Taco Bell lobster? Chain goes high-end with U.S. Taco Co. restaurant

Taco Bell has opened U.S. Taco Co. in California, in an effort to cater to a clientele that wouldn't normally set foot in a fast food restaurant. The new restaurant features sophisticated tacos and ingredients not typically associated with the Taco Bell brand. 

Steve Helber/AP/File
A Taco Bell restaurant in Richmond, Va. Taco Bell opened the first U.S. Taco Co. location in Huntington Beach, Calif. Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. The restaurant features tacos with high-end ingredients like molecajete salsa, pablano peppers, and even lobster.

Which restaurant’s newest menu offerings include grilled mahi, molecajete salsa, and fresh lobster? Your last guess is probably the right one: Taco Bell.

The restaurant chain primarily known for bright orange cheese, beef that’s not all beef, and taco shells made of Doritos is going upscale with a new restaurant concept in Huntington Beach, Calif.

U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s effort at high-end, fast-casual fare, opens its first location Monday, and its menu doesn’t feature anything remotely resembling a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Items include 10 specialty tacos with cheeky names and distinct geographical characters, from the Southeastern United States to the Hawaiian islands.

The “Southern Squealer,” for example, features pulled pork in a peach jalapeño barbecue sauce. “Brotherly Love,” a play on a philly cheesesteak, offers up carne asada steak, roasted pablano peppers, and queso.

“We take the ordinary and flip it on its head,” reads a statement on the restaurant’s website. “That’s why we’re Tacos, Fries, and Shakes. That’s it. No nachos, no burritos. Just Tacos. But, not your ordinary tacos – this is the “The Best of America in a Taco.” We take the best regional dishes from around America, add some great Mexican flavors, and serve them up in open-faced tacos. It’s kind of like a food truck you don’t have to chase.”

The tacos run between $3.25 and $4.75 each. “The 1%er” a taco loaded with fresh lobster, sells for $10.

This isn’t Taco Bell’s first effort to appeal to a more sophisticated clientele. In 2012, the chain launched its Cantina Bell menu, taking direct aim at rival Chipotle with upscale ingredients like black beans and grilled chicken (and slightly higher prices to match). But U.S. Taco Co. targets clients who aren’t likely to enter a fast food restaurant in the first place, according to an interview with Taco Bell CEO Jeff Creed in Nation’s Restaurant News back in April.

Taco Bell’s developmental team went with a taco concept, in part, to separate itself from the onslaught of burrito concepts in the world of fast-casual Mexican food. But U.S. Taco Co. is also part of the growing realization that traditional fast food might be an eventual dead end, at least in the United States. Fast food giants like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (Taco Bell’s parent company) have been watching their US sales struggle for years now as Chipotle and other fast-casual chains, viewed as a step healthier and fresher, grow by leaps and bounds. As a result, established fast food brands are testing their own fast-casual and full-service restaurants.

Chipotle, the leader in the space, has launched Asian and Pizza fast-casual concepts Pizzeria Locale and Shophouse in limited locations over the past year or so.  Last summer, KFC, Taco Bell’s Yum! Brands sibling, began  testing KFC Eleven in Kentucky.  Sbarro’s try at a higher-end pizza chain, Cucinova,  has opened three new sit-down pizza restaurants in Ohio.

Taco Bell’s namesake restaurants, meanwhile, have managed to turn things around by going the other way, offering cheap, outrageous food not even purporting to be nutritious. Creed told Nation’s Restaurant News that he wants to double the chain’s sales by 2020 and add about 2,000 additional locations.

But if Americans eventually abandon traditional fast food altogether, Taco Bell hopes to have U.S. Taco Co. as a backup plan. 

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