journey.  The very structure of the taco is not vehicle friendly.  Part of that lunch will end up either on your shirt, on your lap or on the upholstery of the car.  The odds of more than one of these locations being soiled simultaneously is likely as well.  Don’t believe it?  Check under you seat, there’s probably some dried up lettuce and a few slivers of hardened orange cheese down there.  Plus, what fun is a road trip if there isn’t a chance of having to make a mad dash into a highway rest stop that hasn’t seen any bleach since the Carter administration?

Over time, the fast food taco was forced to not only compete with American fare, but against itself as well as chains sprang up around the country.  Below is a list of what I consider to be a good sample of the taco retailer population.

Taco Bell
The gold standard and largest taco retailer in the United States, Taco Bell is what most people compare the other chains to.  It’s definitely the McDonald’s of Tex-Mex, usually sacrificing quality for speed, though not that it makes a huge difference in the end.  Their speed is achieved by having most of the menu items composed of the same basic elements, like Chrysler’s 1986 model year, and by beginning to cook your food in real time, as you order.  That means if you change your mind about that Chili Cheese Burrito, it goes in the trash.  Being formally owned by PepsiCo, Taco Bell is the exclusive retailer of Mountain Dew Baja Blast, which I am convinced was originally conceived from the marriage of Mountain Dew and blue Curaçao.

Taco Time

From what I can tell, this is the original place to get your tacos on the go, with the first store opening in 1959 and the first franchise opening in 1962.  The Taco Time empire is not as expansive as Taco Bell’s, they are still a major player in certain markets.  Taco Time bills itself as upscale, claiming to use “better” ingredients, but the only thing that stood out to me was their salsa bar.

Taco John’s
The arch nemesis of Taco Bell, Taco John’s plays the part of the underdog well.  Their advertising campaigns are strange but loveable, many of which feature their mascot, Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey.  Their offerings are similar to Taco Bell’s, but the chain offers its own specialties, many of which are based around fried, seasoned potato discs.

The Next Generation
Chipotle Mexican Grill
While they tend to focus on their burritos, Chipotle does offer tacos as well.  It’s a simple format where, like Subway, the customer picks their base (tortillas or shells), their meat, vegetables, cheese, sour cream and salsa.  The company tries to buy organic when possible, and they buy local (at least here) as well.  My one complaint would be the likelihood of being stuck in line behind someone who asks “can I get a little more?” each time the employee adds an ingredient to their burrito.  Because eleven hundred calories for lunch isn’t quite enough.

Taco Depot
A generic version of Taco Bell, operated out of small town gas stations along state highways.  Don’t bother looking them up, they don’t have a website and don’t advertise.  More of a brand than a restaurant, really.


Zantigo was actually around in the early 80’s.  They were owned by Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was bought by PepsiCo.  PepsiCo owned Taco Bell at this point, and not wanting to cannibalize themselves, they closed Zantigo.  In the late 90’s, Zantigo was reborn, bringing back their classic menu, and currently has six locations, though only in the Minneapolis area.  They offer your standard ground beef tacos, though have it available in the large-format Taco Burrito as well.  They also sell Choco Tacos, which are awesome.

New Kids on the Block
Taco del Mar
Taco-wise, Taco del Mar is similar to the Chipotle concept, sans the organic ingredients, but a soft corn tortilla is available. A rice and bean platter is available as well, to create more of a meal.  The thing that impressed me though was their beer selection, which contained at least five imports, which if pretty good for fast food if you ask me.

Qdoba Mexican Grill
Qdoba is owned by Jack in the Box apparently, but I’ve always considered it to be Chipotle with cheese sauce.

Baja Sol Tortilla Grill

Baja Sol offers two “styles” of tacos, American and Baja, both served on a flour tortilla with a meat of your choosing.  American being with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream, while Baja contains onions, cilantro and a taco sauce.  An order consists of either two or three tacos of your choice, and a four ounce cup of rice.  Like Chipotle, you will notice a habit of other customers, which tends to be crowding around the salsa bar eating bottomless chips while waiting for their number to be called.

Honorable Mention
Jack in the Box
Aside from several hundred people who got sick in 1993, I don’t think anyone hates Jack in the Box.  Known primarily as a burger vendor, Jack in the Box does offer their own take on the taco, which is served on a hard shell with a slice of American Cheese.

My apologies to Del Taco, Taco Bueno and any others not mentioned, but I have not consumed said tacos, and said restaurants are not located in my area.  Also, for the record, this taco consumption was over my lifetime, not all in a day or a week or something.  Otherwise this would just be a picture of a bunch of tacos on, and I would be checking to see if my insurance covered gastric bypass.

Posted on June 10, 2009 at 20:30 by socketeer · Permalink
In: Guilty Pleasures · Tagged with: ,

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  1. Written by mark
    on July 8, 2009 at 18:06

    great post. rick bayless would surely have a heart attack after reading it.

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