Taco John’s, Potato Ole!

While talking to Pat Cahalan in Las Vegas, he talked about stopping in a town where I used to live and getting completely unacceptable Mexican food. This came as a bit of a surprise to me because I found the Mexican food there to be very acceptable. As he described it, I was pretty sure that he stopped at Taco John’s. Taco John’s is big on putting tater-tots in everything. Then again, so are other places within Idaho and the states around Idaho, so it’s hard to say for sure.

Anyhow, Gustavo Arellano has an article about Mexican food in the US and how American it is:

The most popular restaurant in town that day was Taco John’s. I didn’t know it then, but Taco John’s is the third-largest taco chain in the United States, with nearly 500 locations. But what lured me that morning was a drive-through line snaking out from the faux-Spanish revival building (whitewashed adobe and all) and into the street. Once I inched my rental car next to the menu, I was offered an even more outrageous simulacrum of the American Southwest: tater tots, that most Midwestern of snacks, renamed “Potato Olés” and stuffed into a breakfast burrito, nacho cheese sauce slowly oozing out from the bottom of the flour tortilla.

There is nothing remotely Mexican about Potato Olés—not even the quasi-Spanish name, which has a distinctly Castilian accent. The burrito was more insulting to me and my heritage than casting Charlton Heston as the swarthy Mexican hero in Touch of Evil. But it was intriguing enough to take back to my hotel room for a taste. There, as I experienced all of the concoction’s gooey, filling glory while chilly rain fell outside, it struck me: Mexican food has become a better culinary metaphor for America than the melting pot.

Back home, my friends did not believe that a tater tot burrito could exist. When I showed them proof online, out came jeremiads about inauthenticity, about how I was a traitor for patronizing a Mexican chain that got its start in Wyoming, about how the avaricious gabachos had once again usurped our holy cuisine and corrupted it to fit their crude palates.

In defending that tortilla-swaddled abomination, I unknowingly joined a long, proud lineage of food heretics and lawbreakers who have been developing, adapting, and popularizing Mexican food in El Norte since before the Civil War. Tortillas and tamales have long left behind the moorings of immigrant culture and fully infiltrated every level of the American food pyramid, from state dinners at the White House to your local 7-Eleven. Decades’ worth of attempted restrictions by governments, academics, and other self-appointed custodians of purity have only made the strain stronger and more resilient. The result is a market-driven mongrel cuisine every bit as delicious and all-American as the German classics we appropriated from Frankfurt and Hamburg.

I’m all about equal opportunity. I love actual Mexican food. I love Tex-Mex. I love the bastardizations of Taco Bell and Taco John’s. We have a Taco John’s here in Callie, but not a Taco Bell. TJ’s is more expensive, but has better ingredients. If you don’t mind the tater tots. Which are actually not bad tater tots, especially if they’re right out of the pan. If you can deal with the incongruity of a tater tot infused burrito.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Taco John’s is a secret guilty pleasure of mine, I love their burritos with Potato Olés (which for those that haven’t been to one are more discs than cylinders so they’re not quite Tater Tots).
    It makes me sad that there’s not a TJ’s anywhere near to me now down here, so I can’t have the occasional indulgence.
    Its’ terribly inauthentic, but it’s also a lot better than a lot of the pretend Mexican food I’ve eaten in my life. Generally, I’d prefer if taco chains would drop the pretense of authenticity and just claim to sell enjoyable food.

    Arellano’s book Taco USA sounds like a big expansion on the theme of that Reason article (based on the reviews I saw when it came out – I know I’ll never actually get to reading it), you might want to read it if you get a chance.

    • There are four Mexican restaurants here in Callie. Taco John’s and three more authentic ones. TJ’s ranks #2 of the four. The last two just aren’t very good and tater tots wouldn’t really make them better or worse. The last one is a hollowed out bus. In the rurual mountain west, the key to a good restaurant appears to be when it is in a place that used to be something else. Whenever we pass through Deseret, it’s a converted gas station.

      • Very similar to how you look for good BBQ down here in GA. The more transitory the structure, the greater the likelihood of excellent food therein.

  2. This is America. The criterion for quality food is not “Is it authentic? It is “Will this cause Type II Diabetes?”

  3. I went to a new(ish) BBQ place last weekend with some friends. One of them ordered the chicken tacos, which I’m told were quite good. (I ate ribs.)

    That said, this place (which is basically a taco stand in a gas station, has the best tacos I’ve ever tasted in my life.

  4. There are times when I eat Taco Bell. Those times are “when it’s late, better places are closed, & I either plan on purposely getting drunk afterwards or I’ve already been drinking and someone else is driving”.

    Oh, I’ve had a long experience with virtually every point on the authenticity spectrum short of an actual taco stand in Mexico itself. All have their ups & downs. Taco Bell is seemingly designed only for soaking up alcohol and/or satiating herbally induced cravings, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work rather well for such a specific purpose for such unassuming food. I don’t get how people intentionally eat it any other time though.

    Taco Johns isn’t much different beyond the potato thing, though the relative quality of the ingredients struck me as better at the time even despite the obvious lack of authenticity. I had a friend that worked at one in the mall back in tha day, simultaneously while I worked at a pizza chain across the street, so my burritos always had more than the recommended amount of meat & beans. Some days when we both worked I’d hook up an overloaded personal pan pizza for my break, then take it over to him & trade. Good times.

    There were two small regional chains I would patronize at the time as well. One was actually founded and continues to be owned by an actual Mexican family, and included various nods to what they would’ve actually eaten back in Mexico like pico de gallo, real chorizo, and that white crumble cheese rather than shredded. Another promotes itself as authentic but uses cheddar & has a menu which includes cheese-smothered fries as an appetizer, though their audacity & their portions won my respect so early and deeply that to this day when I make enchiladas at home I basically shamelessly copy their recipe (all you need to know about them is they are comparatively huge [the tortillas are burrito-size], stuffed with beef & beans, and slathered in melted cheese, with a simple thin and spicy red sauce that melds with the dish like those vinegar-based bbq sauces in the Carolinas meld with pulled pork. Utilitarian fill-the-void food). I’ve tried enchiladas at other places, but they’ve all been so tiny & inferior as to be an insult to me. Their tamales are surprisingly authentic in comparison, but I always order either the aforementioned enchiladas or their tacos, which are like in the hypothetical world known as If Taco Bell Really Gave A Shit: Authentic? No. Delicious and filling? Hell yes.

    Discovered the Mission-style big-ass burrito when my brother went off to college & we ate at his favorite place on visits. Had it at multiple chains — Moe’s, Panchero’s, Chipotle, some other one I don’t remember the name of that was pretty much Moe’s without the silly menu names, and a local place in Columbia, MO named El Rancho that does three different sizes (their largest, the Super-Burrito, takes two tortillas to make). I’d say the local place is the best at ’em, followed by Moe’s and the one I forgot, then Panchero’s; Chipotle fell the fuck off. Unfortunately in town here the only big burrito place is Chipotle: every time I go back to El Rancho I practically beg them to open a location closer to me so they can run this damn Chipotle out of business.

    The dominant player in Mexican style food where I’m at now does three things great: carne asada, a carnitas dish, & fajitas. Their burrito is OK-but-not-Mission-style & their enchiladas suck elephant schlong. A friend of mine who has a superhuman stomach recently informed me that they can by request substitute the jalapeno they include with the carnitas dish with habanero & ghost peppers — habanero I can get behind, but I wouldn’t eat a ghost pepper with a gun to my head.

    Sorry for the length.

  5. I’ve lived in three states in my relatively short life and have never even heard of Taco John’s. How can this be?

    • Were all three states by any chance along the east coast? Or one of them include California?

      Taco Johns seems to be a midwest/mountain west thing primarily, with some stragglers in the south. East coast north of GA and Cali have zero locations.

        • Texas has 3. In the entire state. For comparison, according to their website the only state w/ more Taco John’s than Iowa is Minnesota.

          Tbh I was surprised Texas had any at all. Vaguely Mexicanesque food in Texas strikes me as kinda like going to Red Lobster in Maine.

      • All the ones in Georgia are on military bases. . . I suppose they’re mainly there for the folks that are stationed at the bases from the midwest and mountain states.
        Disappointing since nearly all of the “Mexican restaurants” in Atlanta are utterly inauthentic and boring, so it’s not like folks would rebel at a TJs.

  6. UNESCO has declared the cuisines of China, Italy, France, and Mexico to be the equivalent of World Heritage Sites. Few seem to mind experimenting with French food or using it as a platform for fusion cuisine. Same with Chinese. Few outside of Italy seem to mind the same with Italian food. Why shouldn’t Mexican food be the same? Granted fast food isn’t particularly highbrows but again, so what? It may not be authentic Mexican food but if it’s good then enjoy it. And maybe it will inspire you to seek out the real thing.

    • yes. I don’t mind people doing fusion. I just ask them to have the self-respect to call it such.

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