Mexican fare from fast-food chains usually isn't authentic, healthy or even pretty, but it's irresistible. And we all indulge from time to time -- hitting the window at Taco Bell at 2 a.m. after a night of mainlining vodka gimlets; finding any excuse to grab a sunflower-seed-stuffed veggie burrito at Taco Time. Owning your guilty pleasures is one way to achieve self-confidence, and owning mine is a way for me to shove my big, cinnamony opinion-churro down everyone's throats.
So in honor of Cinco de Mayo, here is is my top ten list of Mexican fast-food and fast-casual guilty pleasures:
10. Super Potato Olés from Taco John's.
Imagine loaded nachos, then swap out the corn chips for seasoned, fried tater tots, and you have a both a high-as-hell calorie count and a high level of satisfaction. I always thought they should be called "Tator-totchos," but apparently the folks at Taco John's don't have my knack for making up words. The tots are particularly memorable for their can't-quite-put-a-finger-on-it mystery seasoning, but I'll spoil it for you: celery salt.
9. Super Tex Mex Plate from Taco Cabana. If you happen to be driving through Texas, Oklahoma or New Mexico (drive through Oklahoma as fast as you can), this combo plate is a must-try. It has everything on it that you could ask for in a fast-food meal: a cheese enchilada, crispy taco, bean and cheese chalupa and a decent-sized side of guacamole. Normally you have to shell out extra shekels for the guac, but not here...not on this plate.
8. Crustos from Taco Time.
I will freely admit that the only reason I like these funny little flour-tortilla chips dusted in cinny-sugar is because they are called "Crustos." I like saying the name, I like ordering them so I can say the name, and then I love asking everyone in the car to eat my Crustos in the most obnoxious way possible.
7. Macho Nachos from Del Taco.
These Del Taco nachos are heavy on the meat, and you don't even have to ask for jalapenos. Are they manly and macho? Absolutely. But you can really cut back on the masculine by ordering the cheesecake bites for dessert.
6. Cini-Sopapilla Bites from Taco John's. Taco John's, our "West-Mex" buddy, makes the list again by way of this delectable dessert. It's a cup of tiny, deep-fried sopas rolled in cinnamon-sugar, and they taste just like fresh donut holes -- unless the kitchen hasn't t changed the grease in a while, in which case they taste just like Potato Olés. It's a win either way.
5. Nacho Burrito from Baja Fresh.
This burrito is crammed with so much f*cking cheese that eating it is almost guaranteed to stop you up for at least four days. That's why it's so f*cking great -- it's got shredded Jack and Cheddar, I think maybe some chicken, and then the entire inside is hosed down with queso dip.
4. Tostada Nachos from TGI Friday's.
TGIF isn't a Mexican chain, and normally I bitch about restaurants trying to serve too many different kinds of food, but I make an exception for TGIF because it has the best appetizers of any chain I can think of. The Tostado Nachos are brilliant because of their uniformity: The fried tostado shells are expertly spread with a beefy-beany mixture, covered with melted cheese, then cut into individual nacho triangles so that you get all the toppings on every inch of every chip.
3. Pintos & Cheese from Taco Bell. When I was a shortie, my other shortie friends and I would have contests to see how many mild sauce packets we could empty into a single order of these without spilling over the cup. Then we'd relish each bite of the soupy mixture while our parentals would look on in disgust. Can you put a price on memories like this? Sure you can -- but since this side item is from Taco Bell, ten bucks will buy you enough bean cups to plaster a dining room.
2. Ancho Chile BBQ Burrito from Qdoba.
This burrito is a masterpiece. It's spicy, smoky, sweet, tangy, and I swear there is chocolate in it somewhere. This burrito is a fat, sloppy, delicious reason to get stoned -- if you really need a reason.
1. Anything from Chipotle.
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Of course I can't write a list about Mexican food without adding Chipotle, because it's impossible to ignore our homegrown golden-child chain, ever. Actually, I like everything from Chipotle's modestly-sized menu, because the salsa is fresh, the guac is fresh, and the staff manages to ingeniously stuff corn into every nook and cranny of their burritos and soft tacos.
Honorable mention: The fried ice cream from Chi-Chi's.
Chi-Chi's was the "it" Mexican restaurant in the '80s, but the chain went belly-up in the U.S. in the '90s. The food was usually sub-par and covered with tomato sauce, the carpets were always stained with bean bloobers and corn chip crumbles, and the music was cheesier than the nachos -- think Casa Bonita but without all the cool stuff -- but Chi-Chi's did some magic with its fried ice cream. I don't know what it was, but those fake honey-drenched balls in the cinnamon-sugar flour shell were what I looked forward to every Friday. Of course, I was also six years old, wore Wonder-Woman Underoos and gave my cat a bath in motor oil. My judgment may have been off.