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”.

R.I.P. Restaurants

The next time you dine out, take a good look at the menu options. You may find a few favorites missing thanks to COVID-19. Whether gaps in the supply chain or trims in the workforce, the virus-born experiment of modified operations has restaurants scrutinizing menus for what makes (fiscal) sense and what does not.

Examples: McDonald’s “all-day breakfast” – implemented in 2015 and an immediate success – retreated to morning hours shortly after the virus exploded. Drive-thru wait times promptly decreased – by an average of 25 seconds – so the change may be permanent. Outback Steakhouse axed its wedge salad and French onion soup, favoring fewer appetizers with faster production.  Before you know it Outback may offer steaks, potatoes, and nothing else.

Subtle menu changes like these got me thinking about restaurants closing their doors for good.  At some point all of them go to their graves.  Maybe this is the beginning of the end for McDonald’s and Outback.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder what brought on their respective demises.  I know I would, which brings me to the real topic of this post: what happened to the eateries of my youth and why are most of them now defunct?  Here then, a eulogy of my more memorable ones:

  • The All-American Burger – We had one of these red-white-and-blues in my hometown just a few blocks south of the church where I went to Sunday night youth group.  Mom supplied the cash while All-American supplied the fast-food dinner on those Sundays.  Not sure why AAB closed but they did have their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • Chi-Chi’s – A super-size Mexican restaurant and one of the first dates for my wife and me in college.  Great food, but Chi-Chi’s U.S. downfall was a grand-scale outbreak of hepatitis-A in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants, in 2003.  You can still find them in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Farrell’s – An ice cream parlor and a great place for parties, since the birthday kid got a free sundae.  Farrell’s had an early-1900’s theme: straw-hatted waitstaff, player-pianos, and menus printed on newspaper.  My favorite Farrell’s memory: “The Zoo” – a giant bowl of ice cream intended for ten or more topped with a menagerie of colored plastic animals.
  • Hamburger Hamlet – “The Hamlet” also had a location in my hometown, and for a burger joint the menu and decor were decidedly upscale.  It was known as a Hollywood celeb hangout.  Curiously, I associate Hamburger Hamlet with O.J. Simpson more than other celebrities.  Simpson’s wife Nicole and friend Ronald Goldman were murdered at the Simpson house, in the residential neighborhood nearby our Hamlet.  Nicole Simpson had just been dining at Mezzaluna (the restaurant where Goldman worked), also just a couple of blocks up from The Hamlet.
  • Lyon’s – The quintessential 1980’s smoke-filled greasy-spoon diner.  There was nothing memorable about Lyon’s (nor healthy on the menu) except the rip-the-boss conversations my coworkers and I had over lunch.  Lyon’s filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and never recovered.  No surprise; none at all.
  • Naugles – My go-to choice in college, Naugles never skimped on their portions of Mexican food (so who cared about the taste?)  Whether it was the massive “Macho Burrito”, the messy “Naugleburger”, or the trash-can sized sodas, Naugles was my all-nighter study buddy. Del Taco took over most of the chain in the 1990’s.
  • Pup ‘N’ Taco – Hot dogs, Mexican food, and – pastrami sandwiches?  I remember Pup ‘N’ Taco more for the buildings than the food; obnoxious red, white, and yellow structures with steep-sloped roofs, similar to the look of the Der Wienerschnitzels of the time.  Taco Bell bought out Pup ‘N’ Taco in 1984, more for the locations than for the menu. Obviously.
  • Sambo’s – I can’t tell you why I remember Sambo’s; I just know my family and I had several meals here.  At its peak Sambo’s had over 1,000 locations in 47 states.  Fittingly the only remaining location changed its name this year, to disassociate with the children’s story The Little Black Sambo.  George Floyd and all, you know.
  • Victoria Station – Chain together several boxcars and a caboose, add kitchen, tables, and steak-and-shrimp menu, and you have a heckuva unique restaurant. Victoria Station ballooned to almost a hundred locations at its peak.  The railcar restaurant concept evolved from a joint graduate project at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Victoria’s seemed like an upscale meal but maybe it was just the train car dining that made me feel upscale.

Someday soon (soon) we’ll be able to say we’re “post-pandemic” but by then it’s predicted thirty percent of our restaurants will have closed.  I’ll pray for those restaurants to R.I.P. as well, but not without another deserving eulogy.

Some content sourced from the 6/27/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Why the American Consumer Has Fewer Choices – Maybe for Good”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

The Life of Spice

“Mikey’s Late Night Slice” in Columbus, Ohio, offers a pizza called “Fiery Death with Hate Sausage”, topped with three of the world’s hottest peppers: Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, and Bhut Jolokias.  You must sign a waiver before Mikey’s serves you a slice of Death, acknowledging, “you’re an idiot”, and absolving the restaurant of any responsibility for the unpredictable aftereffects.  According to one taster, “It was pretty miserable.  My eyes welled up, my nose ran, and no drink could wash away the pain.”  Sounds like my kind of heat.

Photo by “Mikey’s Late Night Slice”

It all started with the tabletop pepper shaker. Salt’s brother-of-another-color stood quietly to the side in my childhood, hoping for the same constant attention given to his savory companion. If pepper was used at all in my day, it was nothing more than an obligatory shake; a decoration of the food versus a yearning of the taste buds.

Forty-odd years later, the pepper mill has become the king of the spice rack – my go-to final flourish before deeming a meal ready-to-eat. My pepper mill is always cranked to the furthest setting to the left, so the dozens of corns fall out of the bottom virtually intact. When I refill my pepper mill and spill a few of the little guys onto the counter, I scoop them up and pop ’em into my mouth like candy.  My family has learned to pass the pepper before I even ask for it.

I blame my parents, of course (something I seem to do with increasing frequency these days). My dad peppered everything on his plate – still does – and kept shaking away until his food literally disappeared under a blanket of black. My dad was the guy at restaurants who mercilessly trapped the poor fellow who politely asked, “would anyone like ground pepper”? My dad would always add, “you can be generous…”, and several minutes of grinding ensued.  My dad also had violent (but apparently enjoyable) fits of sneezing, sometimes seven or eight in a row.  I never made the association with pepper, but now I wonder.  I can still hear him concluding a sneezing session with the word “marvelous“.

My mom, who graduated from the Emily Post School of Etiquette with honors, commanded a family dining table to rival the tightest ships.  Every placemat, utensil, plate and bowl were in perfect symmetry.  The meal began with a table grace, and concluded with “please may I be excused?” In her world, “please pass the salt” meant passing the salt along with the pepper shaker, and with two hands instead of one so you couldn’t eat at the same time. Thus, the pepper arrived at my plate whether I wanted it to or not.

Sometimes I think my hankering for pepper is borderline-addictive.  Eventually the “shaker” no longer sufficed, as the pepper only came out in little bits.  Once I discovered the “mill”, there was no going back.  A handful of turns became ten, then fifteen; my food turning as dark as my father’s.  As it turns out, pepper was my gateway spice.  In the last several years I’ve discovered “red pepper flakes”; a significant leap in heat from peppercorns.  I used to shy away from those little plastic vials they include with pizzas.  Now I ask for two or three more.

Lucky for me, pepper (and all things spicy) appears to be a healthy habit.  According to an article by Dr. Joseph Mercola – an osteopath and proponent of alternative medicine – a full ounce of pepper provides most of the manganese, Vitamin K, and potassium we need in a given day, and even a good dose of iron or fiber.  Mercola then missteps when he acknowledges “…it’s true one would not have that much pepper in a day…”  Apparently, he hasn’t met me.

Pepper is described as a “stealth antioxidant”, discourages intestinal gas from forming (no wonder my wife peppers my food), and somehow aids in the breakdown of fat cells.  Finally, black pepper has much in common with cannabis, with aroma molecules functioning as “cannabinoids”.  To be clear, we’re talking about the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids here.  Pepper isn’t playing with my brain cells (I don’t think), but it does help to reduce inflammation.

My children are destined to a life of pepper – I’m sure of it – and not because I turn my food black like my father or pass the shakers as a pair like my mother.  In high school, my daughter prepped for her team’s volleyball matches by “peppering” with another player (hitting the ball back and forth to warm the hands).  Now, she carries pepper spray in her purse.  One of my sons went to college in Waco, TX, where Dr. Pepper was invented in 1885 and vended on campus without a Coke or Pepsi in sight.  More recently, I’ve seen my children reach for the hot sauce (instead of the mild) at Mexican restaurants.  You see, it creeps up on you quietly.  Next thing you know they’ll be asking me to take them to Mikey’s Late Night Slice.