Road Bites: Taco Bell's Crunchy Taco

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Life might not have been simpler in the 1970s, but the menu at Taco Bell certainly was. Perhaps six or seven items populated the Mexican-inspired fast food chain’s list of offerings then, and of those, very few can be found on the contemporary menu, stuffed as it is with Doritos-this and Extreme Baja-that, all festooned with “crunchy red strips” of uncertain provenance.

Back then, you ordered a taco. You got a taco. No need to specify “crunchy” or soft, no need to ask for it to be glued to another shell with refried beans or smothered in odd sauces. It was a taco: spiced beef mixture, lettuce, and cheddar cheese inside a hard corn tortilla shell. Perhaps not a taco in the sense anyone versed in Mexican cuisine would recognize, but the taco of my and many Americans’ youth.

Upon a recent visit to a Taco Bell in Frederick, Maryland, I ordered a meal composed of items you would have found way back when: crunchy taco, bean burrito, and pintos and cheese (frijoles, once upon a time).

Crunchy Taco and Pintos and Cheese from Taco Bell

For all the changes, the taco brought back memories of those originals from the ’70s. The timeless construction of spiced meat at the bottom, then shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese at top, comforted me for some reason. Unlike my sandwich rule of proper ingredient distribution, a good fast-food taco needs variety—a bit of lettuce and cheese (with hot sauce added) this time, a bit of meat and lettuce next, with the cracking shell adding texture to each bite. Sure, the cheddar was industrially shredded three hundred miles (and who knows how many weeks) away, and the shell was hardly just-fried, but the experience was simple, filling, and just a bit nostalgic.

I tend to eat better (or at least more proper) tacos now, filled with al pastor and barbacoa, but you’re not always going to find a taco truck or taqueria on the road. My Taco Bell stop proved to be an inexpensive, interesting, and well-prepared meal, enough to get me back on the road to my destination, like a good road bite should.

And if Taco Bell would ever bring back the classic enchirito and tostado, well, I’d be stopping by quite a bit more often.

Road Bites: Jimmy John's Vito Italian Sub

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When I’m on the road and in dire need of an Italian sub—surely I’m not the only one with this recurring dilemma?—I’m not looking for world-beating fresh prosciutto or hand cut mozzarella or rolls sourced from a hundred year-old bakery passed down through successive generations. Those would be proper hoagies, which I take trips specifically to eat. You can find real hoagies on the road, but most times, that’s just not happening in a fast-food/fast-casual setting. I’m talking about subs, those meat and veg and cheese combos placed in usually indifferent bread, satisfying and yet not remarkable. You get, as they say, what you pay for.

So it’s worth noting the existence of the Vito, an Italian sub from the (very) fast-casual sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. The ingredients are fresh and plentiful, with a nice amount of fairly decent Genoa salami and capicola, acceptable provolone, and a vinaigrette that, while not a more traditional straight oil and vinegar, still provides a nice mouthfeel. Plus they offer bean sprouts as an option, and the slight crunch makes for an interesting contrast.

Jimmy John's Vito

The ingredients alone, though, don’t make the Vito noteworthy. It’s the construction. I’ve long held that a sandwich with amazing ingredients can be let down by poor sandwich assembly. A good sub has every ingredient in every bite without the food being a jumble or a hacked-up mess. The Vito I had came from a location in Greensboro, North Carolina, which put together a textbook sub, with proper portions and careful ingredient layering.

This careful structure comes about by scooping out part of the bread, creating a managed space for the ingredients inside the roll. Were the bread better, I would complain about losing it, but here, the attention to detail makes a good sub even better. It’s optional, but I can’t imagine getting a Jimmy John’s sub without asking for the roll to be hollowed out.

For a fresh Italian sub on the road, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a Jimmy John’s location. They’ll get you back on your way fast and fed.

Road Bites: Steak 'n Shake Burgers and Chili

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Unquestionably, burgers represent the quintessential American road bite, ideal for eating on the go. You can’t travel down a byway or highway without passing a burger joint. If you’re unlucky, you wind up stopping at a national chain with its predictable (often comfortingly so) national burger; it’s the regional chains that provide the perfect melding of franchise familiarity with local sensibilities. On a recent trip to Greensboro, NC, I stopped at a chain that hails from the midwest, venerable Steak ‘n Shake, famous, as they say, for steakburgers.

Steak 'n Shake Double 'n Cheese

The double steakburger with cheese didn’t quite match the beauty shot from the menu, but there’s no ignoring the smashed ground beef patty with those great crisped edges. The meat was moist and flavorful, the vegetable toppings reasonably fresh as well. I’m not a burger connoisseur, but amongst fast food offerings, Steak ‘n Shake wins the prize, and at $4 for the burger and a side of thin (though somewhat wan) fries, well, I’m glad that there isn’t one within easy driving distance of home base, else I’d be eating there quite a bit.

I spent several youthful years in the midwest, and my childhood memories of Steak ‘n Shake revolve mostly around the chili five-way. That’s all I would eat when I went there as a kid, and the thought of having it again drove me to stop here.

Steak 'n Shake Chili Five Way

Sampling it as an adult, I realize how much difference nostalgia makes. Steak ‘n Shake chili five way isn’t my beloved Cincinnati five-way — the meat here is coarser ground and on the bland side, without much spice or flavor. My dish didn’t have much in the way of onion or cheese, either. I wasn’t anticipating a Skyline abundance of cheese and ground beef, but for the price, I was hoping for a larger portion (and I thought there would be packets of oyster crackers and chili sauce in the Takhomasack). It was fine, tasty enough, but not up to the madeline of my expectations.

I’ll still stop at a Steak ‘n Shake over, well, any other regional or national burger chain, but I’ll stick with the justly famous steakburger. Certainly easier to eat on the road than the chili. Oh, and the shakes. Those are pretty damn good, too.

Road Bites: Bojangles' Biscuits

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Biscuits every hour of the day! Filled with sausage and other fine meats! That’s road trip worthy right there.

As it turns out, I didn’t actually need to travel south towards Greensboro, North Carolina, to stop at a Bojangles—there’s one in the food court at Union Station in DC. But have you ever been in the food court at Union Station around lunch time? Much simpler to drive six hours for a biscuit fix. Plus, I’m convinced that, much like hoagies and cheesesteaks are best north of the Schyukyll River, biscuits get better the further south you go, even if they’re institutionally made.

Besides, I was already in North Carolina on a road trip, and I made sure that one of our first stops was at the Bojangles just off exit 214 on I-40. Super friendly staff (making sure I didn’t miss out on any deals and offers, unlike some places I stopped on this trip) only helped make the experience better. But frankly, for these biscuits, I would have endured surly.

Bojangles Steak Biscuit (left) and Country Ham Biscuit (right)

My culinary companion and I sampled several types of filled biscuits—for some reason, I don’t feel comfortable calling them sandwiches—and the clear winner is the country ham biscuit, two thin slices of salty ham nestled in a fluffy, slightly crumbly biscuit. Any more ham and the saltiness would have overwhelmed the experience, but those two slices brought just the right amount of flavor to the biscuit, which was thus allowed equal play in the taste.

The cajun chicken filet biscuit was acceptable, if a little low on the spice. There was some cajun flavoring that snuck up a few bites in, but it seemed tame to me, and the size of the filet rivaled that of the biscuit itself, making the proportions a bit off kilter. Much better was the steak biscuit, a piece of country-fried steak that found a better fit, proportionally. It might seem slightly odd that you would eat a breaded piece of meat between bread, but frankly, it works.

For actual road trip purposes, these biscuits are not ideal. While not greasy per se, there’s a bit of grease involved in eating them, and one doesn’t want a sheen on the steering wheel. So pull over, go into the restaurant, and eat them. A true road trip doesn’t have a timetable.

Road Bites: Hardee's Jumbo Chili Dog

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The whole point of a road trip, besides getting somewhere, is to experience the road. You can’t take a road trip on a major highway; you’ve gotta get on the lesser byways, the routes and throughways and bypasses. At the very least, you have to get off at an exit you’ve never taken and sample the regional fare.

But sometimes, you don’t have a lot of choices, especially right off of an exit or along a busy route, and the local restaurants tend to seem quite similar, with lots of Tony’s and Toni’s and Spitoni’s and Antony’s Pizzas that bespeak not regionalism but lack-of-originalityism. Perhaps there’s an authentic, regional specialty lurking in there somewhere, but at 55 MPH, it’s hard to tell. So what’s an intrepid road trip grazer to do? Regional fast food is where it’s at . . .

For the inaugural Road Bites review, I’m visiting a chain, Hardee’s, that was once a major player in the metro Washington, DC, area but now counts as a rare breed, at least within an hour of the Beltway. There’s certainly nothing particularly regional about their hamburgers, though they are well regarded for their fried chicken. But I’m not much of a fried chicken person, so, on the expert advice of my culinary companion, we stopped in at the Hardee’s on Route 29 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and picked up chili dogs, Jumbo Chili Dogs, to be precise.

Hardee's Jumbo Chili Dog

Now this is quintessential road trip food. You just don’t find hot dogs on fast food menus these days, and these were grilled. Grilling should be the only legal way to cook hot dogs. The quality of the dog was sufficient—I’m not expecting locally sourced organic Angus beef here—and it fit just so in the toasted bun.

Likewise, the chili sauce (it would be a stretch to call it chili) matched my expectations for a fast food chili dog. The meat was finely ground, moderately spiced, and modestly portioned; the sauce itself was loose but not watery. It stuck to the dog and the bun, and whatever spilled out could be easily scooped up with the serviceable french fries. Topped off with very finely diced onions, the Jumbo Chili Dog hit the spot. Lucky I got two of them.

I’m not thinking that the Michelin inspectors need to stop by, and I wouldn’t necessarily even recommend that a hungry traveller make a detour, but for a bite on the road that takes one back a few decades, it works.