Both Taco Bell locations in central Portland are currently closed, with the West Burnside Street Bell apparently being rebuilt and the Northeast Weidler Street location slowly rising from a massive hole in the ground. Presently, the Bells closest to the heart of the city are at Southeast 50th and Powell or North Interstate and Going. On the westside, you have to hop on the MAX to Beaverton Transit Center and walk over a half-mile to Cedar Hills Crossing to soothe those Crunchwrap cravings.
One man seemed a little too happy about this. That man was Nick Zukin, owner of the two muy autentico guisado shops, Mi Mero Mole, on Southeast Division Street and in Chinatown.
When we bemoaned the gordita shortage, he decided to taunt us.
"I'll make your sick dreams come true: a taquito wrapped in a chimichanga wrapped in a quesadilla," he wrote in a comment posted on a Haute-N-Ready review of Taco Bell's Quesarito.
Well, we took him up on it. Given the dire situation currently facing all those who bow to the boooong of the Bell, we asked Zukin—he's the Zuke in Kenny & Zuke's, though no longer involved in running those restaurants—to make us some Taco Bell. After you've spent five years working to bring the authentic street foods of Mexico City to Portland, this is apparently not that tough.
"It's all pretty straightforward," he says. "Taco Bell is designed to be cheap and fast, something you'd order at a drive-thru," says Zukin, who has fond memories of Taco Bell's then-49-cent bean burritos when he was in college.
"Did you hear on This American Life where they interviewed people who were sent [back to Mexico], even after living here since they were 2? They find good jobs in customer relations down there because they have perfect American accents," Zukin says. "So many of them would say the thing they miss most is Taco Bell."
And so do we, as we twitch and scratch, deep in the throes of Cheesy Gordita Crunch withdrawals. Now that we're looking at a $20 Uber ride to get FourthMeal, we need other options.
What it is: Originally a rip-off of a famed item from Chipotle's secret menu, the Quesarito is a burrito wrapped in a quesadilla. A simple formula that's hard to screw up, but Taco Bell found a way. The Quesarito and its inbred cousin, the Sriracha Quesarito, remain the only items I could not finish as part of my weekly interwebs column.
How Zukin made it: He replaced the molten cheeselike product in the quesadilla shell with a thick wall of jack cheese. The housemade ground beef had its role increased beyond semisolid, brown protein matter. And the sour cream—to quote fellow FourthMealer and award-winning van guy Pete Cottell, "You never realize how shitty Taco Bell's sour cream is until you taste sour cream that isn't shot out of a caulking gun." It's a cheesy, creamy, beefy mess in the very best kind of way.
What it is: Perhaps Taco Bell's most avant-garde creation, the Crunchwrap is a hexagonal oddity created to make nachos handheld, and thus into something one might order from a drive-thru. Or something you could grab when sprinting out of your girlfriend's house because her parents got home. (Hey, those commercials were weird as shit.) From those humble origins, the Crunchwrap morphed into its own style alongside tacos and burritos.
How Zukin made it: After spending a minute or two to master the Crunchwrap's six-sided fold, Zukin got to work. Mi Mero Mole's take deviated from the traditional Crunchwrap Supreme, namely in that it was good. Also it was an inch or two taller. The crunchy tostada shell separating the beef from the cheese, sour cream and veggies held its crisp form. Instead of melding into a soggy, indeterminate, brown note of a flavor like its inspiration, the ingredients here remained distinct.
The Cheesy Gordita Crunch
What it is: The Cheesy Gordita Crunch is the oldest item on the list, dating to before Taco Bell's descent into Mexican Frito-Lay fusion. A soft, thick gordita shell wrapped around a hard taco shell with a layer of cheese-as-glue seems positively quaint compared to the chain's current oeuvre.
How Zukin made it: This turned out to be less a re-creation of a popular menu item and more a reinvention. There was no layer of cheese-colored goop to make the taco shell soggy and neuter the item's titular crunch. Instead, Zukin fried cheese until crisp, molding it to become a de facto extra layer of crunch. A heavy dollop of guacamole across the top put further distance between it and Taco Bell.
And herein lies a sticky wicket. These are all better than Taco Bell, both subjectively and objectively. But no one goes to Taco Bell for fine cuisine. We go to Taco Bell because it makes weird, edible shit, fast and cheap. (And because our job makes us.) This foray into Bellian cuisine is just that.
"We once had a guy walk into the restaurant on Division and try to order a Mexican pizza," Zukin admits. "And I said, 'We don't have Mexican pizza.' He was aghast like I'd just exploded his world. I told him there was a Taco Bell a quarter-mile up the road."
Not anymore. Nowadays, you're shit out of luck. Ground beef is not on the Mi Mero Mole menu. (This was a "menuhack," to use the parlance of our times.) Zukin says none of these items are going to work their way onto the menu at either of the guisado joints.
"The only time I'd consider making a Mexican pizza is if it was a slow time and one of my regulars came in," Zukin says. "We've got nachos if you want those."
Don't despair, Portland: Zukin gave us the recipes, which are posted on wweek.com. Start with the simple Quesarito and Crunchwrap the next time you stumble home at 2 am with the drunchies.