The fast-food burger wars continue to rage. When Wendy’s introduced its “four items for four dollars” deal, Burger King responded by offering five items for four dollars, setting off a violent Twitter feud. On International Peace Day, Burger King reached out to McDonald’s with an olive branch in the form of a McWhopper collaboration, only to have Ronald—the clown-shoed dictator—spit in The King’s face.
On the flip side, the battle for quick-serve taco supremacy seems to have reached a mutual détente (unless you count regional chain Taco John’s weak overthrow attempt with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito. You take a shot at the Doritos Locos Taco, you best not miss.) Del Taco and Taco Bell occupy two entirely separate lanes in the industry.
Taco Bell embraced the viral properties of a few chip-laden items and, via pure marketing and social media alchemy, pivoted to become a Millennial-facing lifestyle brand. That steered Del Taco towards the only option it had left: Create the most authentic version of Mexican food for people who refuse to leave their car during any point of the ordering, paying, and eating process. It’s a specific niche, but, apparently, a profitable one.
And they’ve been doubling down on that model lately, putting more emphasis on items like the Ensenada-inspired Del Fuego shrimp tacos (we regret using the word authentic earlier in this piece) than their crinkle cut fries and mash-up burritos.
Now, Del Taco is slinging something real familiar to the SoCal audience—carne asada street tacos. They come with quote-unquote “freshly grilled carne asada steak,” cilantro, onions, some fire-roasted chile salsa (a new one for Del Taco), and avocado on doubled-up corn tortillas.
At $2.29, the taco seems like a relative steal… Or at least that thought creeps in your head before realizing that they made a fast-food imitation twice as expensive as the real thing, and L.A. is America’s undisputed champion of one-dollar street tacos, and now the foil wrapping on Del Taco’s meaty imposters seems weird and contrived.
But Del Taco deserves some due process here. As in law, so too in tacos. We grabbed exactly $5 worth of carne asada street tacos from Del Taco and mobile heavyweight Leo’s Tacos and ate them in a gas station parking lot to figure out what the hell is going on.
By the eye test alone, the tortillas from Del Taco are much bigger, but there seems to be just as much meat in each of the tacos from Leo’s. Del Taco gives you a fatty slice of avocado, sure, but Leo’s has all-you-can-drink avocado salsa sitting on ice at their condiment bar, so that’s a moot point for food costs. Either Del Taco’s carne asada tacos are too expensive, or Leo’s are too cheap. It’s likely a combination of both.
What totally floored us was how tasty Del Taco’s carne asada was. The steak was tender, it was well-seasoned, you could taste cumin and lime in there, and—most importantly—it felt so much more real than the compressed beef nuggets you get at Taco Bell. But it was almost suspiciously tasty. There was this bizarre flavor sludge clinging to each piece of steak, kind of like a piece of stew meat that was cooked in a floury roux. Looking at the ingredients list, it’s either from a coating of potato starch, or from the addition of —ahem—powdered beef fat. If we didn’t already know that was an industrial food additive, it might seem straight off Michael Voltaggio menu.
The meat also has hydrolyzed corn protein—an ingredient that lets companies get away with not disclosing monosodium glutamate (MSG) content—which explains the unnaturally intense flavor bomb. With all the performance enhancing additives on their side, it’s tough to argue that the carne asada from Del Taco tastes better than the legit stuff from Leo’s, but it objectively tastes more.
Are Del Taco’s carne asada street tacos worth it? If you’re an agoraphobic who’s frightened to leave the car and only eats tacos when they come with a side of crinkle-cut fries—sure! They’re filling, they’ll punch you right in the mouth with flavor science, and they offer something that’s never been done in the fast-food sector.
That said, it’s unlikely Del Taco will be cutting into the profit margins of any L.A. mobile taco institution. Viva Leo’s. Viva El Gallito. Viva El Chato.