Regional fast food chains inspire surprisingly fierce loyalty: there's no question that if Harold and Kumar were in California, they'd be going to In-n-Out, and if they were in Washington, I'm certain they'd be heading to Taco Time for the Crisp Beef Burrito. Like the iconic White Castle sliders, the Crisp Beef Burrito is small enough to be a snack and big enough to be a meal (especially when ordered in multipleor with sides of Mexi-fries), unique to its chain, and found elsewhere only as poor imitations.
Burritos have really been hitting their stride lately. Food Republic asked last week, "Are people over-thinking burritos?" Frankly, I'm not sure there's enough thinking about burritos going on, since I'm not reading about the Crisp Beef Burrito from Taco Time nearly enough. Or at all. When ESPN's FiveThirtyEight.com attempted to find the best burrito in America, it used a panel of experts and scoured almost 70,000 Yelp reviews. Never, in any of their supposedly thorough reports is the Crisp Beef Burrito mentioned.
The only possible explanation of this is that the name of the dish itself is only two-thirds correct. The slender cylinder of shatteringly-crisp flour tortilla is stuffed within a millimeter of its life with a smattering of Cheddar cheese and what is very clearly beef (unlike, say, the fillings at a certain national "Taco" fast food chain), but it's not what anyone in the U.S. has thought of as a burrito since the Kennedy administration. If anything, it resembles the chimichanga of the American Southwest, with the same deep-fried outer shell and tightly-packed fillings. Other than the open ends, it could even be considered a long-lost sibling of the equally authentic "Chinese" egg roll.
The similarities to the egg roll don't end with the inspired combination of stuffing a starchy wrapper with large quantities of meat and deep-frying (obviously the secret to Americanizing the foodstuffs of immigrant cultures). No, like the egg roll's quintessential, glowing, neon-orange sauce, the Crisp Beef Burrito is best dipped in Taco Time's "ranch." I have to put ranch in quotes here, because let's be clear: not only is ranch sauce not even remotely something you might consider serving with Mexican food, this "sauce" (also in quotes, as it has the consistency and flavor of sour cream), has nothing in common with the great American tradition of ranch sauce. The only thing authentically anything about the ranch is that fried foods are dipped into it. It's surprising how endearing it is that a fast food restaurant's inauthentic Mexican food comes with inauthentic American food: "Hey, we're not bastardizing your cuisine, we're bastardizing ALL cuisine."
That said, never before in the U.S. did anyone (and certainly not a fast-food innovator) let authenticity stand in the way of developing an eminently crave-able creation. There is no record in the annals of Taco Time history of how the Crisp Beef Burrito came to be, but it's been on the menu since the original one opened in White Center in 1962and has been an employee and customer favorite since then.
The burrito, unchanged in the more than 50 years of Taco Time's existence, is the second most popular menu item at the chain. But it is the favorite of "Grandpa" Frank Tonkin, who is of the second generation of Tonkin ownersthe locally-owned chain is now on its fourth generation in the family. It's good to know that the stores are in the hands of people who know what's best. Remember, letting the population pick is how George W. Bush was elected. Twice.
I'm guessing there are many people who will think I'm crazy for declaring the Taco Time Crisp Beef Burrito the greatest fast food innovation of all time. Half of those people will be native Seattleites, arguing in favor of the Crisp Beef Burrito's bean-filled brethrenwhich is completely understandable. The other half grew up outside the Taco Time region and can't understand the greatness of the Crisp Beef Burrito. But that's okay, because they probably also think Mexi-fries are "just tater tots." All the more for me.