A Pacific Northwest chain serves up really good tater tots and a lot of nostalgia. And some tacos.
There are many things to love about Taco Time, the wonderfully not-slick chain that's a staple of Western Washington's less-than-ordinary fast food culture, but mostly I find myself thinking about the tater tots.
For reasons nobody can explain, Taco Time refers to these as Mexi-Fries. They are, as best I can tell after many years of research, ordinary tots, but with one exception—usually, they will be well-cooked, crisp, hot and, well, as perfect as a tot can get.
You eat them with Taco Time's housemade hot sauce, which isn't really very hot at all, but rather a lightly-flavored, but full-bodied accompaniment that tastes exactly like you'd expect a hot sauce made by people in the Northwest (long before it was introduced to proper Mexican cooking) to taste. Taco Time makes their own ranch dip, which is—once again—appears to be tailored for the tastes of old-school Northwesterners, which is to say it is relatively bland. Both sauces are strangely craveable, and you absolutely should get them. (They also do straight up sour cream, and that's fine, too.)
So you have you tater tots, your hot sauce, your ranch or your sour cream, and maybe a Coke, or a Coke Zero. You sit down at your formica-topped table, under the often brutal, always unflattering lights. And you eat, and for whatever reason, it's perfect. Simple, ridiculously retro, and dangerously repeatable.
Taco Time was originally an Oregon thing—it started up in Eugene, back in the 1960's. Over time, the Western Washington stores spun off into a company called Taco Time Northwest. These appear to have been the smart guys in the bunch, because the years have not been kind to the original Taco Time. The Taco Time you need to know about is the one with the shops up and down the I-5 corridor, many of them in the Seattle region. This is the Taco Time, even if they don't say so in front of their cool friends, that holds a special place in the hearts of many Washingtonians. If not for the food, then rather as a piece of nostalgia for a Northwest that's slowly going away, as money pours in, new people arrive, and tastes and trends evolve.
Not that there's anything wrong with the food—while you could go to Taco Time for years and never encounter a taco, they certainly do have them, a lot of them, actually. You can choose from hard or soft, there are whole wheat tortillas, there's even a fish taco, made with battered Alaskan cod pieces. There's a very good corn chowder, a warming, white chicken chili that can cut through any grey, wet, winter day, there's even a gut-busting enchilada platter. There are burritos too, which might be better than the tacos—the best ones are blissfully simple and totally old-fashioned: finely-ground beef, a mountain of fresh-grated cheddar, and a bit of the afore-mentioned red sauce, all inside a nice, flour tortilla.
It's like Taco Bell, but aimed at your grandmother—so why are there more than 70 locations in one relatively small region? It’s pretty simple. Taco Time tastes great. Yes, it's basic, yes, their stores can be hilariously dated and completely spartan, but the simple fact is, they care about sourcing and quality, and it shows. A great deal of the food—the beef, the pinto beans, that cheddar, the aforementioned potatoes—is produced in Washington. Ingredient preparation is done daily, in each store. While this will be far from the most extraordinary food you will ever eat in the Pacific Northwest, it's going to taste pretty damn good, and you might just—even if you can't admit it out loud—wish you could take a Taco Time home with you.