Standing on Tacos

Red’s Giant Hamburg – Springfield, MO – may be America’s first drive-thru restaurant. Red’s opened in 1947 from a converted gas station, closed in 1984, then opened again last year. In the United States it’s not really “fast food” without the drive-thru, is it?  McDonald’s certainly agrees, as does Burger King.  But Taco Bell, they think outside the tortilla.  Just last year the Bell opened a taco-themed hotel and resort in Palm Springs, CA.

A taco-themed hotel and resort – really, you ask?  Yes but more on that in a minute.  It helps to cover some of Taco Bell’s earlier adventures first.  Founder Glen Bell started his restaurant in the 1960s as the copycat of a local Los Angeles walk-up taco stand.  The concept of “American-Mexican fast food” quickly franchised to 100 locations in less than five years.  Today you’ll count 7,000+ Taco Bell locations in two dozen countries.  Two billion customers frequented the Bell in 2019.

I’ve always admired Taco Bell… er, from afar.  I can’t tell you the last time I navigated TB’s drive-thru (probably my kids’ high school days).  Don’t get me wrong, I love Mexican food.  But eating at Taco Bell is like supplanting an Italian artisan pizza with a Little Caesars.  In other words, I prefer my Mexican at authentic Mexican restaurants.

But there’s no denying Taco Bell’s success.  They chose six or seven essential ingredients and spun an entire low-cost menu out of them.  Take the $1.49 soft taco.  Four components: seasoned beef, lettuce, and cheese, inside a soft tortilla.  Add sour cream, tomatoes, or other options, but you’ll pay $0.40 or more for each.  The only freebies are the hot sauce packets at the pick-up window.

From the Taco Bell soft taco evolved an entire zoo of animales.  You have the Taco Supreme, Chalupa Supreme, Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and (for the really adventurous) the Nachos Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.  From the Taco Bell burrito you get the Burrito Supreme, Grilled Cheese Burrito, Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, Quesarito, and Crunchwrap Supreme.  Again, all of these wild animales come from pretty much the same small set of ingredients.

Taco Bell’s successful run endures at a time when foodies lean more towards farm-to-table organic.  So why does it still work?  Marketing.  Taco Bell’s all about creative thinking.  Some examples:

  1. Taco Bell branded their hot sauce, taco shells, chips, and shredded cheese, and you can find them on your supermarket shelves.  No drive-thru necessary.
  2. TB teamed up with several pro sports franchises to offer free food based on individual performances (i.e. steal a base, score so many points, score so many runs = free tacos).
  3. In 2001, when the Mir Space Station re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, Taco Bell floated a giant target in the Pacific Ocean and promised a free taco to every American if a bit of the space station (designed to break up) hit the target.  (No such luck.)
  4. In 2013, Taco Bell designed a waffle taco, filled it with scrambled eggs and sausage, added a side of syrup, and called it breakfast.  The waffle taco is no longer on the menu but breakfast still is (if you consider a Hash Brown Toasted Burrito “breakfast”).
  5. In 2016, Taco Bell test-marketed a Cheetos Burrito.  That’s all you really need to know, right?
  6. In 2017, Taco Bell partnered with Lyft to offer “Taco Mode”.  Rides from 9pm-2am included a stop at Taco Bell.

Which brings us to the Taco Bell hotel.  In the summer of 2019, TB converted an existing Palm Springs resort into a live-in advertisement, “the biggest expression of the Taco Bell lifestyle to date”, according to its Chief Global Brand Officer. 

Not only did they slap the TB brand all over the resort, but they also offered the full Taco Bell menu, poolside cocktails “infused with a Taco Bell twist”, a “not-to-miss gift shop” (including a Forever 21 fashion line of Taco Bell apparel), and a salon where nail art and hairstyles were decidedly “Bell”.  The resort was a pop-up, only intended to operate for a few days, but reservations sold out within two minutes of being offered.

“Gidget the Chihuahua”

Taco Bell has one more menu item I didn’t mention above: the Spicy Potato Soft Taco.  Er, had.  The Bell discontinued it but not before Bryant Hoban (of O’Fallon, MO – not far from Red’s Giant Hamburg) purchased and froze three of them.  A few weeks later Hoban sold the “mint condition soft tacos” through Facebook.  For $70.  Each.  With that kind of endorsement, it’s safe to say the Bell will be ringing for many years to come.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the Fox News article, “Taco Bell is opening a taco-themed hotel and resort”.

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

St. Brigid’s Cathedral dominates the quaint urban landscape of Kildare Town in central Ireland. The centuries-old stone church beckons the short walk up the hill from the village square, for a tour around Brigid’s domain. And while you’re on the grounds, you’ll be tempted to climb the adjacent tower for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding county. I assure you; the vistas are breathtaking.

A bird’s eye view from my own locale would be just as breathtaking right about now.  In the last ten days, I’ve ventured beyond my driveway once, for a mundane grocery shop at the local market.  For all I know, nearby Colorado Springs has been erased from the map.  For all I know, all my neighbors in the surrounding county traveled to a tropical island where they’re making merry, while I’m left to keep an eye on things back here at home.  Who nominated me for that job?

Proceed with caution!
The tower “stairs”

No kidding, the view from the tower at St. Brigid’s is spectacular.  Not only do you see all of Kildare Town below, but you’ll be mesmerized by the lush green acreage of the adjacent Irish National Stud (and its countless roaming thoroughbred horses).  When my wife and I visited several years ago, targeting Kildare Town to see the cathedral of her namesake saint, I figured light a few candles and say a few prayers; not climb a ten-story tower.  I have a mild fear of heights so you can imagine my trepidation.  And here’s the kicker: there’s no code-sanctioned, easy-to-navigate stairwell within the tower.  Instead, you hand over a couple of Euros for the privilege of climbing a dozen ladders to the top.  I almost called it quits after the first few rungs.

My longing to “rise above it all” today is not just inspired by the pandemic, nor even my acrophobia-be-damned adventure up the tower at St. Brigid’s.  I also think about nearby Pikes Peak, the highest of the Rocky Mountains in this part of Colorado.  “America’s Mountain” tops out at 14,115 feet, and I’ve hiked to the summit several times (the trail begins at 6,000 feet).  You begin the journey on a series of easy switch-backing trails, which then give way to a remarkably gentle incline through a forest of Ponderosa pines.  For several miles under the treetops, you have no orientation to suggest you’re even climbing a majestic mountain.  But once you hit the tree line, everything upwards is a moonscape: rocks and dirt and scrub brush all the way up to the summit.  The view is stunning; as if you’re looking down from space.  You can see clear to Wyoming to the north and Kansas to the east.

Pikes Peak, through Garden of the Gods

I could use a mountain (or a ladder-filled tower) on my property right about now, just to connect with the world around me.  Oh sure, rural living means the stay-at-home rules are a minor inconvenience, but it’d sure be nice to confirm someone else is out there.  The local news shows human interest stories every night on TV, but c’mon, how many of us trust the media these days?

Here’s my very favorite climb-ev’ry-mountain memory.  I grew up in a narrow canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles; so narrow in fact, some stretches could only accommodate a single row of houses on one side of a winding two-lane road.  Biking with the cars was taking your life in your own hands, as was scaling the canyon trails into the domains of rattlesnakes and other wildlife.

Lucky for me, a steeply rising network of paved residential streets branched off the canyon floor less than a mile south of our house.  On foot, those streets became a kid’s adventure up and out of the isolation.  I’d stock a daypack with cheese sandwiches, Pop-Tarts, and anything else I could pilfer from the pantry.  Some days I’d go it alone; others I’d drag my brother with me.  Up, up, up we’d climb, rising breathless until we could peer almost straight back down to the canyon floor below.  The final stretch of the topmost street – with houses perched precariously along on its edges – afforded a view of Los Angeles and the nearby Pacific Ocean like none I’ve seen to this day.  There I’d sit, munching snacks, wondering what all I was missing down there in the big city.

Today it’s the same feeling, only different.  What am I missing out there in the big city?  Is Wyoming still to the north and Kansas to the east?  Are cadets still at the Air Force Academy, anticipating this weekend’s socially-distanced graduation ceremony?  Have the majestic red rocks of Garden of the Gods finally crumbled?  Truthfully, I can’t answer any of these questions, not while I’m stay-at-home.  But at least I can see the summit of Pikes Peak from here.  At least I’m confident St. Brigid’s Cathedral still stands in Kildare Town (Notre Dame in Paris, maybe not so much).  And at least I can revisit fond memories, the kind I never thought I’d yearn for again.  On that note, think I’ll make a cheese sandwich.

Ahoy, Matey!

At the Jolly Roger Restaurant in the small Southern California town of Oceanside, you can order an Avocado Blast as a starter (tempura-battered avo stuffed with shrimp and tuna), Orange Coconut Salmon as an entree (panko-crusted with a sweet ginger glaze), and fruit-topped New York Cheesecake as a dessert, all while watching live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. The “JR” may be a little fancy for your tastes but let me tell you; it’s a LOT fancy for mine. That’s because the only version of the Jolly Roger I ever knew was my favorite boyhood burger joint.  As pirates like to say, “Aarrr…

Why blog about a long-ago restaurant?  Because I’ve just returned from several days of vacation in Del Mar (just a few miles south of Oceanside), where my family and I spent my childhood summers.  Del Mar is renowned for its county fair and thoroughbred racetrack (“Where the Turf Meets the Surf”), but for me it was – and still is – a nirvana of sun, sand, and surf; chock-full of happy, carefree memories.  Including the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar beach

The beauty of Del Mar back in the day, besides its seaside location, was the sheer simplicity of the place.  The town was the perfect setup for a kid.  You could walk or bike from the residential areas to the shops in minutes.  You could spend pocket money on Slurpees and pinball at the 7-11.  You could meet/greet frequent passenger trains at Del Mar’s tiny station (while those same trains flattened pennies on the rails).  You could also sneak into the racetrack, collecting discarded betting tickets in hopes of finding an overlooked winner.  And if you were lucky, you had dinner at the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar train crossing

The Jolly Roger got its start as an ice cream parlor in 1945, adjacent to the lake in Big Bear, CA.  But the lake promptly went dry, which led to a lack of landlubbers walking through the doors.  The parlor then relocated to Newport Beach (where the ocean never goes dry).  Patrons soon asked for more than ice cream, so the JR evolved into a coffee shop; then into a chain of restaurants.  At its peak, the JR had forty locations, each adorned with the trademark black flag with skull and crossbones.  But as one article cruelly described its demise in 1985, “…the Jolly Roger pirate has ‘walked the plank’, and the restaurant chain has been consigned to Davey Jones’ locker.”  As far as I know, Oceanside is now the only remaining restaurant.

There’s more to my JR memories than those couple of seaside locations.  The JR also had a restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles, in a shopping center my dad developed back in the 1960’s.  The center is still there but alas, not the JR (now a Mexican restaurant).  No matter; the memories remain.  I never complained when my dad wanted to stop by his center on weekends.  That usually meant a family dinner at the JR, and a lot of yo-ho-ho-ing around the table.

Jolly Roger menu – original cover page

Sadly, the Jolly Roger location where my family and I shared many a dinner – next door to Del Mar in Solana Beach – is also gone (converted into a Starbucks – shiver me timbers!)  And the Oceanside restaurant has evolved into something a whole lot fancier.  No matter again.  My JR will always exist.  I picture the restaurant where the waiters dressed like pirates, the kid’s menus looked like a pirate, and the best options for dinner were burgers & fries, grilled cheese, and milkshakes.  The JR also had quite the dessert menu, including full-boat chocolate sundaes and coconut-cream pie.

Dead men tell no tales, but I sure do.  Thanks for the memories, JR!

Tryst With a Twist

I’m leaving my wife for another woman. There, I said it.

I never thought it would come to this; I really didn’t. My wife and I have been together for thirty-one bliss-filled years – as smooth and as satisfying a marriage as one could hope for. And yet, tomorrow afternoon, I’ll catch a ride to the airport, kiss my beloved goodbye, and board a one-way flight to Las Vegas. All my worldly possessions stay behind, save for the overnight bag in my hand and the wad of cash in my pocket. When I get there, I’ll dress up, head over to one of the finer restaurants on the Strip and reunite with a woman over thirty years my junior. We’ll smile at each other and raise our glasses in anticipation. A new adventure will commence.

Now then, let’s shed a little more light on my tryst, shall we? Yes, I’m leaving my wife (but only for a day and half). Yes, I’m going to Sin City on a one-way ticket (but then I’ll turn around and drive back home the next day). And yes, I’m meeting up with a woman thirty years my junior. She also just happens to be my daughter.

Here’s the detail. After a year of living and working in Los Angeles, our youngest has decided to return to Colorado to give Denver a try (the “new adventure” I refer to above). The drive between those cities – if you’ve ever done it – is Las Vegas and a whole lot of nothing else. Imagine a twenty-hour jaunt in a lunar rover on the moon, only somewhere along the way you get thirty minutes in Disneyland. That’s LA to Denver: no people (at least, no sane ones) and a whole lot of cactus, dotted with a single oasis of slot machines and casino-hotels. Come to think of it, I’d wager big money the moon is more interesting than LA-Denver, especially the never-ending portion of the drive known as southern Utah.

Anyhoo, (to use a word from my daughter’s unique vocabulary), I’m sharing the Vegas-to-Denver drive with her – responsible father that I am – fully fourteen of the twenty hours it takes from Los Angeles. Somehow the idea of my daughter and her cat all alone in the desert doesn’t sit well with me.

The more I ponder this little adventure, the more I wonder if I shouldn’t be worried more about my time in Vegas. Think about it. I’ll show up at the hotel, and the front desk will undoubtedly eye my much-younger companion from head-to-toe. “Oh!”, I’ll say with a sheepish grin, “she’s my daughter.” Yeah, right pal, your ‘daughter’. When I arrive at the restaurant for dinner, the maitre d’ will say, “Sir, if you and your – uh – ‘niece’ will follow me, I’ll show you to your table.” Or let’s say I get my daughter to blow on the crap table dice for luck. Stink eyes all the way around. Hey big spender; who’s your prom date?

This is a no-win situation. Short of a blood test and a doctor’s proclamation, “Holy cow, they’re actually related!”, I’m destined to a jackpot’s worth of dirty-old-man looks in the next few days. At least I won’t be mistaken for a gigolo.

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Sorry, I beg to differ. I’ll be pleased as punch to share the intimate details of my time with my “other woman” in Sin City. Heck, maybe I’ll even make it my next blog post. We checked into the hotel. We went to dinner. Dropped a few quarters into the slots. Went to bed early so we’d be rested up for the long drive head. Riveting reading, huh?

Space Invader

Last week my family and I were on the road, heading west to Los Angeles. One morning we stopped for breakfast just short of the California state line. As I was paying and the cashier handed back my receipt, I asked her, “so… how’s your day going today?” She gave me a wary smile and replied “f-i-n-e…”. Then she looked at me a little more carefully and asked back (with no small amount of curiosity), “where you from, anyway?” And that’s when it hit me – I had invaded her personal space. At least, the big-city version of personal space.

46 - insular

Take a step back and assess the town you live in.  You’ll quickly decide whether you live in the “small” or the “big” variety. I’m not talking about physical size (though size does matter – ha). No, I’m talking about the chemistry of the place, and how you interact with the people around you.

I live in a rural area, and the surrounding towns are not much bigger than “one-street”. And here’s what I observe. People wave to each other from their cars or when walking on the road. People take face-to-face moments – however small – to have conversation. People gather at the local establishments to catch up with each other. The “hometown” parades and festivals and meals still draw decent crowds.

The big city – for all its energy and activities and diversity – is much more insular at the individual level. Its residents seek the comfort of their personal space, whether that is defined as neighborhood or house or even electronic device (personal space guaranteed by headphones and music). Indeed, retreat to personal space in the big city is a survival tactic – a stab at decompression and calm after the hectic hours on the sidewalk or in the car or office.

Be careful if you assume I favor small-town over big-city – far from it. I simply observe the outward differences as well as the inward coping mechanisms. In small towns we tend to have only one of everything (i.e. Mexican restaurant, Starbucks, dry cleaner). In big cities the choices are so vast that choosing Chipotle over the several local options feels like selling yourself short. As my big-city brother so succinctly puts it: small-town means opening the newspaper to see what there is to do, while big-city means deciding what you want to do; then opening the newspaper to see where it’s happening.

Small-town interactions fill the void of perhaps too much time in isolation. Big-city personal spaces ease the stress of perhaps too much time in the crowds. Hence it’s interesting to flip the dynamic every now and then, as I did with my breakfast cashier. She was comfortable in her personal space until I invaded with my casual question. And maybe just for a moment, she let down her distrust guard and realized I was simply interested in how her day was going.