Taco Time is like jazz — if you have to ask why people love it, you’ll never know. The decidedly non-authentic local Mexican chain (not to be confused with the identically named Mexican chain from Oregon) was founded in White Center by Frank Tonkin Sr. in 1962 and has nearly 80 locations across Western Washington. If you didn’t grow up around here you probably don’t get the appeal. What is a “crisp burrito”? Isn’t it basically a taquito? Why are tater tots (formerly called Mexi-Fries) on the menu at all? But there are plenty of born-and-bred Washingtonians who swear by it — not least Randy Coté, co-host of the Talkin’ Taco Time podcast, who has visited nearly every Taco Time and may be the biggest Taco Time fan in the world. Here’s Randy on why he loves it:
The first time you go to Taco Time you should order a chicken soft taco. It’s a classic enigma of Taco Time. It’s a taco the size of a burrito, but there’s no beans in it. And why is there ranch dressing? It takes you on the whole journey of, Is this Mexican food? And it’s so good!
I had Taco Time as a kid, then went away to college. But my love of Taco Time was rekindled when I worked in Interbay, which was a food desert 10 years ago. In my office at lunchtime, there was always someone saying they were going to Ichiro Teriyaki in Magnolia and asking who wanted to come. Or they’d say, “I’m going to Other Coast in Ballard, who wants to come?” Or, “I’m going to Taco Time, who wants to come?” So you went, that’s when I realized, Taco Time is solid.
Then (local sports podcast) the Peltoncast started a spinoff, Talkin’ Taco Time. I think their first episode was about the ice. Taco Time ice is perfect. You can crunch it in your mouth, you can eat it, it absorbs and holds just the right amount of pop. I don’t drink pop, but I will go out of my way to drink it at Taco Time. I felt like the podcast was speaking directly to me.
And it was around that time I looked at the Taco Time app and realized I had been to 15, maybe 20 percent of the Taco Time locations in the app alone. I love a quest — I have a spreadsheet tracking the state capitols I’ve visited — and I said to (Peltoncast host) Kevin Pelton, “I’m going to start a quest to visit every Taco Time.” I put it out into the world, and it became real. There’s a line in my Taco Time spreadsheet, July 14, 2018: official start of the quest.
Pre-2020, I didn’t have a car, and Taco Time owns the suburbs, so when I had a rental car I knocked out a bunch at once. One week I was doing a staycation and I visited 13 in seven days. I was playing hockey a lot and I figured I could eat whatever I wanted.
In summer 2021, Taco Time put out an all-call looking for Taco Time super fans, and every coworker I’d ever had tagged me on Twitter. My reaction was: First of all, how dare you. Second of all, here’s a map of every Taco Time I’ve ever been to — at that point I had been to 66 of the 79.
So I was invited to be in a commercial and I met the other super fans. There was a 90-year-old guy who credits his longevity to Taco Time hot sauce — he drinks like a cup of it every day. There’s a woman who has an amazing Taco Time tattoo, and a guy who did his senior pictures at Taco Time. And then there’s me, I’m on a quest to visit every Taco Time. The art department had made me a map with a bunch of stickers pointing out the Taco Times I visited; I’m a geography nerd, so of course I looked at it and I’m like, those are in the wrong places. It aired when I was at home watching Jeopardy! They gave me a trophy, too, that says Randy Cote: superfan. I don’t know if the other people got trophies, but I don’t think they did?
I’ve been to 78 of the 79 Taco Times. The last one is the Rainier Avenue one in south Seattle. I’ve been through the drive-thru many times, but I only consider it official if I’ve been inside and ordered and had the whole experience. Sometime soon, podcast is going to get together at that last one. The Taco Time people have asked that we let them know when I’m making my final visit. I assume they’re going to do something? But I don’t think, like, a statue has been made in my honor.
My love of Taco Time is not ironic, but I get that it’s kind of silly. It’s not my life. I know people who are “Disney people” and they go to Disneyland every year and they have Mickey Mouse tattoos and Disney is their life. It’s not like that for me. But I do think we’re lucky to have Taco Time. The workers there take such great care of this thing we love — they’re friendly, and they make sure the food is quality. The food is good. It’s nostalgic. It’s convenient. It’s relatively healthy. Well, it’s healthy if you order the right things.