Cafe Society

Del Taco, the friend-zone Mexican fast-food restaurant

It had been a few years since I'd cheated on Taco Bell with Del Taco -- and even then, I'd smuggled in Taco Bell sauce packets to use on my Del Taco food. It's not that I thought Del Taco was that inferior to the Bell; I'd just somehow fallen into treating it as the backup guy, the permanently friend-zoned spot that never gets a chance to be my number-one taco squeeze. Could Del Taco ever escape that friend zone? When I heard about the new, kickass dollar menu and something called a CrunchTada Pizza, I decided it was time to give Del Taco another twirl. Besides, I was hungry -- and I realized the Del Taco at 14400 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora was closer than the nearest Taco Bell.

See also: Ten Mexican fast-food guilty pleasures

[jump] Del Taco started out like so many fast-food companies -- in California, in the 1960s. The first store was built in 1964 by Ed Hackbarth and David Jameson, who soon opened two more stores and added partner Dick Naugle. The Del Taco sun logo was created in 1967, by which point the chain was shining over much of southern California. By 1981 Del Taco had 250 locations, and many of them would soon be open 24 hours. The 1990s saw massive expansion and a $14 million redesign, followed by a bankruptcy claim in 1993 (the company's public reasons included high lease payments on unprofitable stores). Despite the setbacks Del Taco survived, and in 2008 the company opened its 500th location.

This particular location looked like a piñata had thrown up on the walls: Red, yellow and green confetti graphics provided the background for tri-colored furniture. But something smelled really provocative, like cinnamon and sugar, and the staff was unusually friendly while I took my sweet time checking out the dollar menu and the new items. "The Beef CrunchTada Pizza includes slow-cooked beans, seasoned beef, nacho cheese, taco sauce, freshly-grated cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes and cilantro on top of the thick, crunchy corn shell, and the CrunchTada Tostada adds slow-cooked beans, taco sauce, crisp lettuce and freshly-grated cheddar cheese," the announcement had promised. "These fresh ingredients combined with the crunchy shell results in a one-of-a-kind auditory and taste experience."

Taste AND sound? I ordered one of each, plus a regular beef taco, two bean burritos (one with red and one with green sauce), two of the tacos al carbon with pulled pork, and a mini strawberry shake; that tempting aroma of hot cinnamon forced me to order the caramel cheesecake bites, too.

The dollar menu also has classic favorites like regular or chipotle beef tacos, bean or rice and cheese burritos, grilled chicken tacos, cheese quesadillas, strawberry lemonade and sweet tea. I almost never wake up in time for normal breakfast hours, but the "Buck & Under Breakfast" menu has some tasties on it, too, including a bacon breakfast burrito, hash brown sticks, iced java and a mini bacon quesadilla. I may have to dig my corpse up early one of these days just to try the bacon.

But in the meantime, I had a feast coming -- for under $20, thanks to the dollar menu. As I waited for my number to be called, I contemplated Del Taco's signature sauce packs. There was mild, Del Inferno and Del Scorcho -- Taco Bell translation is mild, hot and fire -- and as I had no Taco Bell sauce on me for this meal (I forgot to raid the "random condiment" Ziploc bag in the crisper drawer in my refrigerator), I was resigned to eating Del Taco with its own sauces, which are definitely inferior to Taco Bell's. The tomato is there, the mild heat is there, but the sauces are missing that special something that makes Taco Bell's sauces addictive to the point of madness. The secret ingredient could be oxycontin or it could be vinegar--nobody knows for sure.

While its sauces aren't great, Del Taco focuses on fresher ingredients than does Taco Bell. Del's makes its beans from scratch, prepares its salsa by hand, grates the cheese in the restaurant and grills fresh chicken every hour.

My shake only took a second to squirt out, and for a buck it was perfect -- about the size of a kid's shake. I have different standards for fast-food shakes versus homemade/fast casual/full service, and I usually try to get a kiddie shake because if I get anything larger, half of it has melted into goo by the time I get around to properly slurping on it. I alternated those slurps with nibbles of cheesecake bites. Those suckers were tiny, sweet custardy-caramel-sauce-filled, deep-fried chimis rolled in cinna-sugar, nice and warm, and a small order of two wasn't enough -- I'll get the order of three next time.

Regular Del Taco crunchy beef tacos aren't remarkable, but they aren't bad. The beef is a tad under-seasoned for my tastes, and the same goes for the beans, which are a bit chunkier and far more bland than Taco Bell's. The pulled pork tacos were billed as being similar to authentic street tacos, which is true as far as fast food goes. The soft corn tortillas were stuffed with flavorful pork, diced onions and extra cilantro; there was a medium spicy red "California Chile sauce" wetting up everything. I'd definitely order these again.

Finally, I got to the CrunchTada items. The tostada was bigger than I'd expected, and not shy with the beans and shredded lettuce -- although in desperate need of more cheese. But the CrunchTada pizza was magically delicious, and put the scrawny Mexican pizza at Taco Bell to shame. The cshell was was topped with thick layers of beans, beef and shredded cheese, slathered all over with nacho cheese, then augmented with (too much) cilantro and tomatoes. When you bit in, the shell actually gave off a good, loud crunch. (Be careful if you have dental work.)

Overall it was a good, extremely cost-effective meal, if not a particularly highly seasoned one. If Del Taco could take some spice and sauce inspiration from Taco Bell, it might actually be my first choice when I want Mexican fast food. For now, though, it remains in my friend zone.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz