john_locanthi_hauteWelcome to Haute-N-Ready, in which John Locanthi, Willamette Week's trencherman of leisure, tastes the hastily made, modestly priced food of the common man.

We've seen our fair share of fries over the year and change of Haute-N-Ready. We've seen sweet potato fries, chicken fries, chili fries and more than one half-witted diatribe against the julienne potato fry. Just last week, we took a look at friends covered in fondue. But for some silly reason, we haven't seen fries covered in guacamole. Or pico de gallo. Or carne asada. That is, until this week. Say hello to Del Taco's new Carne Asada Fries. [Editors note: Don't worry. We just told him about Javier's. He's hopefully on his way there right now.]

This is Del Taco's first appearance in the column since they provided the turkey tacos in last year's Fast Food Thanksgiving. It is an odd Western chain. Del Taco feels like the love-child between McDonald's and Taco Bell that was abandoned along a barren California highway. It has a salsa bar lined with both actual salsa and three in-house hot sauces in ketchup dispensers. It has a 59-cent value menu. Since the 1960s, it prized itself in offering inexpensive burgers and tacos, but it is also currently posturing itself as a quality-focused fast casual joint. Between the in-house posters ("We hand-grate cheese every day. They hand-open a bag." "Slow cooked from scratch. That is a kitchen back there, y'know.") and the ubiquitous avocado, the chain feels kind of like concentrated Cali-doucheness. But as with most things California, the product is actually quite good once you get past the tediously smug tone with which it is promoted.

Dude, you have a 59-cent menu
Dude, you have a 59-cent menu

Carne asada is a new addition to the menu. Where "carne asada" is mostly short-hand for "steak" or "beef that isn't ground" at most fast food joints, but Del Taco's looks, feels and tasted much more like a properly charred skirt steak. You can get it in every form. I went with the Epic Burrito ($6.29) and the Carne Asada Fries ($4.99). There is a slight discount if you get it as part of a combo, but that all really depends on whether you consider $12.89 for a burrito, fries and a large fountain a drink a "combo meal."

The Carne Asada Fries are in many ways the culmination of Del Taco's hybrid fast food and fast Mexican approach. Between the carne asada, guacamole, shredded cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream, you essentially have a naked burrito. The wavy cut fries fill the role of bland starch usually played by rice. Grease and salt give the fries a more distinct flavor than rice normally does, which is good.

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The overall effect is closer to nachos than standard fast food cheesy fries. Like all good nachos, the shredded cheese fills two roles: that of a flavoring agent and that of a glue holding the fries together to better scoop up the other ingredients. Guacamole steals the show, but the other actors play their roles admirably. The result is an alternately refreshingly cool and creamy, spicy and creamy, beefy and, uh, creamy. This is some good shit.

If I had one complaint, it is with the carne asada itself. It's well-seasoned and well-cooked, but the chunks are a little large and heavy to be scooped up with a narrow, albeit wavy french fry. I ended up finishing off these fries with a fork to get the carne asada involved. Functionally speaking, my Epic Carne Asada Burrito proved a more efficient means of consuming the carne asada. Mind you, that is if I had a complaint about the Carne Asada Fries…which I don't really. There comes a time whenever one is gorging on nachos that s/he must switch from hand to fork to finish the plate.

Del Taco is out of the way. The ambience leaves something to be desired. $4.99 is expensive for a side of fries. But I'll be damned if these Carne Asada Fries weren't one of the best things I've eaten for the column so far.

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