“The Best of America in a Taco”

With its new fast-casual offshoot, Taco Bell continues muscling in on Chipotle’s turf.

U.S. Taco Co.’s One Percenter, supposedly called that because only 1 percent of the world can afford lobster.

Photo courtesy U.S. Taco Co

The quickest way to get to the new U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s fast-casual concept restaurant in Huntington Beach, California, is to exit from a remarkably unscenic stretch of Interstate 405 and take Main Street all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

For decades, American pundits and politicians have relied on the metaphor of “Main Street” as shorthand to convey the economic fettle of “real America.” In recent years, real America has caught the fast-casual craze: Consumers have declared their willingness to pay more money for what they see as the quality middle ground between fast food and the food you Instagram when you feel like enraging the people you care about. 

Wall Street is keen on the fast-casual trend, too. Just last month, Chipotle, the fast-casual standard bearer, posted one of its best quarters ever, bringing shares up 12 percent—this despite the company’s first price increase in three years. Fast casual was the fastest growing segment of the entire restaurant industry in 2013 in both sales and stores opened. Beyond Chipotle, which boasted a 17 percent boom in 2013 sales, fellow fast-casual companions Panera and Panda Express also scored double-digit sales gains.

Taco Bell is enjoying a bit of momentum itself. Following the sales surge provided by last year’s Doritos Locos market massacre, Taco Bell went whole-hog into battle with McDonald’s in March when it introduced its breakfast menu. (The Waffle Taco and its egg-y ilk have been a hit thus far, accounting for an impressive 7 percent of all Taco Bell sales last quarter.) Now, with the introduction of U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s sights are set upmarket on the fast-casual industrial complex.

As a Taco Bell loyalist, I find the concept of an upscale offshoot to be a bit of a hard sell. Walking into the first ever U.S. Taco Co. on opening day, I was taken aback. The restaurant (located less than 30 miles from where Glen Bell founded the very first Taco Bell in Downey, California,) bore no resemblance to Taco Bell, with its girder-and-garage-door décor, brightly colored Spanish subway tiles, and milkshakes in Mason jars. It was part airy beach house, part Levi’s commercial. It was busy without being crowded, and the clientele, which skewed young, dressed as if there’d been 0 percent chance of rain for years.

The company says it borrows its theme from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, incorporating decorative skulls in its logo and wall art. As I looked around, I met Anne, Putma, and Blas, three beachgoers who asked me to take their picture beneath the largest of the Day of the Dead skulls. Anne also commented on how little the place looked like a Taco Bell and compared it to the secret indie-themed coffee shops that Starbucks opened in Seattle a few years ago.

Taco Bell’s Director of Marketing, Jeff Jenkins, fancies the U.S. Taco Co. to be “a food truck you don’t have to chase.” But the marketing tagline is a little more grandiose: “The Best of America in a Taco.” Accordingly, most of its tacos contain a shout-out to American regional fare: Buffalo’s chicken wings, Hawaii’s mahi-mahi, and Philly’s steak.

The very first item on U.S. Taco Co. menu is a flatbread taco that beckons with the luxurious promise of lobster, garlic butter, and roasted poblano crema. It’s called “THE 1% ER.” At $9.99, it’s far and away the most expensive item on the menu, and much pricier than the other nine tacos, which range from $3.25 to $4.50 and feature everything from potatoes or grilled cheese for the vegetarians to fried chicken and fish tacos.

I ordered the lobster, mistakenly thinking it was called “the 1 percent” plus the letters E and R, which I figured were either an abbreviation having to do with the origin of the lobster or the place you might end up if you consumed too many.

“It’s actually the One Percenter,” the young clerk politely corrected me. Wait, what? “It’s called that because only 1 percent of the world can supposedly afford lobster,” she said. 

And so it has come to pass that an outfit that previously employed a talking chihuahua to peddle 99-cent tacos is suddenly embracing the 1 percent. Foodies who might hold themselves above the Taco Bell fray are being put on notice. The next obvious question: Where does one get quality lobster in California?

“It’s from Maine,” she said. “All our meat is from where you supposedly get the best of everything. Our pulled pork is actually from Memphis and our brisket’s from Texas. It’s all imported.” So is the chicken, from Kentucky. This elliptical Kentucky chicken connection appeared to be one of the only things linking U.S. Taco Co. to its parent company Yum Brands, which brings Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut to the masses.

For a second taco, I ordered a “Not My First Rodeo,” featuring smoked Texas brisket, pickled onions, and molcajete salsa. A Texan by birth, I devoured it and the One Percenter. I washed them down with a bottle of Leninade, a Soviet-themed red lemonade served in a bottle with a hammer-and-sickle colophon. Lobster from Maine, brisket from Texas, and a Communist libation from California: Walt Whitman, unrepentant champion of American multitudes, would have blushed.

Those multitudes are also an indication that U.S. Taco Co. and Chipotle, despite their shared fast-casual approach, have very different ethics. Chipotle hangs its hat on its use of local farms and fresh ingredients. Part of what satisfies a Chipotle consumer is the thought that the food was raised responsibly.

U.S. Taco Co. doesn’t seem to run deep in the food-ethics game. It hawks its products as high quality and freshly prepared, but unlike Chipotle, it uses something of a fast-casual cap-and-trade system. Rather than go local for food, the store offsets its footprint by selling small-market sodas (like my Leninade); they will also donate part of its proceeds to a nearby charity. The store also nods in the general direction of environmental responsibility, serving its sides of jalapeño ranch and ghost chile ketchup in American-made “industrially compostable” containers.

Given the plight of the fast-food wage earner, I was heartened a bit to see a tip jar at the counter of the U.S. Taco Co. When I paid with a card using Square on a store iPad, I was also prompted to add a tip at the end of my transaction. California has one of the most progressive minimum wages in the country, having just jumped to $9 per hour last month. And unlike most other states, the minimum wage applies to those who work for tips as well as those who don’t.

In 2016, minimum wage in California will jump to $10 per hour. By then, there will be a handful of U.S. Taco Co. locations operating in Southern California. That should be good news for Main Street.