Sunday, November 11, 2018

Not So Bueno

Place: Taco Mayo
Lunch: Crispy beef taco, 3-cheese chicken quesadilla melt, refried beans, ice water

I haven't had Taco Mayo in forever.  I thought the entire chain had folded.  Every location I'd ever been to had closed.  But the other day I thought to look them up online and found they're still out there, albeit only half the chain they used to be with around 50 locations left, most of which would require me to go out of my way to get to one.  They used to number around 100.  They used the classic "concentrate on quality over quantity" excuse on all the store closures.  The support group for management of such chains living with that denial meet Tuesdays in the carcass of the local abandoned Sears.

The mostly Oklahoma Taco Mayo is your typical fast food cheap eats Mexican place with tacos that barely have any meat in them (though the guy who made this one was unusually generous), burritos, nachos, and that traditional Mexican dish known as tater tots. re branded to give them that south of the border stereotype  (Mexi Fries, Potato Ole's, or in this case, Potato Locos).  Taco Mayo is also now apparently trying to be Chipotle with a "Fresh Mex" menu where you go down the line and dictate how your burrito is made with ingredients outside the typical Taco Mayo line.  Yeah...not bothering with that.  The classics are perfectly decent. Though even the classics are now made on said line.

The thing that triggered my memory of Taco Mayo was another surprise in the fast food taco world...Taco Bueno filed for bankruptcy this week.

172 unit Taco Bueno has been my favorite of the fast food taco chains the past couple of years.  The chain was founded by Bill Waugh, the guy who also brought us the legendary Casa Bonita.  Taco Bueno was owned by CKE, the parent company of Hardee's and Carl's Jr, when I first tried them out  CKE was in the process of revitalizing the brand with a new logo and some really out there new building designs and remodels, something the media and customers liked to compare to something out of The Jetson's.  CKE eventually had to sell Bueno off to reduce debt and focus its sights on the disaster that was Hardee's.  Taco Bueno was flipped through a number of capital investment firms., all of whom have toned down the hipness CKE broought to the table.

Taco Bueno attempted expansion in a number of Midwest markets outside their comfort zone in the early 2000's that mostly crashed and burned.  There were five in Omaha and Lincoln for awhile, there's none now.  There were six in Wichita, there's one left.  There were five in Colorado Springs, those are all gone.  There were once as many as eight in Kansas City, there's three left.  And so on.

The official restructuring plan involves a scheme were a real restaurant company who operates a bunch of franchises of known national outlets (none of which are Taco Bueno) bought their debt, is loaning them some operating cash, and will ultimately swap the debt for the equity.


We'll see, I guess.  They say there will be no store closures...Taco Bueno closed 16 locations just recently in advance of this...but you can bet that'll change once the new company takes over.  I'm sure they'll get rid of nearly everything corporate run outside of Texas and Oklahoma.

If you ask fans of the brand (known as Buenoheads) where everything went wrong, they'll point directly at the queso.  Taco Bueno changed their queso recipe recently and those who hate it REALLY REALLY hate it.  (I for one like it just fine, but if they reverted to the old stuff, it wouldn't bother me either.)

Taco Bueno brags of having real cooks in real kitchens who prepare everything fresh daily.  Sounds Chipotle-like, but it's Taco Bell quality food.  There's your usual tacos and burritos, "Muchacos" (think Gordita), nachos, and quesadillas.  There are full dinner platter variations where rice and beans are included.  And there are value items mostly smaller versions of the mainline items usually labeled "party size".  Each location has a salsa bar to spike your food with.

I have current and past Bueno favorites.  Their Mucho Nachos are my favorite nachos.  Where some chains have gone fancy with theirs, Taco Bueno sticks with the classic chips, nacho cheese, beef, beans, sour cream, chili sauce, and tomatoes. I love Bueno's chili sauce.  It's actually more like chili than red enchilada sauce.  The Big Freaking Taco is another favorite of mine.  It's kind of my replacement for Del Taco's long gone Ultimate Taco, which may have been the most perfect taco ever made.  Bueno also makes my favorite chicken quesadilla.  The creamy zesty sauce they use really makes it.

Past menu items start with their chicken tortilla soup, my second favorite behind Qdoba's.  It was a regular menu item, then became a seasonal item for a couple of years, then they just quit making it.  That's their most missed menu item based on comments on their Facebook page.  They also used to do a really good chili pie, basically a bowl of Fritos topped in taco meat and chili sauce.  So simple, yet so amazing.

So here's hoping I get to keep a little Bueno in my life.  It sounds like I will, but I might have to drive further to get to one.

I should just move to Texas or Oklahoma.

So many good tacos.