Battle of the Bad Mexican Fast-Food Chains: Taco Bell vs. Taco John's

BROOKINGS, S.D.--I'm speaking tonight at South Dakota State University, a day after having spent the week eating my way through Tex-Mex heaven in San Antonio. Quite a difference from the land of Flaco Jimenez to that of Laura Ingalls Wilder--and then there's the Mexican food.

In San Antonio, I ate puffy tacos, chile con carne, breakfast tacos, and the beautiful breakfast called migas (not the Argentine white-bread sandwich but a type of chilaquiles where the cooks don't fry the tortilla strips and substitute potatoes for rice. Here? The homegrown food is the Taco John's chain, a chain almost exclusively limited to places where wabs haven't historically lived--the Midwest. Can you believe it's been around since the late 1960s, started by gabachos in Wyoming, and has over 425 locations? Man, the Reconquista gets around!

Usually, I avoid Mexican food when away the safe regions of the country, but I always wanted to taste the Taco John's experience. It didn't disappoint. From finding out that they sell West-Mex® cuisine (hey, Californians and foodies: have you EVER heard this term before? West according to what geographic standard?) to their logo (a Jaliscan charro dressed in a Western handkerchief and silver-button shirt), Taco John's is a comedy of earnest-but-wrong intentions. The tragedy of this is that they could've one-upped Taco Bell in the burrito game if they didn't try to pretend to be so damn Mexican.

We all know the typical Taco Bell burrito: bland, with a bit of hot sauce. Taco John's sells something called the meat and potato burrito. It's not a breakfast burrito, which should give pause to those of us who grew up on the stuff. Mexicans, now that I think about it, really don't eat potatoes unless they're inside tacos de canasta (fried, skinny Mexico City-style tacos) or in a soup. We'll accept it in hash brown form or sauteed in a burrito. But the potatoes in this burrito is very much a nod to our heartlanders--they're tater tots (trademarked as Potato Olés®--what's with all the copyright protection? Only a fool would copy this chain). The tater tots have nothing Mexican about them, but are fine and crunchier than usual. Coupled with good-enough meat and a dab of sour cream, and I can see Taco John's beat Taco Bell in this burrito battle.

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But...the nacho cheese. Horrible choice. Overwhelmed all the other flavors. Even cheddar cheese would've been better. Nacho cheese is a dangerous proposition, and works only with crunch to counterbalance its sogginess. The tater tots weren't enough. Do the people here think the only Mexican cheese that exists is nacho? I ate Taco John's meat and potato burritos, but was absolutely underwhelmed.

Final knock: no heat. None. Even Taco Bell offers their vanilla salsa.

Tellingly, Taco John's only Southwestern locations are on military bases. I don't want to slur our fine men and women in the armed forces, but Taco John's knows better than to expand into the Southwest--midwesterners might still be slack-jawed yokels when it comes to Mexican cuisine, but not even Jim Gilchrist would patronize Taco John's. Probably Barbara Coe, though...

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