Cafe Society

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

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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.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz