Gastronomicon: Del Taco Platos put the bar dangerously high

Going out to review food is surreptitious at best. You sneak in, steal a few pictures of your wilted lettuce and hope nobody notices that you’re taking notes. To be known as a critic is to taint the experience, either because you were treated to better service or because you got kicked out.

This is why when I receive an explicit invitation to try a place, to accept feels like walking into a trap. You can imagine my hesitation when I received an email asking us to come out to Del Taco for an exclusive sampling of its new Platos offering. Despite my uneasiness, I was unable to resist the notion of a fancy meal at Del Taco and thus decided to take SN&R intern Jaime Carrillo along for a corporate dinner date. He wore a fancy tie and a vest, I wore my finest black pants and my most not-covered-in-satanic-imagery T-shirt.

We arrived at the Del Taco in Natomas somewhat unsure of what was about to happen. I presented my printed confirmation for our reserved table, and immediately we were treated like visiting royalty. It wasn’t right—I come to Del Taco to be forgotten by the world. But we plunged ahead and ordered the Platos.

We had many choices—the Platos are a mix-and-match situation, high-end plates with a choice of an entree (a wet burrito, “Street Tacos,” a “Street Taco” and a chicken quesadilla, and Fish Tacos) and a choice of two sides (Spanish rice, pinto beans, refried beans, and spiced corn). Depending on what you get, prices range from $6.99-$7.99. They also come with a bag of chips and some fresh salsa verde. None of this is what you’re looking for at Del Taco, which is known as the best place to buy low-grade burritos by the pound when you’ve only got $3.

But the push for a plated meal makes sense if you’ve been to a Del Taco in the last few years. The restaurants are remodeling for more modern and colorful looks and they’ve been pushing fresh ingredients and quality in their messaging for a while now. The menu needs more quality-minded items to match.

However, getting Del Taco because you’re cheap, misanthropic and drunken remains the heart of why anybody I know loves the place, and thankfully, that remains. As Jaime and I sat at our posh reserved table, we noticed some condescending printouts, pictured below.

I asked Jaime the last conversation starter, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve done at Del Taco?” (I imagine everybody has at least one great answer to this question.) I’ll let Jaime tell it:

“It was certainly cold enough to be January. A nearly abandoned Del Taco, one lone employee was doing his best manning the ship. We ordered and waited for what seemed like an eternity. A stray Labrador walked through the restaurant. Before we realized it, the dog vanished, making us question if it was real or a figment brought on by taco fumes.”

The context for the Platos seemed a lot more interesting than the Platos themselves at this point.

This is unfair to the Platos. Jaime actually enjoyed his quite a bit:

“I went with the safer, familiar-looking chicken Street Taco entree and the slow-cooked pinto beans and lime rice sides. Each Plato also comes with a bag of lime-salt dusted chips and green salsa. The green salsa was the star of the entire meal; it looked, smelled and tasted like it was made by someone’s abuelita. Whether or not Del Taco keeps such a lady on staff is anyone’s guess.

“Laughter was my first response when biting into the Street Tacos. No, not because the taste was so objectionable that I wanted to laugh in the eyes of a vengeful God who would allow such a thing, but because they tasted as good as a restaurant-style taco. The addition of an avocado slice wasn’t traditional, but it did set the taco over the edge. Tradition can go jump in a lake.

“The slow cooked beans were also far too familiar, although I had to pick off the excess cheese to make the palatable. The lime-rice side won’t satisfy your fix for Spanish rice, but it, too, is tasty. Being an antisocial bridge troll who recoils at the mere thought of human contact, I can see plenty of these Platos in my future, or at least until my local taqueria works out a drive-thru situation.”

I agree with Jaime on the key points: My wet burrito tasted just fine and certainly didn’t skimp on any of important bits of meat, cheese, sauce and sour cream, the salsa was surprisingly tasty and the sides were actually more interesting than the rice and beans I often get at real Mexican restaurants. And I couldn’t believe the freshness, cleanliness and thickness of the avocado slices on Jaime’s tacos.

But will I be buying these once they become widely available? I don’t see that as a possibility in the slightest. If I’m going to Del Taco, I’m going for the cheap goods—the $1 nachos, the grilled chicken taco, the bean-and-cheese burritos. If I know I can get three or four items and keep my tab lower than $4, I’m going to. Period.

Does that mean that the Platos are a failure? Certainly not. The offerings are fine choices (although I’ll always give fast-food fish a fearful side-eye, even if unwarranted), and the quantity and presentation matched well with the price point. If they sound appealing to you, give them a go. I imagine you’ll be more than a little impressed.

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