When I think about the food I ate in St. Louis, the list just wouldn’t be complete without Del Taco. And so, after breakfast at Uncle Bill’s, lunch at Seamus McDaniel’s, dinner at Rigazzi’s, awkward but ultimately enjoyable reunion drinks at Blueberry Hill, and a nightcap at Halo Bar, my wife drove me over to Del Taco.
No matter what time of day or night, the Del Taco near Skinker and Clayton always has at least 3 cars in the drive thru. Bars in St. Louis close around 1:30ish and then around 3:00ish, if I recall correctly. At those times, the line at the drive thru can get 7 or 8 cars deep, which creates a backup onto Skinker.
They do have a dining area at this Del Taco. It looks like an old Taco Bell when you get inside. But you rarely eat inside Del Taco; the dining room closes fairly early on in the evening. So you usually end up eating Del Taco in your car or at an empty-beer-can-laden coffee table in a fraternity house.
I’ve been back to this Del Taco a handful of times since college, and each time, it’s always a muffled eruption of deja vu. I’ve been there a million times, but only rarely have I been there in any sort of state of mind to create discernible, distinguishable memories.
I have only two sober memories of Del Taco. The first goes back to my freshman year where I was in charge of food for a freshman floor event. I ordered 100 tacos, which was both enough to feed my freshman floor and also was an obscure simpsons reference that I’m not sure anyone got. I talked about that day for months. And it cost $50.
The second memory is from my sophomore year in college where we would go there in between classes for lunch. They used to have this 2 minute challenge. If you couldn’t get your food from the drive thru within 2 minutes of ordering it, you got it free or at a discount. It never took more than 2 minutes.
In terms of the remaining memories, they all kind of blend together. But what I do know is that there is something specifically significant about this Del Taco and this drive thru. In retrospect, it reminds me of an East Coast diner. There’s a demi-sacred-ness to the act of going to a diner, sitting in a booth, having some coffee, and sharing a meal. The people you go there with and the conversations that you have become more and more relevant with each repetition of the ritual. Until eventually, the food becomes secondary to the institution. Waiting in line at the drive thru at Del Taco is like that.
When it became our turn to order, I had no idea what I wanted to eat. But, after just a couple seconds looking at the drive thru menu, my regular order flashed back to me. I got the spicy jack quesadilla meal, which comes with a quesadilla, two tacos, and a drink. My wife took longer to order. And she ultimately decided on a non-spicy jack quesadilla that I later ate on accident.
A short while later, we got to the window, and it was the same woman working the graveyard shift that worked there back when I was in college. I was astonished. The same woman? Yes, the same woman.
She’s been working the late night shift since the Clinton administration, as far as I know. And ten years later, she is the same level of friendly, sassy, and curt. She kind of yells what she needs to say to you. It has an unintentional rhythm and melody to it that apparently never changes. I recently learned that there is a James Beard Foundation award category for America’s Classic. I hereby nominate that woman.
We got our Del Taco back to the hotel, and I dove in eagerly. The food was soggier than I remembered it. But it hit the spot. And it tasted like college.