Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Del Taco: A Restaurant Review

Further proof that the worldwide economic recession is heading to an end: the resurgence of B-level fast food chains you thought went bankrupt in the 1990s!

Fate, clearly, is working against me. And worst of all, it’s doing so via Mexican fast food.

Earlier this year, I graduated from college, and for a good four years, my diet was relegated to vending machine produce and the periodic overpriced egg sandwich that was being huckstered for about three dollars too many in the liberal arts college lobby. The saddest thing is, the only fast food places within walking distance of the campus were a Waffle House (quite the den of quality foodstuffs, of course), and a gas-station Subway, whose $8.99 foot-long veggie subs were still cheaper than the bagels I could buy if I strolled on over to the business college.

And then…literally a week after graduation…a freaking Taco Bell opens up across the road. For a good two or three minutes, I was utterly outraged, until I drove past this little shopping complex (which, for some dumb ass reason or another, I never found fit to explore as a student) and realized there was a DEL TACO about a mile away from my school.

This is some “Twilight Zone” twist ending shit right here. I starved and jammed Pop-Tarts down my throat for almost half a decade, when if I had just walked in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION, I could’ve found an oasis of B-level fast food chains that I honestly thought went belly-up sometime in the 1990s. Shit, if I drove another five miles, I probably could’ve found the world’s last operational Burger Chef and Druther’s, too.

To the uninitiated, Del Taco is a fast food chain that specializes in food that overweight Americans think is authentic Mexican cuisine. In the 1990s, the establishment was quite commonplace in the metro-Atlanta area, if concentrated mostly in malls and school food courts. Legend has it that my alma matter even had one in its cafeteria - which, today, unfortunately, is home to a Chick-Fil-A.

Apparently, Del Taco’s parent company hit some tough times in the 1990s and had to close down a few of its chains. Honestly, I haven’t seen one in my neck of the woods for more than 10 years, so seeing that glorious, red, green and yellow signage on my way to a nice turnaround spot to get back on I-75 South was easily one of the greatest things that has EVER happened to me.

As you can see, the lobby of the Del Taco looks a lot like the lobby you’ll find at every other fast food outfit in the nation. Since the afternoon queue was so large, it gave me ample time to scout out the venue’s menu - and as one of the Western World’s biggest cheddar potato poppers AND plastic tyrannosaurus premium enthusiasts, I was rather impressed by the chain’s offerings.

I ended up picking up both an 8-layer burrito (which, apparently, is 1-layer more hardcore than Taco Bell) and a half pound bean and cheese burrito. The really nice thing about the second item was that it was being hawked at only 0.99 cents - needless to say, I have a firm idea of where all of my loose one dollar bills will be going for the foreseeable future. And in case you’re red and fry-colored color blind, yes, that IS a box of crinkle-cut potato sticks jutting off to the side of my tray, perhaps symbolizing a long overdue peace accord between the French and the Mexicans.

One of the things I absolutely LOVED about the restaurant was this hot sauce bar, which totally kicks Taco Bell square in its purple and yellow cojones. Not only did you get three samples each of both hot sauce and salsa, the items were, surprisingly, quite zesty and spicy. If nothing else, they were certainly worlds better than that crappy packet stuff you’ll find at the Bell, most definitely.

I ended up settling on the houses’ hottest sauce and it’s hottest salsa. As a general rule, the darker the sauce, the spicier and more flavorful the dip, and these sauces, especially for a fast food chain, were pretty darn good. The condiment bar may very well be worth a visit to Del Taco alone, if you ask me.

The important thing, I suppose, is whether or not the burritos were any good, or at least, on par with what Taco Bell offers. And to give you a truncated answer…well, sorta’.

First off, the tortillas. All in all, I’d say they are pretty comparable to what you would find at Taco Bell, as the tortillas are pretty doughy and get quite mushy when you load them with extras. The major positive here is that it gels really well with the sauces and salsas, which give the soft shells a nice complementary function. Additionally, these burritos are downright HUGE, probably the same size as the absolute biggest burrito on the Bell menu. If you’re really hungry (as in, Shaggy Rogers levels) and you’re broke as hell, this should REALLY give you an incentive to find the nearest Del Taco location around you.

There are things that I really liked about the bean and cheese burrito, and there were a couple of things that I didn’t like. For one, I really liked the cheese, which had this spiciness to it that the cheese at Taco Bell just doesn’t have. The problem is, the refried beans just weren’t fusing with the rest of the burrito, giving the offering a really watered down, pulpy taste that only gobs of salsa could overpower. It wasn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it was definitely lacking a few crucial ingredients that could have made it a real competitor against some of the Bell’s value menu stalwarts.

The eight-layer burrito, however, was freaking outstanding, and you need to try it.

Just look at that, kids. It’s not so much a burrito as it is a garden struck by a nuclear warhead. Cheese, tomato chunks, iceberg lettuce, sour cream and guacamole is wedged into the shell so hard that just poking the burrito causes bean fragments to squirt out of wrapper. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a seven layer burrito from Taco Bell, but this Del Taco offering is definitely a worthy challenger to its throne - and since you can batter your burrito with salsa and sauce that’s actually worth a damn, I feel pretty confident declaring this 8-layer burrito to be a SUPERIOR offering to the much revered Taco Bell analog.

So, what are my final thoughts on Del Taco? It’s pretty awesome, and if you have an extra $10 in your pocket, it’s probably worth checking out. Assuredly, there are some complaints to be had (those mushy ass beans, primarily), but there’s just so much diversity and add-ons that it’s difficult to NOT recommend the chain to any fans of mass-produced Tex-Mex. Whether or not it’s AS good as Taco Bell, of course, is in the eye of the beholder; and in my salsa and lechuga-encrusted pupils, I’d say Del Taco is clearly worth your time, effort, y dinero, Holmes.


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