True story: When I was in grade school, Taco John’s would cater our Friday lunches. Along with soft-shells filled with meat, lettuce, and cheese (no sour cream, sadly), the local franchise would send boxes of squeeze bottles containing its signature “Mild Sauce.”
In an effort to inject extra flavor, a friend and I would snag an entire bottle apiece. We’d slather our tacos in the stuff, until they were almost falling apart. Because if a sauce isn’t spicy enough, you just need to add more of it, right?
This ended when another kid decided to mimic our heat-seeking behavior and wound up puking all over his lunch table. That was it. While the sauce bottles remained, they were practically chained to the cafeteria line.
The point of the story is this: I have a history with Taco John’s sauces. By the time I could drive there myself, I’d graduated from Mild to Hot, and I’ve been a fierce devotee ever since.
So when I noticed a change during a recent visit, my salsa-loving heart skipped a beat. By the gods and Potato Oles, it simply couldn’t be true. But time and condiments wait for no one. To paraphrase the monarchies of the world, “Taco John’s Hot Sauce is dead. Long live Taco John’s Hot Sauce.”
Let’s walk through the ingredient lists for each hot sauce as a means of collective coping. We’ll begin with the Original. In addition to sodium, acids, and water, Taco John’s Original Hot draws its punch from tomatoes, tomato paste, and dueling purees of jalapeño and green chile (which are not the same thing). This is pretty basic stuff, with no mention of spices other than the catch-all term “natural flavor.”
The New Hot is far more complex. The tomato count has dropped from two ingredients to one, leaving only the paste. Onion puree has been added to the mix and, while the jalapeños remain, gone is the original’s green chile blend. Then come the heavy hitters: vinegar, garlic puree, paprika, and powders of chile arbol, guajillo, habanero, and nondescript chili. There’s also some cayenne, along with cumin, oregano, and thyme.
To be frank, the new version sounds a lot better. The company is calling out specific chiles and spices, which shows that somebody somewhere knows what they’re doing. But there’s another somebody (in an accounting department, I’m guessing) who decided on another, less welcome change.
Food shrinkflation is a bitch. Even before I discovered the new flavor, I immediately noticed that the orange and green packets were significantly lighter. A quick weigh-in on my kitchen scale confirmed this suspicion: Nine grams for the original vs. five grams for the new.
So, what’s the motivation here? Sure, Taco John’s might be saving on cost by giving customers less of a free condiment. But patrons who are accustomed to a certain amount of sauce on their Meat and Potato Burritos will now grab two packets instead of one. For what it’s worth, that also roughly doubles the amount of single-use wrappers bound for the landfill.
Things get worse with the new Mild. See these packets in the photo above? Those are three completely empty packets, pulled at random from the condiment area. Not empty as in “someone put their used packets back in the bin.” No, these empty packets were sealed when I got them. Even if the chain is looking to reduce portion sizes, there must be kinks to work out in the production line.
Very different. Gone is the rush of tomato, along with the brightness of the green chile puree. The new version is a more complex, pepper-forward sauce, with a healthy dose of classic Mexican spices. I should love this combination. So why does it make me sad?
If you’re a fan of the Fire Sauce over at Taco Bell, you’re going to like the new Hot at Taco John’s. I enjoy both the Fire and Diablo options with the occasional Crunchwrap Supreme, so it’s not like the flavor is bad. In fact, it’s quite good! But if I wanted Taco Bell sauce, I’d go to Taco Bell.
I hope you’ve picked up on the fact that this minor personal crisis is not the end of the world. All things considered, the Taco John’s new Hot is a better “culinary” product than the old one. It uses multiple chile types, and the spices are called out by name. The flavor here is richer, deeper, and indeed spicier than the sauce it has replaced.
But I’ll always pine for the watered-down ketchup notes of the original, with a hint of cumin and chili powder. I like the new one, though, and will learn to love it in time. But not the smaller portions. That one hurts, Taco John’s.