So, when I found out that U.S. Taco Co. -- Taco Bell's attempt at cornering the more well-to-do market -- opened in downtown Huntington Beach this week, I messaged my editor, and asked if I could review it, and then I got ready.
I got ready to head down to Huntington Beach and enjoy myself. Sure, the clientele were going to be douchey. I would probably have to pay for parking. The food would be overpriced, the employees judgmental, and the décor would undoubtedly scream "2 hip 4 u" harder than a Bushwick DJ loft. But in spite of all that, I was ready to defend the place because I firmly believe that what matters is that food tastes good -- food isn't sacred, it doesn't have to be healthy, and it doesn't owe you anything except its flavor, and I already had a whole bunch of diatribes ready about who cares that tacos don't traditionally include gravy or fried chicken. I was ready to defend U.S. Taco Co.
But then I went to U.S. Taco Co.
The thing is, and I need to say this right off the bat, U.S. Taco isn't bad. They've got some genuinely cool concepts floating around, and the idea of taking what Chipotle is doing (going vaguely Latino in theme, emphasizing the freshness and customization of their options) but flipping it, and channeling country-music-style-bro-Americana, genuinely interesting fusion combinations, and tacos that are basically sandwiches, is really, really cool.
Of course, all of those cool ideas are implemented so poorly that it's hard to remember what I liked about them in the first place.
Let's start with the obvious - the décor. It's a bunch of stupid pastels, unnecessary stainless steel, and all of these pointless candy skulls. U.S. Taco, okay, cool - that explains why you get state license plates instead of number placards to identify your order, and that's why "EAT TACOS" is displayed in a silly lightbulb type treatment above the counter. But then why bother with the Dia de los Muertos imagery at all? Are you acknowledging the influence of Latin American culture on your cuisine, or are you just stuffing rad shit into a tortilla? Pick a theme and go with it.
Also, just a forewarning - 90 percent of the customers? Total tools. I mean, they might be perfectly kind people, but I've never seen so many tight-striped tank tops and sunglasses worn indoors in my entire life.
But onto the actual foodstuffs, and here's where I was actually disappointed. The menu seems really cool; I mean, yeah, the kitschy names for the tacos (and don't even get me fucking started on how asinine "Leche Shakes" and "Papa's Fritas" sound when spoken aloud) are kinda silly, but they're fun, and they sort of fit the place. Unfortunately, most of the actual dishes fall short.
With the help of my buddy Jordan, I tried 5 tacos, with a side of fries. (I refuse to write "Papa's Fritas" anymore in this article.) The "Winner-Winner" - one of their flagship tacos - was first: fried chicken, jalapeno gravy, corn slaw on top of a flour tortilla. This thing really set the disappointing tone for the night, with its bland, almost-soggy chicken and utterly spiceless gravy. Seriously, I was promised jalapeno.
The "Hot Chick" - cousin to the "Winner-Winner", just minus the gravy and add buffalo sauce and bleu cheese slaw - was even worse. I worked at Season Ticket Family Pizza for 5 years, okay? I know good wing sauce when I taste it, and this stuff had way too much vinegar and nowhere near enough butter.
Next up was the Southern Squealer, a pretty decent pulled pork number on a bed of corn mash with a pretty flavorful BBQ sauce. The best of the night was our next treat - the Surf City, a fairly simple carne asada deal with some wonderful poblano crema over slaw. Ironically enough, U.S. Taco's least innovative entrée is by far their best.
Perhaps the biggest upset of the night was our last taco - the infamous "1%er," a $9 joke stuffed with lobster and garlic butter slaw. I'm not big into seafood, but it's usually hard to mess with fresh lobster; unfortunately, this is one of those cases. The slaw had no real buttery flavor, and only served to distract from genuinely bland and unseasoned lobster meat that had to have been baked or boiled.
Overall, the tacos themselves need some serious tinkering. On the plus side, there's some genuine freshness happening here - the ingredients taste real, flavorful, and clean. Unfortunately, those ingredients are poorly assembled. There's always too much slaw or garnish, and the flavors are often too sharp or herby and serve to distract from the meat instead of complimenting it.
The biggest shock was in the drink department - the so-called "urban taproom" can't serve alcohol and has no taps; even their sodas are all bottled, fancy numbers like Leninade and Virgil's Cream. I happen to be a huge fan of fancy, artisan soda, but at U.S. Taco they just don't fit.
I opted for a shake instead - the "Friggin' Fried Ice Cream," which contains vanilla ice cream, caramel, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. A true letdown - the shake arrived in an absurdly undersized Mason jar, the cereal wasn't blended in but garnished on top, leaving the shake barely flavored. Worst of all, the ice cream to milk ratio was totally off, giving my frozen beverage the texture of Muscle Milk. The "Coco Loco" is a similar disappointment - at $4.50 a pop, something needs to change or you're better off grabbing water.
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Luckily, U.S. Taco shines in one department - sides. The fries are AMAZING. They're thin, the perfect texture of crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They come with two dipping sauces: an expertly crafted jalapeno ranch, and a surprisingly flavorful ghost chile ketchup. You can even get specialty fries, like Philly or Asada, which I'd recommend highly - I'll certainly be getting them on my trip back.
And I will be going back, because I know that when restaurants first open, there's a lot of kinks to work out. U.S. Taco has some cool ideas in play, and I really hope they tighten things up and optimize their menu, because at the moment, it's not worth defending, but it's still good enough that I'm willing to give it another shot.
Besides, there's still 5 tacos on the menu I haven't tried.