Thinking Outside the Taco Bell-Bashing
We interrupt this regularly scheduled review to wax a bit on the passing of Taco Bell founder Glen Bell. The World War II veteran sold out to Pepsi in 1978, long before the company moved to its present Irvine headquarters, but his connection to Orange County was deep. Orange and Costa Mesa host two of the last outposts of El Taco, the chain Bell founded before creating Taco Bell. A Bell disciple created Lake Forest-based Del Taco; Wienerschnitzel, same deal. Taco Bell’s popularity got Carl Karcher to create Taco de Carlos; the subsequent failure set back the hamburger mogul. And while Taco Bell’s landmark 100th eatery no longer stands at 400 S. Brookhurst St. in Anaheim, the usually humble Bell threw a massive party for its 1967 opening complete with a hot-air balloon and mariachis.
Bell’s vision of Mexican food for the masses proved more influential outside Southern California; our own masses have been eating borderlands cuisine since the days of Pio Pico. Still, Bell’s culinary legacy continues.
Rooster Café in Costa Mesa draws crowds mostly for the breakfast burritos. These massive bricks are too heavy on the eggs, too light on the sharp Cheddar and crunchy, greasy hash browns (the kinds of toasted tater ribbons you can build diner empires on), but they’re still damn good. All the ingredients in the burrito, from the sausage to the tortilla, are from farmers markets, a direct response to the corporate sameness Taco Bell and its parent company foist on too much of America.
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Rooster’s filling breakfast tacos diverge from the San Antonio-style classic by using corn tortillas instead of flour, and bacon instead of shredded beef—just more variations on the “there’s more than one way to NOT be Taco Bell” theme. (They also sell great scrambles and Texas toast for breakfast and passable lunch sandwiches.) Another telling fact is that all the tables host Cholula salsa. Fifty years ago it would’ve stunned folks to see non-Mexicans drench Rooster’s eats with such a condiment, but la campana changed all that.
This is the America Bell envisioned: a place where everyone eats Mexican. It’s easy to damn Bell for the blandness he wrought, but then we wouldn’t have Wahoo’s, the mainstream success of taco trucks, celebrity-chef Mexican-regional evangelists like Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless, or even Doritos. Meditate on this while marveling at the world we live in, where a gabacho can concoct a breakfast burrito better than virtually any Mexican.
Rooster Café 750 St. Clair St., Costa Mesa, (714) 754-1944; www.eatatrooster.com