Terrible tacos and Chocolate Overlord Cake: Denver's new Jack in the Box

As I'm driving to the new Jack in the Box , which opened yesterday at 2020 South Federal Boulevard, the second new Jack in metro Denver in a month, I'm seriously wondering why anyone would stop to eat at Jack's when both sides of the street, for miles, are dotted with mom-and-pop Mexican taquerías, mariscos trucks, carts and sit-down phở restaurants. There's nothing wrong with grabbing a quick burger from time to time, but that seems like such a waste of cash when compared to sitting down to a steaming bowl of spiced broth, noodles and rare beef, or scooping into a chilled, cilantro-garnished seafood coctel -- for a minuscule price upgrade.

It was easy to spot the new Jack's, because it was surrounded by signs, flags, balloons and people -- lots of people. The parking lot was packed, and so was the dining room, and the drive-thru was humming along to match.

The register line was a good fifteen-minute wait -- which, in fast-food time, is like an hour -- and I had to admire the way the clearly ambushed employees were keeping it together. I ordered the Sirloin Cheeseburger combo with curly fries, the Sirloin Swiss & Grilled Onion Burger and the Chocolate Overload Cake -- which I swear to blog said "Chocolate Overlord Cake," proving that I should stop reading HuffPo in the mornings before I've had my coffee. Jack also has both Fanta orange and strawberry soda -- and Fanta is fantastic. As I sat down and waited, I mused about how long it had been since I'd last eaten at Jack in the Box. It was my sophomore year in high school, and the next time I asked my Pops if we could stop for curly fries, he told me -- in a testament to laconic parenting -- that we weren't eating at Jack's anymore because their burgers were f*cked up. In culinary school, I later learned about their unfortunate E.coli outbreak, and although my Pops was correct, I also learned there were technical terms for f*cked up. The dining room, a new look for Jack in the Box, was actually cheery. The pop-art wall graphics were interesting to look at, and I actually kinda liked the shadow-box art with the little Jack head in it -- it made the mascot slightly less creepy.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a stationary order-kiosk. Upon examination, it seemed that this large, ATM-style machine was probably responsible for at least a few cashier positions being eliminated, and I wondered when all fast-food joints are going to replace humans with these. But then my food came, and there was no more time for deep thoughts.

The burgers were big. The Sirloin Cheeseburger had a decent bun; crisp, lengthwise-cut pickles; a beef patty that was very black-peppery; and ubiquitous hunks of iceberg lettuce that were annoying but expected. The Swiss & Grilled Onion Burger had plenty of lightly-grilled onions, and the same peppery burger patty.

The tables around me seemed to be on to something I wasn't aware of: the allure of Jack's Sourdough Steak Melt. I asked a cashier about this sandwich, and he assured me that it was "the best thing on the menu." So I ordered one, since what goes better with chocolate fudge cake than a steak sandwich?

The sandwich was pretty good -- an unhealthy but tempting combination of buttered and grilled sourdough toast, melted Cheddar and American cheese, grilled onions and a salty, white sauce that tasted a bit like ranch dressing.

I've heard tell that cannot count yourself as being a true legal-drinking-age adult until you've slammed way too many whiskey shots and then hit the late-night drive-thru at Jack in the Box and ordered a bagful of its notoriously awful two-for-a-dollar tacos. I ordered a couple just to see if they were as dreadful to eat when you're sober, and indeed they were. So I did something I've always wanted to do, and pried one apart with my finger to examine the contents up close. I was immediately sorry that I had.

The grease-sodden corn shell was chewy at the bottom, tooth-breakingly solid at the top, and the innards had the look of room-temp canned cat food slathered with spicy but flavorless taco sauce, a shaking of iceberg lettuce bits, and half a triangle slice of non-melted American cheese. These tacos are what my Pops would refer to as "stuff that grows hair on your b*lls."

But the cake was close to perfect, by fast-food standards. It was soft, moist and had just the right amount of fudgy icing swirls. It's comparable to the desserts out of the case at Starbucks, meaning I have no clue how they get these little baked goods to taste fresh -- but I'm okay living in the dark about it.

The dining room hadn't cleared out much since I'd sat down, but all of a sudden people were scrambling for the side door -- something about beanbags and a "wheel of prizes" going on in the parking lot. I went outside, too, and saw well-dressed employees emceeing while customers took turns throwing beanbags through holes in a decorated board, and spinning a Jeopardy wheel to get prizes like mascot Jack bobblehead dolls, Jack in the Box hats, T-shirts, dog tags and key chains, Jack car antenna heads, car air fresheners -- they were cherry, not cheeseburger-scented -- and coupons for free tacos.

I gave it a spin, and acquired both a bobblehead doll and a coupon for free tacos. A guy next to me got an antenna head, and he lamented that he'd gone through several of these in the last few years because every time he'd top his Jeep antenna with one, it was promptly filched. I comforted him by saying I hoped someone would pilfer my free tacos coupon.

Overall, this Jack in the Box's opening day seemed to go very well; the company, which had left the Colorado market more than a decade ago, is making a strong comeback here. The new, improved food wasn't horrible -- except for the tacos, and I have no one to blame but myself for ordering them -- and some of it was actually good. Although I'm a firm believer that there is very little in life that can't be made right over a bowl of phở, if you must take a burger break, there are worse places to go.

Especially at 4 a.m. This is the latest in a semi-regular series of fast-food reviews by Jenn Wohletz.

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