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We Tested Taco Bell's New Upscale American Taqueria, U.S. Taco Co.
Taco Bell and its parent company Yum Brands are opening up shop on their first fast casual concept, U.S. Taco Co., on the Strand in Huntington Beach on August 11, with high hopes of tapping into an audience of higher income eaters with more discerning tastes.
Chef Rene Pisciotti—who has worked with Taco Bell and Yum Brands for 7 years and developed the Cantina Bowls with Top Chef Masters' Lorena Garcia—was tapped to craft the U.S. Taco Co. menu. He and his marketing cohort Jeff Jenkins traveled the country researching the concept, exploring America's iconic eateries for inspiration.
"We were able to draw from local favorites in food culture and put the best of America in a taco," said Jenkins continued. "This is not supposed to be Mexican food."
The result is what could be considered American comfort tacos that play on the country's favorite junk foods all stuffed into a fluffy tortilla.
Those tortillas, of course, come from Taco Bell's supplier Mission Foods, which may upset authentic taco enthusiasts who dote on masa and the masterful skill of East L.A.'s tortillerias. But other than than the wrap—and the prevalent Pepsi Co presence, of course—there's not much of a resemblance to their fast food father.
U.S. Taco Co. has traded cold plastic seats and unflattering fluorescent lighting of the fast food giant for a more modern look. Aesthetically speaking, the place is pretty smart; you really could be in any hip cantina in San Francisco's Mission District. The vibrantly colored space looks strikingly similar to the newly popular Vietnamese fast casual restaurant East Borough in Culver City or a cheaper version of Scottsdale's Barrio Queen. There are Dia De Los Muertos skulls everywhere, and plenty of poppy colors and decorative Spanish tiles throughout.
The nod to current trends and the modern diner is no mistake.
This first location of U.S. Taco Co. in Huntington Beach is just a testing ground for what the brand hopes will be a massive expansion. It's a smart move considering the growth of the fast casual sector right now, with places like the Panda Express Innovation Kitchen constantly trying to play catch up with the success of Chipotle and 800 Degrees. Even McDonald's is spending a great amount of money trying to rebrand itself and gain the trust of its customers by opening a "learning lab" here on the West Coast to gather feedback about the food, environment, and other aspects of dining at the Golden Arches.
That's not to say that all the elements of fast food-dom are gone. The fried chicken in the Winner Winner taco tastes and looks strikingly like KFC's chicken tenders (KFC is also part of Yum Brands Portfolio, but we're told that though the chicken is not done in-house, KFC is not the supplier.) But there's one thing you can't get at a truck stop on the 5, and that's the ridiculously delicious leche shakes. The sweet and creamy Friggin Fried Ice Cream shake—perhaps a nod to Christina Tossi's popular cereal milk desserts—is one thousand percent delicious. As are their heavily seasoned steak fries, which are conveniently hulled out to allow for easy scooping of jalapeño ranch dip and ghost chile ketchup.
Are the dishes a bit over the top and totally indulgent? Yes. But something tells me they'll do just fine with the shirtless surfing crowd smoking e-hookahs outside on the Strand.