In some ways, you never get past your first love. And I’ve tried, several times, to leave Taco John’s behind. There were the years where I stopped eating fast food, and then the the job that took me 1,600 miles west of the franchise’s Midwest base. I thought I was done. Really, I did.
But Mexican food is my favorite, and has been since I was a kid. Whether on the streets of Playa del Carmen or at a small burrito stand in the Four Corners’ desert, I cannot shake the craving. And as much as I enjoy the vast, incredible tastes of this too often pigeonholed cuisine, Taco John’s was my first love.
Yeah, it’s fast food, and 200% more “Tex” than “Mex.” But I swear, this place is the drive-thru embodiment of my own personal Godfather Part III. Just imagine Al Pacino pulling six tacos and a pound of fried potatoes toward his face, and you’ll get the idea. Why? Why do I love it so much?
From the street, most Taco John’s restaurants looks like a Taco Bell with a swapped color palette. The menu, as seen from the seat of your car, looks fairly standard: hard shells, soft shells, and a Taco Bravo that’s both at once, separated by a layer of beans. There are also burritos in various sizes, plus assorted melts, bowls, and a salad or two.
But talk to anyone who’s dined beneath the old sombrero logo, and they’re likely to bring up one thing: the Potato Olés. To paraphrase Weird Al Yankovic, these tater tots will blow your mind. Taco John’s deep-fried potato coins are the seasoned currency upon which the chain is built. I have eaten an entire pound in one sitting before and likely will again.
Oh, and the breakfast? Well worth it. The Scrambler Burritos are, in my small town lacking a Mexican joint that opens before 11, a true hangover godsend. Just watch out for the Spicy Chorizo version, which (while delicious) might cause gastric distress. I think it’s the pickled jalapenos they pile on there, which can be a little overpowering.
But the crown jewel of the menu—the shining, tortilla-swathed talisman that draws me back again and again—is the Meat and Potato Burrito.
There it stands, a greasy lighthouse to my heart. Stuffed with ground beef, nacho cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and those rapturously crisp Potato Olés, it’s everything I love about this franchise rolled up together. Maybe it’s the textural interplay, when you get that perfect bit of spiced meat and crunchy spuds. Then the coolness of the sour cream hits, and you cease to care about the 1,220mg of sodium you’ve just added to your veins.
And unlike some vulnerable fast food entrees that suffer when the (probably underpaid and overworked) employees have to rush through assembly, the Meat and Potato Burrito is kind of hard to mess up. I’ve tried them in chicken, steak, and the aforementioned ground beef varieties, and they’ve always been delicious.
While Taco Bell is known for spinning the same few ingredients into new forms, Taco John’s limited-time items feel a bit more sincere. Take the current special, the Mango Shrimp Street Tacos. I’m a hard sell when it comes to drive-thru seafood, but I’ve ordered these several times. The pop of the mango does nice things with the fried shrimp, and the Chicken Street Tacos aren’t bad, either.
These kinds of offerings, as mentioned above, feel different than a mainstay like Taco Bell. Since the advent of Dorito’s Locos Tacos, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed one of this chain’s limited edition menu items. And I shudder to think how often I’ve been disappointed by the platonic ideal of the Crunchwrap Supreme. It’s a great idea almost always poorly executed. Take a bite and you’re left with the taste of too much lettuce and the sense that you’ve been duped. I never feel good after eating Taco Bell, not just physically but mentally.
Del Taco? Not much to say about it. It’s fine, and I don’t harbor the same hostility toward them that I do for the talking chihuahua. When I lived out west, Del Taco was my surrogate source for a quick fix of things spicy and crisp. But since moving back east, I’m team John’s all the way.
Look, I know that, at the end of the day, it’s all just fast food. Meat and cheese and carbs slapped together. I’m an avid cook with almost a decade of various food service work under my belt, and I still make regular visits to Taco John’s. It’s not peak cuisine, but I’ll always find it charming. There’s a sincerity here, and a lot of childhood memories that keep me coming back, despite a few halfhearted efforts to stay away.
If you find yourself passing through the Midwest, keep an eye out for Taco John’s locations. The menu is small, and you won’t be fooled into thinking it’s anything other than drive-thru Tex Mex. But try the Potato Olés and tell me it isn’t something just a little bit more.