Thursday, May 28, 2020
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Ode to Del Taco


I was a Taco Bell purist before I moved to Irvine. Always a woman of class and distinction, I scoffed at all imitation Mexican food beneath Taco Bell’s lofty standards — if it wasn’t branded with a Bell and bathed in Mountain Dew, it wasn’t for me.

Then, I met Del Taco.

I avoided it for the first few months after coming to UCI last year — even though I lived directly across the street from it and walked past its inviting doors every day on the way to class, I was never once tempted to go inside. As a naïve freshman with her head still squarely on her shoulders, I swore to myself that I would never stoop quite that low.

Then, one December night last year in the middle of finals week, the power went out in my building. Frantic for a place to type up a last-minute philosophy essay, I headed to Starbucks, only to find the place already swarming with a hundred other displaced students with the same idea. Now desperate, I glanced out the window, and groaned audibly as a flickering neon sign across the street caught my weary eyes.

Del Taco.

Even in the midst of an exodus of students from the power-free Arroyo Vista complex to the shopping center across the street, Del Taco was dead empty. It was a place to study — if one can consider “rock bottom” a place to study. I heaved a sigh of disappointment, relinquished the last of my pride,  and made my way over.

What I found inside those unassuming, taco-scented walls inspired not only my philosophy essay that night, but my philosophy on life.

That first December night, as I settled nervously into a booth, I ordered a box of 99 cent “nachos,” which was really just a couple of soggy chips floating in a pool of congealed yellow regret.

“So this is what it’s come to,” I whispered to nobody in particular.

I wasn’t about to waste 99 cents, so I decided to put my life on the line and take a bite of Del Taco Salsa Verde Nachos.

It was just…okay. I finished the rest of it, and sat staring at the cheese-stained box. I didn’t particularly like myself for it, but somehow, I didn’t hate myself either.

“I could do better,” I thought. “I want to do better.”

Del Taco, I came to  learn, is like a dysfunctional home away from home, or a deadbeat best friend — something dependable, albeit mediocre; always there for you in your darkest hour, waiting with open arms full of limp burritos. For me, it’s a point of inspiration. Something about Del Taco’s unabashed mediocrity makes me want to rise above and be a better person.

I have learned that when the marquee outside the store advertises “FRESH AVOCADO” — quotes included — it’s probably not that fresh, and may not even be avocado.

I have learned never to go for midnight 89 cent soft serve at the Del Taco drive-thru by yourself. You’ll have one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on your ice cream, and when you’re swerving all the way home and inevitably get pulled over, police officers won’t buy it when you tell them “I’m not drunk, it’s just late and I needed cheap ice cream from Del Taco.” You don’t sound sober. Take a friend along; holding ice cream is what they’re for.

I have learned that when you open your heart, you can find a subtle kind of elegance in the unlikeliest of places, even in the trashiest of trash food. A Del Taco burger, for instance, is a piece of modern art. It’s ugly and jarring; you don’t quite understand what it is, exactly, or how it fits into this crazy world, but something about it inspires you to write poetry and cry.

Something about this struggling imitation Mexican restaurant reminds me of myself. Confused, unpredictable and mediocre, Del Taco and I just keep trying. And if ever I should try and fail, I know where to find a bag of shameful cheese-covered comfort.

I know that Taco Bell will triumph over Del Taco in every contest of taste, quality, and popularity, but it just doesn’t have the soulful, diamond-in-the-rough quality I have come to crave in my fake Mexican dining experience. Del Taco isn’t as flashy as Taco Bell, but it has undeniable heart. It’s what’s inside the tortilla that counts, and Del Taco’s soggy shredded lettuce, questionable beef product, and undying spirit has won my vote.