By Layne Saliba and Kelsey Richardson
There’s a new kid on the Gainesville taco block this year: Del Taco.
The chain is the latest to open in the city, so we decided to put it up against its fast-food rival, Taco Bell, and a local — and authentic — favorite, Taqueria El Mercadito.
Based in Lake Forest, California, Del Taco opened Jan. 1 in the former Pollo Tropical location on Dawsonville Highway. If you’ve got a big and picky group, Del Taco might be the best compromise fast-food stop you can make along the highway. It offers a broader mix of items than either of the other restaurants to which we have compared it, including burgers, fries and shakes, if you’re looking for that kind of thing.
It’s in this niche — keeping a little something for everyone on-hand — where Del Taco comes through for Gainesville. In other areas it’s outpaced by its fast-food counterpart in Taco Bell, especially given Taco Bell’s role as the traditional, tried-and-true late-night option for the weary student or over-served individual.
And in downright quality and flavor, Taqueria El Mercadito runs away with this one — and keeps running, and running, and running.
The Del Taco — the stone-dead standard taco at the fast-food joint — doesn’t have a ton of flavor. I tried the soft-shell version, so it came in the flour tortilla typical of fast-food places. The toppings of lettuce, cheese and tomatoes were fine enough, but the meat seemed fine-ground, which gave the taco a strange texture. If you’re going to try it out, I recommend adding some of the Del Inferno sauce. It packs a good bit of heat and has a nice, roasted pepper flavor.
The street tacos on the menu, however, are much better. They’re small, so be prepared to get a few if that’s all you’re eating. The flavor was there on both the chicken and carne asada, probably due to the roasted chili salsa that comes inside.
The toppings of onions and cilantro were a nice touch and pretty much what you’d find in a real street taco — the double-corn tortilla adds to that authenticity, too. What really took it over the edge from lazy fast food taco to pretty decent fast food taco, though, was the avocado that comes inside. For a fast-food restaurant, I would expect some kind of mashed goop squeezed out of a tube. While it wasn’t the most green avocado I’ve ever seen, it was an actual sliced avocado, in the shape of an avocado. It was obvious this was a fruit from a plant that had once been alive.
I was a fan. But the avocado wasn't enough to make me miss the chewy carne asada. And with a price tag of $2.29 for the carne asada, I probably wouldn’t go for it again.
The Cheesy Gordita Crunch, a tried-and-true menu item at Taco Bell, didn’t disappoint. For just over $3, it seems like enough food for one person. A hard shell inside of a soft shell with a layer of cheese between is what this world needed, although I’d like to find a way to keep the hard shell just that: hard. It gets soggy if you don’t eat it right away, and makes for a strange texture. The meat inside is surprisingly flavorful. It has cheese and lettuce as toppings, but what really changes the game is the spicy ranch. While I don’t think ranch belongs on a taco, this is Taco Bell and it can do what it wants.
It’s a smart move because it adds a good bit of flavor to an otherwise one-note taco.
Taqueria el Mercadito
If you’re looking for a real street taco, this is where you’ve got to head. I tried the steak taco and added the mixture of cilantro and onions with a bit of the tomatillo salsa and a squeeze of lime. I’m a toppings guy and the ones provided were great, but I’d prefer a little something more: avocado, cheese or sour cream.
But the flavor was good enough to where I wasn’t complaining. It’s not too tough, but the steak was ever-so-slightly dry. The tomatillo salsa, which isn’t too spicy, but has a good, fresh flavor, took care of that. The two corn tortillas that hold all the ingredients were just like any other local street taco, but they had been slightly charred, which was nice.
It didn’t really change the flavor, but at least made them look like they weren't straight out of a package. The thing that really made this taco worth it was its price point. It was just $2.25 for one of these and it’s filled — almost overflowing — with chunks of steak.
As my first time eating at Del Taco, I went in with a moderate level of expectation. I tried the soft Del Taco, chicken street taco and the carne asada street taco. Looking like the plain beef taco with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese from Taco Bell, I expected the soft Del Taco to produce a similar flavor.
However, these fast tacos fell flat on flavor. Hoping to save the experience, I added a packet of the Del Inferno sauce. My efforts were unfortunately to no avail. It transformed from a bland beef taco into a bland beef taco with hot sauce. Cool.
The double-layered white corn tortillas and slices of avocados from the street tacos were a nice touch and lifted my hopes in trying a tasty dish from the fast-food chain. Out of the two choices, I definitely favored the carne asada over the chicken street taco. The chunks of carne asada had a nice chew to them, and the cilantro and onions brought some brightness.
One bite of the Cheesy Gordita Crunch and my tastebuds were transported to a fast-food-flavored land of textures and savoriness. I admit, I may be a little biased when it comes to Taco Bell because it proved a dear friend during my chaotic meal schedule in college.
Coming in at $3.29, Taco Bell’s combination offers a decent-sized lunch portion with a good crunch from the cheese-layered hard and soft tortillas.
The taste is improved by the spicy ranch, which lays on top of the beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The cheesy gordita crunch is best consumed after a late, maybe a very, very late, night out with friends.
Taqueria El Mercadito
As soon as I walked into Taqueria El Mercadito, I knew I had entered a legend in the making.
I ordered the barbacoa taco, which is filled with shredded beef, cilantro and onions.
I squeezed a wedge of lime over the taco. After a few minutes chatting about our other selection — what was good, what wasn’t so good — the room fell silent while we dug into the street tacos. I wanted to extract every bit of happiness possible from it without any distractions.
Held with two corn flour tortillas, the taco was stuffed with a heaping amount of barbacoa. Two of these bad boys could satisfy most hungry appetites. What pushes Taqueria El Mercadito’s tacos over the top is the price-point. Most of the restaurant’s tacos — including the barbacoa — cost $2. The shop also have three different options of sauces to pour on top of their tacos. I tried the hottest sauce of the three, which elevated the flavor of the barbacoa tacos.
Honestly, out of all the traditional Mexican tacos I’ve tried in my life, this one takes the cake.
This story has been updated from its original version.