Happy Taco Day!
If you have a small amount of cash, are super-starving and in need of a seriously hefty caloric intake, Taco John's is one of the best fast-food options out there. The menu emphasizes substantial meat and potatoes, as well as sugary, fatty desserts -- and the portion sizes make Taco Bell meals seem dinky in comparison.
Taco John's got its start in Cheyenne in 1969, when James Woodson and Harold W. Holmes bought the franchise rights to the Taco House, and then changed the name to Taco John's. Holmes and his wife were definitely ambitious entrepreneurs -- they owned a furniture store, a travel-trailer business and a restaurant equipment business -- and, along with Woodson and his wife, they had the business acumen to realize that the "mate 'n tayters" menu at TJ's would appeal to Western and Midwestern palates. So that's exactly where they grew their "West-Mex" fast food restaurants.
In 2004, Taco John's teamed up with Colorado-based Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard and Ohio-based meat-and-potatoes chain Steak Escape to grow the trend of co-branded restaurants. So TJ's not only has its own heavy menu, it pairs up with equally heavy-caloric hitters to offer the quick-dining public more gut-busting food choices.
There are fifteen Taco John's locations in Colorado, and I visited the one at 5810 Logan Street, which also has a Steak Escape in the same building. (I saved that for another time.) Walking in the door of Taco John's, I got a heavy whiff of taco meat, fryer grease and cinnamon. This aroma did not dissipate, and I left the restaurant furiously reeking, with a thin layer of oil in my hair.
But before that, I had a veritable orgy of meaty menu items to choose from: tacos, burritos, taco salads and TJ's signature offering, Potato Olés. These are flat potato crowns, deep-fried and then coated with TJ's proprietary seasoning mix (psst.....heavy on the celery salt). Having eaten at Taco John's many, many times in the past -- I grew up in a small Midwestern town where we had a store close, and going to Taco Bell meant a moderate highway trip to the suburbs -- I already knew to avoid the refried beans. The beans served at TJ's are so thick, heavy and flavorless that they rival freshly-mixed concrete, and unfortunately the chain doesn't have hot sauce with the amazing, magical flavoring qualities of the Taco Bell's sauce, which might thin out the beans and liven them up.
I ordered two hard-shell beef tacos, super and regular Potato Olés, the meat & potato burrito with chicken (hoping it would be lighter than the beef one), a taco burger, a Sweet Crème Churro and an order of Cini-Sopapilla Bites.
The clever, up-selling counter person asked me if I wanted a side of nacho cheese sauce for my Potato Olés, and although I hadn't thought of ordering one before, she was absolutely right: I now wanted a side of hot cheese in which I could dip my fried potatoes. I also ordered a side of guacamole, because I recall it being particularly meaty in both consistency and flavor.
I found the least-greasy booth (which was still pretty greasy), sat down and waited for my order. I didn't have to wait long, since the place was dead that afternoon -- only one other customer came in the whole time I was there. So less than ten minutes after I sat down, the friendly, cheese-pushing counter person brought me two brown paper bags that had noticeable grease spots seeping through the paper on the sides.
One big thing that TJ's doesn't f*ck around with is serving hot food hot. I have never gotten an order that didn't need a few minutes of cooling-off time before it was down-temp enough to eat. After the requisite waiting period, I went for the taco burger first, because I have a sentimental attachment to this sandwich, and I'm compensating for the loss of the Taco Bell Beefer. The soft, white hamburger bun was loaded with a generous scoop of TJ's very tomatoey, slightly sweet, extremely moist taco meat, shredded cheese and shredded lettuce, and the taco burger was delicious from the first bite until the last saucy smear on my knuckle.
I was unimpressed with the burrito. The chicken didn't lighten this load one bit -- it had so much sour cream stuffed inside it, leaking out from the ends, that I could have plastered sheet rock with it. Along with the chicken and sour cream it was filled with Potato Olés, nacho cheese, lettuce and tomatoes -- but I couldn't see colors or taste anything but dairy overload.
I can't help but compare Taco John's tacos to Taco Bell's. These shells are a bit thicker, filled with a meat mixture that's wetter and a tad under-seasoned -- it's more like a mild Tex-Mex sloppy Joe mixture. TJ's also appears to use less cheese, putting it under the lettuce; the thinking there could be that people won't notice. I noticed.
I also discerned that as far as sauce selections go, Taco John's needs to make some adjustments to even be able to see the bar that the Bell has set high with its signature packets of mild, hot and fire sauces. TJ's does have a sauce bar, but the hot sauce is mild and overly tomato sauce-based, the salsa is a short step away from Italian marinara sauce, and while the green sauce is hot, it's virtually flavorless.
Taco John's guacamole sides cost a few pennies more than at Taco Bell's, but the portion cups are bigger. I'm almost convinced that TJ's uses bacon grease to flavor its guac, because it has an intriguingly meaty flavor and slick consistency. The guac also has nice, thick chunks of avocado and real diced jalapenos -- not the stringy,l dehydrated ones.
The Potato Olés were perfectly crisp on the outside, hot and mealy on the inside, and had enough salt to melt the polar ice caps. To me, that equals deliciousness. And dipping the spuds in the mild, melted American cheese-tasting nacho sauce made them even more scrumptious. The inside of my mouth began to pucker up and my ankles began to swell, but the salt overload was worth it.
Super Potato Olés are regular ones topped with taco meat, refried beans, nacho cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, tomatoes, black olives, guacamole and sour cream. I had one bite, then half of another -- avoiding the bean gloop -- before I realized that although these nacho-esque loaded potato buds were scrummy, I might die in the parking lot of a f*cking heart attack if I tried to eat any more of them than I already had.
Taco John's has a state fair wet dream selection of desserts. Although I'm not a fan of the apple grande -- a fried, cinnamon-sugar coated flour tortilla smeared with apple filling and topped with melted cheese and crushed Red Hot candies -- the Sweet Crème Churro is fantastically tasty. It has everything I love about a regular churro -- the oily-crisp grooves, the crunchy cinnamon sugar -- with the addition of a core rammed full of custard. The Cini-Sopapilla Bites were correspondingly enchanting, with tiny strips of poofy fried dough coated in yet more cinnamon sugar.
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Even though I only nibbled at most dishes -- and did not finish eating a single item -- I was so full that my stomach felt like an inflated inner tube. Yes, Taco John's food is that heavy. But at least TJ's did me a solid -- literally -- by removing the need to eat dinner that night, or breakfast the next morning.