Taco Time's Mexi-Lies

They're tater tots, OK? But whatever they're called, they're awesome.

Somewhere in Baja, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, tortillas on Fridays, sometimes chicken as a treat on Sundays—these consumed three-fourths of his income. His name, though greatly argued over by those who have heard tales of his doings, was either Ticotreme or Talotome, but this does not matter very much in our telling, for our story is about his adventures in el Norte, where he is known only as Juan Frederico Don de la Tacotimé—the man who invented Mexi-Fries.Juan Frederico was a chivalrous man and a lover of adventure. One day, finding himself in the wilds of Oregon (having gotten lost along the way to La Mancha, no doubt) and traveling upon his nag, with his dog, his lance, his shield, and his faithful man-of-all-duties, Sancho Frito, lagging behind, Juan Frederico happened upon the town of Eugene. Eugene was a backward place, full of nothing but trees and coffee shops and stoned college students who cried out for sustenance. Having no money with which to buy food for himself, Juan Frederico was perplexed. What could he do to aid these poor souls who, with their trust funds, could buy SUVs and killer hydro but had nothing with which to soothe their munchies? He thought and thought. He sat in the dirt and wished there was something he could do. "If only there was some fruit of this very earth beneath me," he cried aloud, "that I might pluck it up and give it to faithful Sancho to cook."In a rage of frustration, he stood, drew forth his lance, and thrust it into the dirt. "Here!" he cried. "Here would I start a northwestern chain of limited-menu Mexican restaurants! It would stretch from this green and mossy place all the way to Curaçao and the Dutch Antilles, bringing surprisingly high-priced tacos to those who had no tacos before!"And when Juan Frederico Don de la Tacotimé drew forth his lance from the soil, what was speared upon its tip? A potato. A potato which he carefully shredded, formed into a nugget, and handed to Sancho."Here, Sancho Frito," he said to his faithful manservant. "Cook this and eat it and see if it is poison. If not, I shall call it . . . ""A tater tot?" asked Sancho."What? No. That's a stupid name. I shall call it a Mexi-Fry, and we shall sell it to stoned college students and beatniks, and it will make us both rich beyond our wildest dreams!"Now, Juan Frederico Don de la Tacotimé is known as Ron Fraedrick. And the real story is that he opened the first Taco Time restaurant in 1959, in a space right next to his alma mater, the University of Oregon—and the faithful Sancho Frito is not even mentioned. But where in that version of the Taco Time foundation myth is there any explanation for how a chain of Mexican restaurants which stretches from the Pacific Northwest all the way to Kuwait and Sta. Rosaweg 89, Curaçao, could offer tater tots as the backbone of its menu—like fries at McDonald's or salmonella at Taco Bell—and call them "Mexi-Fries"?They're not. There is nothing even remotely Mexican about the humble tater tot. Search all you want, and the closest thing you will come up with are the fried potatoes of Michoacan. Or maybe the occasional potato hash with chiles. Tater tots don't even rise to the low level of historical accuracy claimed by Taco Time's "Cinnamon Crustos"—which has to be one of the worst names for a food item ever, like something that ought to be served at Krusty Burger, alongside Krusty's Non-Dairy Non-Ice Cream Whey-Product Sandwich and Clownion Rings.So tell me, which version of the story is better?In terms of the history of quick-serve Mexican food in the United States, Taco Time has Taco Bell beat hands down. First Taco Bell in the world? Built in 1962 in Downey, Calif., and owned by Glen Bell, who had several other Mexican(ish) restaurants behind him by the time he first thought to put the Taco and the Bell together in one package. By 1962, Fraedrick was already peddling his version of an American tacotopia out-of-state, and the first one opened in Tacoma that same year. By 1970, there were almost 50 Taco Time locations in several Western states. In 1978, the first international location opened in Alberta. A year later, Frank Tonkin split from Fraedrick to create Taco Time Northwest, filling a good chunk of Washington with its fried burritos, Mexi-Fries, and Cinnamon Crustos. Of Taco Time's 350-plus locations worldwide, 72 are in Washington State.The most recognizable Taco Time in Seattle is the oversized steel-and-glass cube that squats on North 45th Street in Wallingford, looking like some kind of monstrous mother ship just waiting to return the faithful to their home on planet Strange. Hyphenated by neon, glinting bluely in the thin, watery daylight—the oddest time to be here is for breakfast, because it is empty and echoing and the staff moves as if they are all struggling through thick, clear syrup.I show up just after the opening bell at 10:30 a.m. and order a la carte, because all the combos come with buckets of fountain soda and crinkling bags of Cinnamon Crustos, neither of which I need or want. I have a strange relationship with Crustos after a year of inconsistent visits to Taco Times all over the area. They always sound like such a good idea—little triangles of fried tortilla, crusted with cinnamon sugar—but are palatable for exactly three bites. The first one is pleasantly sweet and crispy, if a bit dusty in texture. The second is always more dusty and less good and makes you wonder just how long they've been sitting around, bagged and waiting. By the third, I feel like I'm eating a test batch of the new Lay's Cinnamon-and-Sawdust tortilla chips, and stop before things get any worse. But I digress. . .I am the third customer of the day at the Wallingford location. When I order, I am handed number 43 and told to wait wherever I like. There are plenty of seats. Taco Time has drive-thrus, of course, but you can't appreciate the grandeur of the design (the vaulted ceiling, the exposed ductwork, the futuristic sheen of the polarized glass, the sleek curves of the silver-gray booths) from the outside. Also, I can't remember the last time I heard "A Horse With No Name" on the radio, but it has been too long.Early in the day, everything is slow but also fresh. I stand, watching the clock ("Any Time Is Taco Time"), and eventually my tacos arrive—hard-shelled and full of ground beef, chunks of white-meat chicken, shredded lettuce still green and crisp, and a half-slice of tomato. The difference between Taco Time and most other fast-food restaurants is a matter of promise and delivery. Taco Bell, for example, promises tacos that look all upright and overstuffed, layered beautifully with meat and cheese and vegetables. What it delivers is something akin to that same taco run over by a truck. At Taco Time, the tacos look like they do in the pictures. They look like the promise of hot, fresh tacos. And for that, the place deserves a measure of respect.In terms of taste, at least they come hot.After more than a year in Seattle, I have never eaten at Dick's dead sober. Dick's seems made for the ends of things, for being the last bad decision in a night full of them.I can't say the same thing about Taco Time.I ate at the Taco Time in Bellevue (2001 156th Ave. N.E.) after spending 20 minutes trying (and failing) to find a hidden Thai restaurant with some byzantine parking scheme. I was desperate and it was awful—the chips stale, the meat cold, and, most damning, the Mexi-Fries tasting of nothing so much as rancid grease badly in need of changing.Yes, I order the Mexi-Fries. I always order the Mexi-Fries. All joking aside, tater tots—when not ruined by some nose-picking fryer jockey too lazy to do a morning change-out of his oil—are awesome no matter what they're called. And being able to get tater tots at a drive-thru is double-awesome because they come straight out of the deep-fryer, hot and salty, and require absolutely no Fry Daddy effort out of me, the laziest home cook who ever lived.In Issaquah (1125 N.W. Gilman Blvd.), I have a fried burrito filled with nothing but spiced ground beef. It's really a flauta—about as big around as the skinny end of a baseball bat—and is weirdly addictive. I eat my Mexi-Fries with a fork and dip them in a little plastic cup of hot sauce while I drive.The West Seattle Taco Time (3500 S.W. Avalon Way) is my favorite—the most consistent, the most dependably edible. It is one location that has never let me down. And inside they have a giant silver robot that can mix different kinds of soda together into more than 100 strange cocktails. I remember doing this myself when I was a kid—hanging out at the self-serve fountain at the bowling alley one town over and mixing Sprite, Hawaiian Punch, and ginger ale. Now I can do it again as an adult, and, happily, there is still the same tiny thrill of doing something that is just wrong. Coke and root beer were never meant to be mixed, after all. But do it as a grown-up and you'll know that the only thing missing is bourbon. Good thing I carry a flask.Much as I would like to be able to claim to be one of those upstanding foodies who never eats a taco that doesn't come from some hole-in-the-wall taquería, made by young men so fresh out of Puebla or Juárez that they still have the smell of sand and saguaro on them, I would be lying if I did. I haven't been to a Taco Bell in more than a decade, but I have found myself waiting in line at more than one Taco Time even when options for better, cheaper, more authentic food abounded. I have chosen it over taco trucks in Wallingford, and over honest-to-Jesús taquerías on the Eastside. But why?Mostly because Taco Time is easy; it's a known quantity. Because while I may not love it, I certainly don't hate it, and the way appetites work, sometimes a-degree-above-mediocrity is precisely what one hungers for. I don't always want to be authentic. I don't always need the scratch-made tortillas and menudo. Sometimes I just want to eat like an American, straight from the hand of Juan Frederico Don de la Tacotimé.And of all those little, authentic cantinas and taquerías out there, not a single one serves tater tots.Price GuideBeef taco $1.54 Chicken taco $2.24 Crispy beef taco meal $5.99 Chicken soft-taco meal $7.19jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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