Let us acknowledge there are several gradations of tacos. At the top of the chain are ones you might find in, say, the streets of Mexico City: A soft corn tortilla freshly pressed from a tortilladora and griddled, with marinated pork “al pastor” sliced crisp from a trompo and the whole affair topped with salsa verde. A notch or two down is the American taco: hard-shelled, ground beef fried with “taco seasoning,” diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and cheese.
At the bottom rung is the budget fast-food taco, a position even lower than Taco Bell. At this level, the taco is perhaps five times removed from what’s found at Mexico City taquerias. The exemplar of the budget fast-food taco comes from Jack-In-The-Box, which has long offered two tacos for 99 cents. At that price, it is frightening to imagine what sort of ingredients go into those tacos for the company to turn a profit—and profit they did, with over half a billion Jack-In-The-Box tacos consumed by Americans each year.
The JITB taco is a certifiable cultural phenomenon. Beef is pressed into the center of a soft tortilla, folded once and deep-fried in oil. This results in a pouch filled with a paste-like meat that’s greasy, almost wet, crowned by a crunchy crescent of corn chip holding cheese and faded lettuce.
And, if we’re being true to ourselves, it is rather tasty—at least that’s how I remembered it the last time I ate one in my early 20s. It is a food which at a certain time of night, under a certain disposition, hits a certain spot. It is oil-laden and soggy and barely passes what the USDA constitutes as consumable, but damn if it isn’t ugly delicious.
Here now is Burger King’s answer to the budget fast-food taco (it first appeared on its national menu from Sept. 2002 through Jan. 2003, returning in 2019 as a limited-time offering). The first point of acknowledgment: There’s a history of marketing images not matching up with the actual product, and Burger King’s taco just might have the widest gap in the history of advertising:
Any semblance of crumble ground beef is a fantasy: The beef is deep-fried to the point you can dislodge meat from tortilla in a continuous peel. The shredded lettuce in the ad, in actuality, are the same large pieces of iceberg lettuce used in Whoppers. The cheese is what it is, and the taco sauce an elementary school’s idea of piquancy. If fast food has improved in recent years, Burger King’s taco is firmly entrenched in the 1980s’ notion: Cheap, sloppy, low-grade.
But, but! Everything I’ve written in the last paragraph you can say for Jack-In-The-Box’s tacos (though I think JITB’s is a level greasier, and therefore a touch more satisfying). The social contract with both is you pay one dollar, and in exchange you receive something that’s audibly crunchy, quickly fulfills your daily recommended sodium intake, and there’s taco sauce, and taco sauce is beyond reproach. Once you accept that it’s cheap, sloppy, and low-grade, you might start enjoying this. It is good in the sense that scratching an itch is good, or a Gatorade after softball practice is good—it’s entirely situational. Personally, I’m about 15 years past ever finding myself in that situation.