(a) "I never tried that before. That's like Taco Bell, huh?"
(b) "No, I'm sorry, but I have a sensitive stomach and I'm only allowed to eat Mueslix with Lactaid."
(c) "Hell, yes!"
The answer is (c), for so many reasons.
First of all, taste that chicken soft taco. It's different, isn't it? Open it up and look inside; don't be afraid, now. See that white sauce? That's the secret sauce. It's not sour cream. It seems to have a mayonnaise base. "Mayonnaise on a taco?" you say. "I think not!" Well, just try it. Whatever the heck it is, it makes that chicken soft taco about 10 times better than the one at Taco Bell.
"I refuse to reveal the corporate recipe for the secret sauce," jokes laid-back Del Taco vice president of marketing Tim Hackbardt.
He will admit that the orange sauce in the new crispy chicken taco is ancho chile, though. This taco is a breaded chicken patty inside a soft shell, and it's also a good-tastin' menu item you won't find at the Bell.
Let's explicate the phenomenon of Del Taco:
1. Selection. Green sauce on a burrito? Quesadillas four ways? A 65-cent burrito? Really good crinkle-cut fries? Chili-cheese fries? A hamburger for the provincial? A hangover-fighting breakfast of tortilla clotted with egg, cheese, bacon and orange sauce of unknown origin? All foodstuffs you will find at Del Taco but not at Taco Bell.
2. Cheap-as-hell prices. At the Del, $5 will get you two meals, and $10 means a week's worth of lunches. With 39-cent tacos and similarly priced items, it's truly the cheapest of the cheap -- but it doesn't taste cheap, amigo.
3. All that and a sense of humor, too. Menu items include the Macho-Size Drink, Obscene Meal and Big Fat Tacos. If Del Taco had a mascot, he could match that Jack in the Box clown, snap for snap.
Hackbardt explains that the freedom to have fun with the food names and advertising comes from being an independent company with a fun and competitive drive.
"This is a private company, so we just have a real 'tude here," he says, "and we just want to have some fun with what we're doing. The chairman of the board of this company is from Brooklyn, and he's a stickball kid -- you know, from the streets -- and he just loves to compete and he's got an attitude, and it shows through the whole company. You don't see our commercials in St. Louis, but in our last set of television commercials, we filmed in front of Taco Bell headquarters, right on the street right in front. It's sort of a David-and-Goliath thing, and we're definitely the David part. My favorite story was like 1993 or something, and Taco Bell came out with a seven-layer burrito, and Kevin, our chairman of the board, just wasn't gonna stand for that, so we came out with an eight-layer burrito. It's like that movie with Al Capone, The Untouchables: 'You put one of my guys in the hospital, I'll put two of yours in the morgue.'"
That's cold, baby!
The Del Taco on Grand Boulevard near Highway 40, like all three Del Tacos in St. Louis, used to be a Naugles. Before that, the retro-space-age building with the saucer roof was a Sinclair filling station. (Insert gas joke here.)
Speaking of disturbing the peace, Hackbardt tells a scary story about a wacky Del Taco menu idea that never made it out of the test kitchen:
"The triple-meat sandwich. We decided not to go with it -- it tastes pretty darn good, though. But it's just too much for people to comprehend. It's a burger patty, steak and taco meat all in a hamburger bun, with cheese and bacon. That's a lot of meat, and it was really good. It tasted like all the good meat that anybody who likes meat likes. But it was just too repulsive for most people to think about."
Amen. Please pass the green burritos.
-- Byron Kerman
First Watch offers a welcome alternative.
This pleasant, casual restaurant, which opened at the end of June off Olive Boulevard in Chesterfield, is open from 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and serves only breakfast, lunch and brunch. Its menu contains both an extensive list of healthier offerings and some true comfort food. A pitcher of icewater is standard on every table, and, for coffee drinkers, so is a bottomless carafe.
The menu contains generous servings of standard breakfast fare, like omelettes served with potatoes and an English muffin; made-from-scratch French toast, pancakes and Belgian waffles; and "sensational skillets," made with potatoes topped with melted cheese, eggs and such things as ham and mushrooms or avocado, bacon and onion or diced vegetables. For the health-conscious, there's the "tri-athlete omelette," with egg whites, mushrooms, onion, tomato, green chiles and low-fat cheese, or the fresh-fruit crê pes, two thin crê pes wrapped around fresh fruit and topped with strawberry yogurt, cinnamon and sugar.
More unusual items are also featured, like the turkey dill "crepeggs" -- a crê pe whipped with eggs and wrapped around diced turkey, mushrooms, fresh spinach, onions and Monterey Jack cheese, then covered with hollandaise, tomatoes and dill.
For lunch, there's a host of salads -- Greek, caesar, Cobb -- as well as unusual ones like Won's Oriental, which features teriyaki chicken breast, water chestnuts and cashews, sautéed in a sweet-and-sour dressing and piled on top of greens and crunchy oriental noodles. Sandwiches run the gamut from a chicken-salad melt -- with water chestnuts, raisins and celery on grilled multigrain bread with melted cheese and tomato -- to a BLT with a fried egg and cheese.
The chain's first restaurant opened 18 years ago on the bay in Monterey, Calif. -- where it derived its name and logo for the "first watch" in the morning -- after one of First Watch's partners heard about a guy who opened a strictly breakfast-and-lunch restaurant in Colorado because he wanted time to ski the slopes. The concept worked.
Ron Hendrix, a vice president of the Sarasota, Fla.-based company, says some people doubted whether a restaurant could succeed without serving dinner or alcohol, "but it provides us with a niche we can concentrate on." The company now has 35 locations in Florida, Arizona, Ohio, California and Missouri, including eight restaurants in the Kansas City area. Hendrix says First Watch is planning to open as many as four to eight restaurants in St. Louis. He is currently in lease negotiations for another site in Creve Coeur. Prices range from $2.75 for biscuits and gravy to $6.50 for an "Acapulco Express" omelette. There's also a kids' menu.
-- Laura Higgins