I have distinct loyalties where fast food is concerned.
I grew up in Corpus Christi, birthplace of Whataburger. The first Texas-based fast food chain opened on Ayers Street in 1950 and quickly spread like an orange and white wildfire across the city. When I was in high school, I'd walk to Whataburger with my friends every day after class, and we'd spend the next couple of hours crammed in a booth eating french fries and burgers and downing chocolate milkshakes.
I attended Trinity University in San Antonio for college, and I quickly discovered that the original Taco Cabana was just a few blocks away from campus. After nights out drinking too much Lone Star at local bars, we'd end up at Taco Cabana, ordering half the menu and several large cups of water in an effort to ward off hangovers. To this day, I swear that a large queso and half a dozen tortillas consumed before bed will have you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning, no matter how much you imbibed the previous night.
Taco Bell, however, I have always hated.
For some reason, though I worship at the altar of Taco Cabana, I've always been offended by the notion of Taco Bell. In my mind, Taco Bell takes the simple, wholesome Tex-Mex of my youth and tries to put a creative spin on it, ultimately creating a bastardized version of the original dish that's neither appetizing nor of any value nutritionally. Plus, I remember someone pointing out to me as a child that the ground meat there looks like cat food. I've never been able to see it the same way.
And then there's the sauce, intended to be used in lieu of fresh salsa. Salsa should not come in plastic-coated foil bags like ketchup. That's just wrong.
So I admit freely that it had been years--possibly a decade--since I last ate at Taco Bell when I decided to give the new Quesarito a try. For science. I don't know how I managed to avoid the place for so long, particularly as it was the Tex-Mex ideal back in Missouri where I attended grad school, and many of my friends (even the Texans) swear by the impossibly cheap tacos. I steadfastly maintained my snobbery, though, telling anyone who'd listen that Taco Cabana is soooooo much more legit.
The same reason I've often hated on Taco Bell is the precise reason I was so intrigued by the Quesarito: It's the master of the culinary portmanteau. There's the Crunchwrap Supreme®, like a crisp pita pocket or a giant octagonal empanada stuffed with everything that would usually be found in a taco. It's "grilled for maximum portability." There's the Mexican Pizza, a double decker heartburn-inducer with two "pizza shells" filled with meat, beans, cheese and pizza sauce. At one point, there was the Taco Bell version of the Chaco Taco on the menu, but that seems to be gone now.
So it was with a mixture of intrigue and disgust that I read about the Quesarito, an item that many have claimed was stolen from Chipotle's secret menu. According to those in the know, you can order a quesadilla at Chipotle and have the quesadilla serve as the wrapper for your burrito. I have tried to order this several times, and each time the servers have looked at me like I was crazy, like I'd just requested a heart attack wrapped in tin foil, which, essentially, I had.
I was met with a far different reaction when I pulled forward in the drive through at Taco Bell on a Thursday morning to pay for my single Quesarito.
"Oh girl, you already in love with that new Quesarito, huh?"
It was too early for a woman in a polo shirt at a drive through window to be so excited about meat wrapped in cheese wrapped in carbs.
"I haven't tried it yet," I told her. "But I hear good things?"
This story continues on the next page.
I was hungry by the time the Quesarito and I made it to the office, and I was in a bad mood. A friend had cancelled plans with me for what felt like the 100th time the previous evening, and I'd gotten into an argument with another friend. And then the dog had woken me up in the middle of the night, apparently frightened by a bit of rain hitting the window. And then I overslept. A 650-calorie burrito with more than the recommended daily amount of sodium seemed just what I needed.
I unwrapped it gingerly, hesitantly, expecting cheese to start oozing out at any moment. I took a small bite. Tortilla. I took another small bite. More tortilla, this time with a bit of cheese that had already started to harden. The slightly grilled tortilla was tough and the cheese congealed. I kept going.
The next bite brought shredded chicken, rice, chipotle hot sauce, sour cream and more cheese. I chewed.
Crap, I thought. I don't hate this.
Examining the contents of the toasty burrito, I discovered that the shredded chicken (one of three options, the other two being steak or ground beef) actually looked like something that came off a bird. It was recognizably chicken. And it wasn't dry or desiccated. It was kind of...juicy.
The sour cream--which Taco Bell is very proud to call reduced fat--mingled with the chipotle hot sauce, creating a sort of spicy cream sauce that coated every grain of rice.
The rice has green things in it. Actual green things. Cilantro? I don't care. This shit is good.
After several bites, I realized there was, indeed, cheese oozing out of the external layer of the burrito, a layer I'd previously thought was inhabited only by melted shredded cheddar that had started to re-harden.
Holy crap, is there Velveeta in this? Score.
There's not just cheese in the outer quesadilla layer. There are two kinds of cheese. There's the cheddar, which melts and sticks the tortillas together, and then there's the queso, a more liquid-y, yellow cheese that's messy but addictive.
Why am I still eating this? I'm going to an actual restaurant for lunch in two hours.
The combination of multiple cheeses with rice that's shockingly not gummy and chicken that's tender and flavorful all topped off with sour cream and hot sauce with an earthy depth is a damn good one. When I first heard that it took Taco Bell a year to develop the Quesarito, I was a little dumbfounded, but now I get it. The same item with each element perfectly executed must be replicated in hundreds of restaurants across the country, and each version must be identical to the last. That's some impressive industrialization.
Now I'm sad that it's almost gone.
As I sit here pontificating about the Quesarito, I am now about an hour away from those lunch plans I previously mentioned. And I'm still really full. Turns out "There's a burrito in my quesadilla"--as the tagline reads--feels exactly like a burrito in a quesadilla in my stomach. An incendiary pile of dairy and sodium weighing 259 grams and tasting like fast food heaven.
Did I mention I ate the whole damn thing? I did. And I liked it.
Taco Bell, I liked your Quesarito. And I'm not even ashamed.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.