The riff on fast food started out as a joke.
"'Americans eat 554 million Jack in the Box tacos a year and no one knows why,'" Joel David Miller, chef at in Los Angeles, says, reading the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal story. "Everybody knows why! They're delicious."
As somebody who has eaten these tacos dozens of times, most recently when I ordered a Munchies Meal a couple weeks ago (poker night makes you do silly things), I can vouch that they are delicious. But despite that they also manage to be pretty disgusting: greasy fried tortillas filled with wilted lettuce and a mush of beef, textured vegetable protein and defatted soy grits.
"It's a very bastardized version of what a taco is," Miller says. "First of all, it shouldn't exist. It shouldn't taste good. The problem is, it tastes really good."
A couple days after I ate these wonderful and horrible tacos, I went over to The Wallace in Culver City, where Miller recently added his version of Jack in the Box tacos to his happy-hour menu. At three for $5, compared to two for 99 cents (LOL), you're paying a premium to trigger your fast-food taste memories. But it's totally worth it because you'll leave without feeling like you've eaten garbage food.
Miller's tacos succeed because he's using superior ingredients but is also still being faithful to the Jack in the Box experience. Every element is on point. He tested more than 20 hot sauces to get the right balance of spiciness and tanginess, and he nailed it: "You could really taste the nostalgia with the hot sauce." He's got purposefully wilted lettuce, "little gem lettuce that we just very finely chiffonade." He grinds ultra-premium short ribs for the filling. And instead of using some weird filler, he combines the beef with caramelized onions and peewee potatoes.
The tacos, which were added to the 5:30-to-7 p.m. menu on February 17, are outselling everything else during happy hour by a wide margin. But Miller's riff on fast food started out as a joke.
Miller's friend, Ted Hopson, chef at The Bellwether, was coming into The Wallace for dinner one night.
"His favorite food is chili cheese fries," Miller says. "He teases me about the way I plate my food, says it's very pretty, precious at times. I was like, 'Fuck you for liking chili cheese fries and coming to my restaurant. I can make a refined version you'll really like.'"
So Miller fried matchsticks of Yukon gold potatoes and made some chili: "Not like a thick chili, like a pliable chili like one you'd find at Pink's Hot Dogs or 7-Eleven."
His prank was well-received by Hopson (who likes chili cheese fries so much that he served them as a New Year's Day brunch special at The Bellwether). But then Miller had a problem. What was he going to do with all the leftover chili? The answer: Use it as the base of something that you freeze inside a tortilla and fry.
"Fast food was one of the pillars of my family's way of life," says Miller, who grew up in L.A.'s Porter Ranch area and remember Jack in the Box being two right turns away from his house.
He says he probably ate Jack in the Box tacos at least once a week for more than a decade. But he hasn't gone to Jack in the Box since he came up with his own version of these tacos. There's no need. Customers have reinforced the fact that these taste like the real thing.
"This is about making something that at its core is kind of jokey and silly, but to make it really good and refined," Miller says. "That's something I've always wanted to do."