Let's Talk Taco Bell
Team Taco™ and friends! Here's a surprise, mid-month report for everyone. Why, you ask? Because I screwed up and got behind on last month's salsa. And now that it's ready, I feel bad leaving Tom's work behind a paywall.
The photos deserve to be free! You deserve to see them! I deserve to see them! We all deserve these photos. Seriously though. Make this month's salsa. It, as the youths say, slaps. You deserve it. Treat yourself to the joy of this salsa. It tastes as good as the photos look.
I wrote a love letter to Taco Bell this week.
Dear Taco Bell —
I'm not sure how to phrase this appropriately or correctly. I've been nervous writing to you, but I knew I'd have to do it at some point during this year. It's time to rip the band-aid off and tell the truth. The most enjoyable taco I've had this year — a year where I'll end up eating 3,000 tacos or so — was a Taco Bell taco.
A Dorito's Locos Taco at that.
Two weeks ago, while visiting my parent's house to get vaccinated, we got Taco Bell drive-thru. (Well, truthfully, I had Taco Bell twice.) And with my first bite, it was like going home again. Let me explain.
Growing up, we were poor. Not below the poverty line. Somewhere near it? It's honestly hard to say. My parents haven't been upfront about how hard the '90s were for us as a family. They did an incredible job protecting us from the worst of it. I don't blame them for being cagey about questions around it. The focus of their lives for over a decade was shielding us from what was going on and making sure we had a good childhood.
When we talk about it now, it's all nondescript answers. Everything is talked about in the abstract like "Things were hard." or "It's true, we didn't have a lot." or "We got by with the Grace of God and a little help from our friends." But they'll die before they give me specifics. They succeeded at a personal cost to themselves that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to appreciate.
Because they won't tell me anything more. That's fine. I'm fine. It's fine. Just because I'm old enough to understand and recognize what was going on now doesn't mean they owe me anything. All I can do is appreciate the patterns it left me with. It's been a wild time unraveling this.
My favorite dish to have at home growing up was called Chips, Beans, and Cheese. CBC. You take a plate of chips, put chili beans on them, top with cheddar cheese. Add a little Ranch dressing, a little Italian dressing, a couple of Taco Bell hot sauces packets? Baby, you've got one perfect plate of food. Rinse and repeat forever. I still have this meal every few months when my partner and I have what we call Give Up Dinner. It's just comfort food. Which, for me, means Chips Beans And Cheese. (Editor's note: It's called Give Up Dinner because we give up on trying to figure out something to cook that we both want.)
If one of you replies and calls them nachos, I will punch you in the throat. Please. These are chips, beans, and cheese. NACHOS ARE DIFFERENT. Nachos don't have Italian dressing, okay?
Was that my favorite meal growing up because it only cost ~$1.50 to feed my brother and I? Or was it my favorite meal growing up just because it was my favorite meal?
But if I'm being honest, the only reason I'm eating Chips, Beans & Cheese at all these days is because, for years, I haven't lived near a Taco Bell. Growing up, Taco Bell was our celebration meal. A great report card? Off to Taco Bell we go. Nailed the performance in the school play? To T-Bell! It's safe to say Taco Bell was my favorite restaurant for the first two decades of my life. (It's still my favorite fast food restaurant. Get bent, In-N-Out.)
The first Taco Bell I fell in love with was dressed in the purple and pink '90s aesthetic in Nampa, Idaho, standing in the parking lot of a failed mall. An 11-minute drive from home, it felt like home. Little league games? You best believe we're swinging on the poles trying to keep us in line before ordering. After an event or concert? People are leaning over the backs of booths to talk to us.
The first time I swore in front of my mom? My brother dropped pinto beans on his Game Boy Color™ in the car, and we both said "Dangit!" We were not punished for the words, but we were quickly more nervous about the swearing than the Game Boy. The control pad still has crusty beans underneath the D-pad. (Editor's note: not sure "dang" is a swear, but I suppose this is subjective.)
In high school, we regularly got written up for leaving campus for — you guessed it — Taco Bell. One of my first dates? Meeting a girl at that Nampa Taco Bell before a group movie. Once, I convinced my boss to take us to Taco Bell at 10:00AM, because Triple Layer Nachos were back on the menu.
Moving for college? No problem. Walla Walla's Taco Bell was newer, nicer. We knew the fastest route depending on time of day, place we were leaving from, and whether or not the lobby was still open. Looking for my first apartment in Portland? Thank goodness a Taco Bell was down the street. Fun fact — we got refused service after ordering the new, at the time, beefy five-layer burrito grilled. We had to park and go in and sweet talk our way into the order. Accidentally stuck in Vegas on your 30th birthday? At least there's Taco Bell.
These can get ridiculous. Where did we go to celebrate Obama's first electoral victory? Taco Bell. Yes. Really. I know.
Started a bachelor party at Taco Bell once. As a groomsman, I helped the groom fill up a gallon jug he snuck in with Baja Blast so he could mix a bottle of rum with it later. (Don't knock it until you've tried it.) (Editor's note: okay, but probably don't try this if you're over 25 and like waking up not-hungover.)
While on a business trip that took me to Valencia, Spain, I ended up at a Taco Bell in a food court mall. I made a friend from New Zealand come with me. It was different and disgusting and I loved every moment of it, even if the menu was wrong, the chicken was breaded, and the sauces tasted different. It was still a moment of calm in an otherwise hectic trip. (She was not a fan.)
I don't know what it is. The MSG-flavored nacho cheese sauce? The beans that are somehow dry and runny at the same time? The Fire sauce packet for every bite? (Yes, every single bite gets its own packet.) The consistency across the planet? The variety achieved from the same seven ingredients?
So when I say that a Taco Bell taco was the most enjoyable taco I'll have this year, it's not because it's the best taco I'll eat all year. It's almost certainly the worst-quality taco I'll eat. But I don't care.
It's saying "dangit" in front of my mom while helping my brother wipe pinto beans out of a prized possession. It's my mom laughing at the sauce behind my ear because I ate a tostada straight down the middle. It's my dad promising to pick us up something on the way home if we kept it a secret. It's our drive-thru order that we ate in a different restaurant because my parents wanted something else. It's knowing the exact number of Fire and Hot sauce packets to ask for when ordering. It tasted of home, of safety, of calm. And that's a feeling I'm actively seeking out this year.
I just happened to find it in neon-orange-powdered taco shell.
PS — I'm sorry I added a new salsa to the mix here instead of just using sauce packets. But once you try it, I think you'll understand.
- A pound of jalapeños
- One or two large cloves of garlic
- Neutral oil
Hell-Yeah Taco Sauce Recipe
I first tasted this salsa at one of the two bars in the tiny coastal town I used to live in. Jeanette, the crabby, wonderful bartender, would bring me an extra large bowl every time I sat down at the bar. When I went through a particularly bad breakup, I was able to weaponize my depression into convincing Jeanette to give me the recipe. I'm going to give you the exact advice she gave me:
"Everything about this recipe is going to look like a msitake until the last minute."
Roast your jalapeños under the broiler in your oven or on the grill until they're blackened all over. You'll need to turn them halfway through. Place them in a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap immediately after roasting so they can steam. Steam is key here, y'all.
(You can use raw garlic, or you can put the garlic still in it's paper skin on the roasting tray. It's up to you. Roasted will give the salsa a bit more depth. Raw will give it more of a fresh bite.)
Once cooled, about 15 minutes or so, take the skins off and deseed them there jalapeños. If you wanna go fast, use a paper towel to remove the skins.
Put the jalapeños and garlic in the blender. Add your salt. (This works best with either a stick blender or a quality blender. You'll have a hard time with a piece of shit that you picked up at a yard sale for $3 in college.)
Blend. As it's blending, slowly stream in the neutral oil down the side of the blending cup if you're using a stick blender, or through the hole in the lid of the blender. Yes! This salsa is what that hole is for (Editor's note: That's what she said). I'd give you an exact measurement of how much oil, but it's not that kind of recipe. You've got to watch for it. The salsa will turn from looking like a disappointing mess of burned chili flesh into an odd, creamy green.
This is basically jalapeño mayonnaise? Kinda? Sorta? I don't know y'all. Like, it's just an emulsion. A really spicy, wonderful emulsion. It's hard to explain what it is. But I can tell you it's one of the best sauces around.
Do not — I REPEAT — do not use olive oil for this. It'll just taste like olive oil. Vegetable, sunflower, canola? You're golden. Olive oil? You've made a mistake.
Taste it. Add more salt if needed. Vibe real hard. Put this sauce on all your tacos – locos or otherwise.
TACO TOTAL — 887/2021
This Week's Taco Total — 53
May Taco Total — 70
I really should've made a single breakfast taco this morning to round that number out. But I am le tired.