I’ve been writing about fast food for five years, but only recently did the purveyors of said foodstuffs take an interest. Drive an hour and a half to be among the first to taste-test new Del Taco product? Hellz yeah, that sounds like something worthwhile. It was an interesting experience – part press conference, part life as a guinea pig. And at the end of it all I’m among the first to review stuff that won’t be available to the public for another two days…and in some cases may never make it out of testing.
The items that will be coming this week for sure are the epic burritos. How epic? Here’s a comparison shot with my hand for scale…
It’s funny to hear marketing people refer to food in terms of storytelling, but the story here is basically twofold – fold one involves competing with Chipotle by offering a similar product, but fold two involves doing it using the burger-fries/Mexican mashup style that Del Taco feels is pretty much theirs and theirs alone. The final product looks like something you might see at Carl’s Jr., to be honest. I think maybe it’s the blue text that does it.
No, I did not finish all three. Like Guy Fieri, I just took one or two big bites for effect.
First up was the fajita. Chicken, rice, sour cream, guacamole, pinto beans, black beans, cotija cheese and grilled veggies like corn and poblanos. I asked for mine without sour cream, and it certainly does not need it. While the guacamole was stuffed a bit to the bottom of mine, the cotija throughout gave a nice flavor and added a crumbly texture that was welcome. The grilled veggies were a very nice note with the chicken; the only minor detraction was that I don’t think it needed both kinds of beans – they blend together and feel pasty next to all the other strong flavors. All in all, something I would order again.
Let us look inside, shall we?
Up next – steak and potato, i.e. foodicide. Beef “steak,” fries, grated cheese, chipotle sauce, bacon and sour cream. I’m not fond of those last two ingredients, but it doesn’t need them – while I’d love to see some of their chili get added to this mix, it is a decadent thing indeed. I’m not sure I’d want to finish a whole one, but those first two bites satisfied a loaded fries jones that always surfaces within me. The buzzword in marketing this one is “late night,” which appears to be diplomatic adspeak for “when you’re drunk and/or stoned.” (See also: In the Box, Jack.)
Finally: chicken chipotle ranch. In addition to the three ingredients implied by the title, it has lettuce tomato, bacon, cheese and rice. This is the only one I would not eat again – while the freshness of the lettuce was a nice change from the last two, the combination of creamy chipotle and ranch dressing is just too rich for my tastebuds. I don’t suppose it’ll be a problem for many customers, but believe it or not I don’t always want what’s worst for me. Had to tap out.
Then it was time to enter the testing room, which is where things got interesting and our cameras were temporarily confiscated…
All I can show you for this part is the outside of the building…
The testing room is seriously like something you’ve seen in a dystopian sci-fi flick. You enter a room and sit in front of a cubbyhole, where there’s a computer terminal, a light switch, and a sliding panel. The room is barely illuminated – but in red lights, so you can’t really tell what color the food you’re eating is.
When you flip the light switch, the panel in front of you slides open and you’re presented with a food item – in this case, it was a large taco, with a lot of meat, cheese and the pico salsa that you normally get on Del’s fish tacos. The meat was very hot throughout, but had an unusual texture, making me wonder if they were testing a cheaper kind of meat, or a different formula. It had a spicy aftertaste that was nice, but there was also so much of it that it overwhelmed the other ingredients.
The second item was a crunchtada, which I knew because it came in a box that said “crunchtada” on it. Splitting the difference between the basic beans version and the more fully loaded pizza, this one had meat and beans, but just red sauce, lettuce and cheese in addition. It was very good. I would have eaten it all except that they started rushing us at this point.
Oh, forgot to mention – weirdly, we were given bottled water to drink with these. Sodas did come eventually, but who drinks bottled water at a fast food place? I think maybe Carl’s sells it, but I don’t believe Del does.
Anyway, after regrouping in a regularly lit room, we were told the big twist – both items we’d eaten were made with ground turkey. The Turkey Taco is being tested, and, they tell us, generally well-liked by those who eat it, but resisted by some who simply don’t want to. Because the switch from beef is being made by many people at home, the goal is to see if that can or should be reproduced in a chain. [To clarify: it would be an additional menu option, NOT a replacement for beef.]
My view on ground turkey is this – it is not a substitute for ground beef. Period. I will not make my personal chili recipe with ground turkey, as the differing fat content and texture changes the way the other ingredients and flavors mesh. I do, however, like ground turkey as its own thing. Did I like it in the taco? Not much. But in the crunchtada, I couldn’t tell the difference, and I would buy that again.
Oh, and when I told them my biggest reason for occasionally going to their competitor’s was for mid-size nachos…I was assured they are aware of this issue and working on it. A plea for jalapeno poppers, on the other hand, was met with a response that their cheesy potato jalapeno things are basically the same thing, and a best-seller. I’ll buy the latter point – but don’t tell me they’re poppers if liquid lava cheese isn’t bursting out and burning my tongue.
The Epic burritos go on sale Nov. 7th, for $4.99. The turkey’s fate is unknown.