Saturday, March 31, 2018

Luxury Grills and Economy Cars Part 1

Luxury Grill, economy car

My father grew up with a much older sister he rarely called by her first name. Instead, he called her Sis. When I was born, she became Aunt Sis. If it weren't for my Aunt Sis, I probably wouldn't have seen a movie in a theater until high school. Aunt Sis had no children, and she retired when I was still in elementary school. She would graciously volunteer to take me to the movies once every few weeks, basically any time my parents needed me out of their hair. She sat through some truly terrible '90s era kids movies up to and including "Jingle All the Way" as a favor to me and my parents. Speaking of, at Christmastime, Aunt Sis would take me to the mall or to K Mart, or the shiny new Meijer in Lexington, Kentucky so I could buy gifts for my friends and family. Whatever the outing, she'd always take me to lunch too. These lunches were the genesis of my G.D. Ritzy's obsession.

Aunt Sis grew up in the '40s and '50s, and I imagine she enjoyed the nostalgic feel of the place. I too, gained an appreciation for the Art Deco aesthetic of G.D. Ritzy's. Incidentally, the restaurant's full name in many markets was G.D. Ritzy's Luxury Grill and Ice Creams, hence the title of this series. I have vivid memories of being fascinated by the little hexagonal tiles on the floor, the slightly elevated dining area, and the teardrop-shaped reproduction Seeburg jukebox speakers on the walls. (I was a weird kid.) The kids meals served in small cardboard replicas of '50s convertibles and the vast selection of house-made ice cream didn't exactly scare me off either. I recall Lexington having three or four Ritzy's, until they all suddenly closed in the early '90s, along with most of the other 120 or so locations. A decade or so later I was in college in Southern Illinois, and Ritzy's was little more than a distant memory. I assumed they were all gone, but I held out hope.

The teardrop speakers of my beloved fuzzy childhood memories.
In 2005 or so, I was idly Googling, and stumbled across a handful of Ritzy's still open for business in Indiana and Kentucky. Specifically, there were three Evansville, Indiana locations operating as G.D. Ritzy's and two Owensboro, Kentucky locations operating as just Ritzy's, as I believe the Lexington locations of my childhood did. Upon learning Ritzy's was still a thing in two nearby cities, I loaded up my '88 Lincoln with a few friends and went to relive my childhood at one of the Owensboro Ritzy's. I found that nearly everything about the place was almost exactly as I remembered. I later explored one of the Evansville locations and found that it too still felt like the 1980s interpretation of the 1940s that Aunt Sis and I were so fond of. Eventually, life got in the way again, and I didn't have a chance to eat at a Ritzy's for another 12 years.

I learned of a sixth Ritzy's operating in Huntington, West Virginia, and I had a chance to take a detour there on my way back from Lexington after visiting family last Christmas. That lunch rekindled my interest in Ritzy's and endangered retail chains in general. I found myself with no plans or obligations and a four-day Easter weekend. Naturally, I realized this was the perfect time to load up my trusty Ford Festiva, and drive down from Michigan so I could visit, and dine at, all six remaining (G.D.) Ritzy's. Expect the next few blog entries, including this one, to discuss individual meals at one or two different Ritzy's locations.

Meal #1
Location: G.D. Ritzy's, 4810 University Drive, Evansville, Indiana
Order: Double Ritz with cheese, fries, Diet Mountain Dew, single scoop amaretto cherry ice cream

My first stop appears to serve as the headquarters for the three Evansville locations. It's impeccably clean. There are two minivans and a refrigerated truck, all with Ritzy's logos on them in the parking lot. My burger and fries are exactly what I needed after driving 450 miles in an antique economy car. I chat with the woman scooping my ice cream. She's a G.D. Ritzy's OG. When I tell her I drove from Detroit to eat at every Ritzy's she asks how I heard of Ritzy's if I lived in Detroit. When I tell her I'm from Lexington, she instantly picks up what I'm putting down and recalls the same Lexington Ritzy's locations as me. We discuss the history of the chain and its possible revival in Ohio by chain founder Graydon Webb. I'm holding up the ice cream line. I thank her for time and for geeking out with me, and sit back down to eat my ice cream.

The burger patties are flattened on the grill as they cook, rendering them crispy on the outside, and juicy in the middle. It makes for a wonderful burger experience. 

Most of the dining area's floor space is about 18 inches higher than the kitchen and ordering area. I'm not sure why, but it's not unpleasant. This interior is exactly as I remember the Lexington locations looking when I was a kid.

Translation: Don't fall, and please don't sue us if you do.

G.D. Ritzy himself adorns the outside garbage can. 

G.D. Ritzy's fleet vehicle #1

G.D. Ritzy's fleet vehicle #2

Some very ritzy landscaping. 

The building is in beautiful condition, a time capsule straight out of the 1980's with a 1940's veneer. 

Meal #2
Location G.D. Ritzy's, 4320 North First Avenue, Evansville, Indiana
Order: Chili 3 way, Luxury peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Diet Mountain Dew, single scoop Richest Chocolate ice cream

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is one of Ritzy's signature offerings. It's served open face with fresh strawberry slices and chopped peanuts on thick white bread. It's not overly sweet, and very refreshing. It's the PB&J for adults, the Arch Deluxe of the PB&J world. It's my first time eating Ritzy's chili, and though it's served over noodles and under a mound of shredded cheddar in the Cincinnati style, it lacks the cinnamony flavor associated with Cincinnati chili. (G.D. Ritzy's originated in Columbus, Ohio.) This is chili designed for mass appeal, outside of  the Ohio market. I like Cincinnati chili, but I also like chili in general, so I have no real complaints. The three Evansville G.D. Ritzy's have the same owner. This location is also beautifully maintained, but the staff is younger. When I tell the high school kid scooping my ice cream about my adventure, and that I intend to keep and frame the paper liner that was on my tray, he's incredulous. He thinks I'm weird. If my affinities for oddball fast food and vintage hatchbacks are any indication, he's not wrong.

These are a few of my favorite things. 

Peanut butter jelly with a baseball bat

I'm digging the unique signage at this location. Check out this three-sided sign. 
This drive thru signage is sure to attract watch chain spinning, zoot suit wearing, hep cats driving impeccably polished Studebakers with Glenn Miller and his Orchestra blaring on single-speaker AM radios.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lake Michigan Fast Food Trail Part 2: Double Nostalgia

Ever notice that the prevailing nostalgia in pop-culture seems to be for an era about 20 to 30 years before present day? Today’s pop-cultural nostalgia is for the 1990s, with shows like Full House and Roseanne making comebacks. Nineties-era food products like Crystal Pepsi, and McDonald’s Szechuan sauce have also made limited time returns in the past couple of years. In the 1990s, disco music enjoyed a revival, and "That 70s Show" was a hit for Fox. And of course in the 70s and early 80s, shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley were popular, rockabilly culture became popular, and 1950s themed diners opened up everywhere.

Mom and pop 50s themed diners sprang up all over the US, as did several local chains like Gunther Toody's in Colorado and Hwy 55 in and around the Carolinas. Many of the 50s themed restaurants are still slinging burgers and shakes today, and I suspect their younger clientele would be surprised to learn that many of them opened between 1975 and 1995.

Schoop’s Hamburgers had been open in Hammond Indiana since 1948, but began to offer franchises in the mid 80s, riding the wave of the nostalgic restaurant fad. Today, they have 19 locations in Northern Indiana and Illinois. I suspect the chain was once much larger. I recall seeing locations in central Florida in the early 2000s as well, but today, Warsaw Indiana is the easternmost Schoop’s you’ll find.

In 1980, former Wendy’s executive Graydon Webb opened the first GD Ritzy’s in Columbus, Ohio. Interestingly, the Art Deco aesthetic of Ritzy’s buildings screamed 1940’s rather than 1950s, as did some of their marketing. Ritzy’s exploded in the mid 80s and expanded to 120 locations, but most locations had closed by the early 90s. Webb, who sold the rights to GD Ritzy’s before the massive expansion has stated in interviews that he attributes the closures to the chain growing too quickly. Today, there are six GD Ritzy’s left in operation in three states, though Graydon Webb, having reacquired the rights, is set to open a seventh location this year.

Schoop’s and Ritzy’s territories were adjacent and I believe I’ve found at least one market where they overlapped, but probably not concurrently. While planning my recent trip, I found a Schoop’s location in Michigan City, Indiana, RIGHT NEXT TO AN OLD GD RITZY’s! A little sleuthing revealed that the Schoop’s opened in 1991, right around the time the Ritzy’s would have closed. This timeline means that the Schoop’s opened either as a competitor to the GD Ritzy’s the way CVS pharmacies open near Walgreens, or they opened after the Ritzy’s closed to fill the nostalgic burger joint niche. (If anyone was in the area in the early 90s and knows more information about when the Ritzy’s may have closed, I’d love to hear from you.)

The Michigan City Schoop's with the former Ritzy's in the background. 

I stopped by the Schoop’s for an olive burger (the first I’ve encountered outside of Michigan) and a Green River soda, and found little to complain about. The theme is fairly standard as ‘50s themed restaurants go with laminated menus and memorabilia on the walls. The burger patty was the type that is placed on the grill as a raw meatball, then smashed into a patty with a spatula as it cooks, similar not only to Ritzy’s, but also Culver’s, Steak n Shake, and of course smashburger. I thought this patty style was especially notable since the place next door once smashed their patties in a similar manner.

The Ritziest Starbucks in Northern Indiana

The all-important rounded corner that made it easy to spot from Google Earth when planning my trip. 

The main purpose of lunch at Schoop’s was walking next door to the old Ritzy’s, which had been converted to a Starbucks, for an after lunch hot drink. The hard to remove architectural touches were still present on the building. Ice block glass adorning windows wrapping around the corner of the building, the rounded adjacent corner, and the rounded buttress on the front of the building all tipped me off to its original purpose. I hoped to find hexagonal tile, stainless railings, and an elevated seating area inside, but sadly the whole building appeared to have been gutted in the Starbucks conversion. They had even rotated the counter 90 degrees to make the place feel like any other Starbucks on the inside. Still, there were clues of the building’s past. Outlines of the Ritzy’s Art Deco lettering were still visible on the windows, and the storeroom and restrooms were still in their original locations. 

Like Taco Tico, GD Ritzy's was one of my favorite places to eat as a kid, and as an adult, I feel strong nostalgia for the nostalgic restaurants of my youth. It's double nostalgia, nostalgia-ception if you will. I haven't eaten at a Ritzy's since I was in Huntington, West Virginia last December. I'm going to have to take another trip soon to get more GD Ritzy's in my life. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Lake Michigan Fast Food Trail Part 1: My buns have no seeds.

I’m constantly looking for obscure chain establishments to visit, experience, and write about. When I learn about a business I’d like to visit, I add it’s name and location to a spreadsheet. Once my spreadsheet contains a cluster of places in a reasonably close proximity to one another, I plan a trip. That methodology landed me in western Michigan last weekend.

The Lake Michigan coast between Muskegon and the Indiana border proved to contain a tantalizing combination of holdout locations of otherwise defunct chain restaurants, as well being home to locations of thriving regional chains that are at the very edge of their operating territory. My goal was to visit as many as possible in the two days I was in the area.

In the late 1950s, McDonald’s was expanding rapidly in the Midwest and enjoyed overnight success. The self-serve, quick-service system designed by the McDonald brothers and propagated by their frienemy, Ray Kroc, was revolutionary, and influences the fast food industry to this day.

Just as White Castle’s success in the 1920s spawned blatant imitators like Krystal and White Tower, McDonald’s had a trio of imitators in that would make Cleo McDowell proud. In the early sixties, Illinois-based Chains like Sandy’s, Mr. Quick, and Henry’s Hamburgers, all sprung into existence to compete with, and imitate McDonald’s, which was expanding outward from Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s location in Des Plaines, Illinois. The three imitators copied McDonald’s menu, building design, and self-serve system. Each expanded beyond The Land of Lincoln and enjoyed moderate success through the 1960s. But like many retail ventures that thrived in the fifties and sixties, the three McDonald’s imitators from Illinois struggled to remain relevant, and profitable in the 1970s.

All three chains began their descent into near extinction in the 1970s, but two of the three McDonald’s imitators still exist and thrive in Western Michigan, less than half a day’s drive from my current home in metro Detroit. There are five Mr. Quick locations in Muskegon, three of which operate out of nicely-maintained 1970s era locations with inside seating. One other location is in a more modern building, and the fifth is in a gas station. The original Mr. Quick opened in Moline, Illinois in 1962. The chain peaked at around 300 locations, and declined in the 1970s. There’s not a lot of information about Mr. Quick’s history online beyond that, so it’s tough to say how much their menu has evolved since the chain’s heyday, but I will say it has definitely expanded dramatically past McDonald’s original menu.

Very non-McDonald’s offerings like onion rings and chili dogs appear on Mr. Quick’s menu. There’s also a decent breakfast menu featuring made from scratch pancakes that put McDonald’s pre-fab microwaved hotcakes to shame. The infamous Michigan-specific green olive burger is also available for those who like their beef with a briny aftertaste. I visited two locations on three occasions and found both to be impeccably clean with a courteous staff, fair prices, and well-prepared food. Cups, wrappers, and tray liners still sport Mr. Quick logos. The East Laketon Avenue location in particular, with its stained glass accents and orange and white color scheme, made for a very pleasant and immersive vintage fast food dining experience. I’m already planning my next trip to Muskegon so i can eat at Mr. Quick again. (I also need to go back so I can eat at the two area Dog n Suds drive ins, which I learned too late are only open during the summer.)

The building is a total architectural time warp and impeccably clean. 

I'll take this mascot over Ronald any day. 

The signage was modern backlit plastic, but they nailed the aesthetic. 

Like sign, the cups were a nice blend of old and new. 

Benton Harbor, Michigan, 90 miles south of Muskegon is home to the last operating Henry’s Hamburgers. Henry’s was a subsidiary of the Bressler’s Ice Cream company, which operated a chain of ice cream parlors. The Henry’s Hamburgers venture was started with the explicit goal of competing with McDonald’s. They chain enjoyed similar success in the Midwest, peaking in the early sixties with around 200 locations, which the Henry’s Hamburgers website points out was “more stores than MacDonald’s (sic) at the time!” Like the other McDonald’s imitators, Henry’s struggled in the seventies, and Bresslers was eventually acquired by a series of different owners who appear to have abandoned the Henry’s brand. (The last few Bressler’s ice cream parlors were rebranded by their parent company in 2007.) Locations gradually closed, leaving just the Benton Harbor location left.

I stopped by the lone Henry’s for a burger and fries. After taking a moment to appreciate the vintage neon sign out front, I walked in the building and was immediately struck by its blandness. Henry’s Hamburgers operates out of a nondescript modern building, constructed in the past twenty years. The walls inside and outside are painted white and are completely bare. I visited the store during a mid afternoon lull in business, and found the seating area to be not especially clean, but not dirty enough to scare me away. The menu was smaller than that of Mr. Quick, and closer to McDonald’s original offerings. The food itself was nothing special. The double cheeseburger looked and tasted like a McDonald’s double cheeseburger with some extra mustard. The fries were the same cut as McDonald’s fries, and were generally acceptable. My strawberry shake was a mixture of soft serve and artificial strawberry flavoring that could have come from any shake machine in North America, but lacked the strawberry pulp you’ll find in McDonald’s shakes. Menu prices seemed slightly higher than comparable items from McDonald’s. Cups, wrappers, and tray liners were plain and free of any branding. The whole experience felt generic and institutional, like that episode of The Simpsons where the IRS takes over Krusty Burger. It’s tough for me to be too excited about Henry’s, especially in comparison to the well-run and distinctive Mr. Quick locations further up the Michigan’s west coast. Henry’s wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great. I can sum it up with another Simpsons reference by giving it a resounding “meh.” Don't get me wrong, I’m glad that Henry’s exists as a living price of history, and I’m glad I got to experience it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there again. 

The vintage sign is fully functional and in great shape.
"Fill out Schedule B. You should receive your burgers in six to eight weeks."
Sandy’s, the third in the trio of Illinois-based McDonald’s imitators, doesn’t currently exist in Michigan. Sandy’s was acquired by Hardee’s in the early seventies, and most locations were converted to Hardee’s. However, there are were a handful of holdout franchisees who opted to not convert their restaurants to Hardee’s locations. Most of the holdouts, which were forced to change their names, are gone with the exception of Sandee’s in Billings, Montana. Sandee’s was gone for a few years, but relaunched as a food truck venture in 2016 and opened a brick and mortar location late last year. Ironically, I used to live in Billings, but I moved just as the Sandee’s food truck opened for business, so I’ve missed out on the Sandee’s experience so far. Sandee’s in Billings is on my spreadsheet, though.

For more information on Sandy's, Henry's, and other classic fast food chains, check out the Restaurant Rewind channel on Youtube. It's great entertainment if you're a fast food geek like me. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Old Brands Don't Die, They Just Get Re-Purposed

In 2018 it’s a given that brick and mortar retail as we knew it in the twentieth century is over. In general, anything I can’t buy in a grocery store, I buy online. I don’t remember the last time I went I to a big box retailer like Wal-Mart or Target and spent more than $10. Just about every non consumable item I buy, including big ticket items like my sofa and lawn mower come from online retailers. In many ways, however, this is nothing new. Online retail is not drastically different from the way many rural Americans shopped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Before widespread use of the internet, mail order catalogs filled the role that online retailers like Amazon do now. Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs were extensive and diverse in the products that they offered for sale by mail order, and offered residents of rural communities an alternative to expense and limited selection associated with small town retail. The success of the mail order business model allowed both companies to expand rapidly during the economically prosperous 1920s.

With its recent acquisition of Whole Foods, and the opening of a handful of Amazon-branded stores, Amazon has begun to expand into brick and mortar retail, mostly in affluent urban areas. Nearly a century ago mail order catalog giants Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward did the same, opening physical stores in larger cities catering to a wealthier clientele than they typically reached with catalogs.

Of course Sears still operates many brick and mortar Sears and K Mart stores, but if you follow the news you know the future of both brands is very much in question. If you’ve been inside a Sears or K-Mart lately, you’ll no doubt note as I have, the stench of obsolescence and imminent closure hanging in the air under the sickly green glow of flickering fluorescent lights as you walk the broken tile floors and threadbare industrial carpets. Stores are full of products with almost delightfully dated sounding brands, like Kenmore and DieHard. Having sold off Craftsman tools last year, Sears doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it these days. This isn’t the first time a once mighty retail giant has fallen. The current decline of Sears was foreshadowed nearly twenty years ago in the decline of their longtime competitor Montgomery Ward.

Like Sears, Montgomery Ward expanded from catalogs into brick and mortar retail in 1920s and spread rapidly during those prosperous years. The company was able to weather the depression thanks to restructuring efforts by company president Sewell Avery. Because of his efforts during the lean years, Montgomery Ward returned to profitability in the late 1930s and Sewell Avery was named CEO.

The decline of the brand began after World War II. Incorrectly predicting the economy would decline into depression Avery did not allow the construction of new stores or the renovation of existing stores. This policy was in effect well into the fifties, preventing Montgomery Ward from benefitting from the economic boom and allowing competitors to seize the best real estate for their own stores while existing Montgomery Ward stores deteriorated and became increasingly dated. When New Montgomery Ward stores finally did begin to open in the late fifties, they opened in the remaining available locations which were often inferior to the locations of their competitors.

My real life experience with Montgomery Ward is limited. I remember it as the stodgy looking anchor store in Lexington, Kentucky’s Turfland Mall, smaller and older than the more fashionable Fayette Mall, which had Sears as an anchor store. When Montgomery Ward announced they’d be closing all existing stores and ceasing operations in 2001, no one seemed surprised. Many of my friends’ parents made one last trip to the Turfland Mall store seeking closeout prices on electronics. I assumed, as many people did, that the Montgomery Ward name would die with the closure of the last store.

DMSI, an Iowa based catalogs retailer thought differently and acquired use of the Montgomery Ward name, and to this day operates a Montgomery Ward branded retail website at and still distributes paper catalogs. I’ve done extensive window shopping at and noted that it’s selection is drastically limited compared to Amazon and prices for identical items seem to be higher than Amazon across the board. Aside from novelty, The one benefit of buying from Montgomery Ward over Amazon, is that Montgomery Ward offers in house financing on many of its higher-priced items.

When I found myself in the market for an air fryer, I very much wanted one Montgomery Ward branding from even tough Amazon had an identical fryer (without the Montgomery Ward branding) for $60 less. The sheer novelty of buying a brand new Montgomery Ward-branded item from a retailer called Montgomery Ward in 2018 sucked me in, and made me reluctantly overlook the additional expense. I was all set to make the purchase when i noticed they wanted to charge me an additional $47 for shipping, and that finally scared me away. I just couldn’t convince myself to pay over $200 for something I could get on Amazon for just under $120 with shipping included as part of my Prime membership.


Montgomery Ward’s marketing approach is definitely not aimed at odd millennials like me, who will drive two hours out of their way to eat at Rax Roast Beef just for the novelty of experiencing an endangered brand. I picture the typical customer as someone much older than myself who has been a Montgomery Ward customer since the brick and mortar days who doesn’t have the same trust and affinity for Amazon and who definitely don’t have Amazon Prime. At least that’s the best-case scenario.

Given the fact that they offer in house financing and that the purchase price of their products is high compared to other retailers, I suspect the current iteration of Montgomery Ward has positioned itself to cater to customers who can’t get credit cards and who don’t have a lot of cash on hand. Granted I have no idea what interest rates are involved, but even at zero interest, their prices, compared to Amazon’s are much higher, and strike me as predatory. If you make the assumption that a typical customer has poor credit and doesn’t have $110 in cash to buy a small appliance from Amazon, a $200 out the door price for the same item financed through sounds not dissimilar to the tactics of buy here pay here used car lots. It’s a little sad to see a name with so much history and good will being used to market subprime loans for housewares and small appliances, but a decades-long decline and high profile bankruptcy and liquidation have diminished the brand to its current state.

I guess I’ll go my whole life having never bought anything from Montgomery Ward, and that makes me a little sad. At this point it’s just a name slapped on a completely different retailer anyway. I probably should have just gone to Turfland Mall when I had the chance.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My Favorite Mystery Meat

The Lexington, KY Taco Tico, operational and thriving on Lexington's north side. 

When I was a kid in Central Kentucky in the nineties, there were two options for Mexican fast food, Taco Bell and Taco Tico. My parents, having lived in Southern California in the previous decade had gained an appreciation or quick and cheap Mexican food, and would often take us to either place for an inexpensive, fun family dinner. (I also had more than one birthday dinner at Chi-Chi’s, but that’s another blog entry.) At the time, there were a roughly equal number of Taco Tico and Taco Bell locations in and around Lexington. Taco Bell was relatively new to the area, having entered the market in 1986. Taco Tico had beaten Taco Bell to the Lexington market by about ten years, and in the early nineties Taco Bell was just starting to catch up. 

Dan Foley opened the first Taco Tico in Wichita, Kansas in 1962, the same year Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, California. Both chains grew steadily into the seventies, mostly in separate regional markets, both giving many Americans their first taste of Mexican food. Taco Bell’s national domination began in 1978 when Glen Bell sold Taco Bell to PepsiCo. With the Pepsi money flowing like a shaken two liter bottle fueling Taco Bell’s expansion and marketing, Taco Tico struggled to keep up.

It was the mid nineties when most of the Lexington area Taco Ticos closed for business, while new Taco Bell locations opened at every imaginable location. A few Taco Ticos converted to something called Tacos Too before closing for good. I can’t find any information about Tacos Too online, but I suspect it was probably the brainchild of a single franchisee looking to circumvent franchise fees. At any rate, Tacos Too lasted for three or four years before shutting down. It was the late nineties, and I thought that was the end of the story for Taco Tico, at least in Kentucky.

Fast forward to 2002. I was in high school, and my friends and I had just gotten our drivers licenses. One Monday morning, my buddy Trevor reported he’d encountered a still-operating Taco Tico tucked at the edge of a shopping center on Lexington’s less than fashionable north side while exploring Lexington in his car. Later that week a few of us piled into Trevor’s red Saturn and made what was the first Taco Tico run for any of us in years. The food tasted exactly the same as it did when I was a little kid. We even found a second Taco Tico on the similarly unfashionable east side still open for business. For the rest of my time in high school, both Lexington Taco Ticos were frequent hangouts for me and my friends.

Taco Tico’s signature taco meat can be found in most menu items, and is the main event that die hard fans rave about. It’s a savory mix of beef spices, and fillers that I’ve not encountered anything like anywhere else. It's definitely cheap, and calling it mystery meat wouldn't be inaccurate, but it's greater than the sum of its parts,. The fillers make for a unique, but not unpleasant soft, spreadable texture. A proprietary seasoning mixture gives the meat a pleasant tangy oniony taste I’ve never seen duplicated anywhere else. Every time I eat one of their tacos, I’m transported back to the beloved family dinners of my childhood. To this day, they’re still my favorite fast food taco.

Today, the north side Taco Tico in Lexington is still open for business. It changed ownership about five years ago, and the new owners are longtime Taco Tico fans and run the restaurant beautifully. The building itself is a seventies-vintage faux-adobe, that I believe has been in continuous operation as a Taco Tico since it was built. The interior is a total time warp with terracotta tile floors and well-preserved blond wood booths similar to the ones you’ll find in older Arby’s locations. There’s even a working stand-up Gallaga cabinet by the order counter. I make it a point to stop by every time I’m in town visiting family. It’s always busy at lunchtime. Taco Tico fans are loyal and devoted. The staff is always attentive, and the food always tastes like home.

Taco Tico locations once numbered in the hundreds across the Midwest and southeast. Today, there are only thirteen locations left, including a newer location in a strip mall in Louisville that opened in the past few years. The rest are in older, immensely charming and funky adobe buildings. The remaining locations are fairly spread out, with locations in Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Louisiana, and Kentucky. If you’re lucky enough to be near a Taco Tico, they’re definitely worth a stop.

As for me, I’m in Michigan, six hours away from the nearest Taco Tico, and I haven’t eaten there since I was in Kentucky this past Christmas. I went searching for copycat recipes online, and found this one from Youtube user averageiowaguy, which he reverse engineered from a meat sample obtained at what looks to be the still-operating Ft. Dodge, Iowa Taco Tico. The recipe relies heavily on mixing raw ground beef and water to create a “meat slurrey” to recreate the unique smooth texture. The recipe also calls for textured vegetable protein and oatmeal to be used as fillers. I gave the recipe a try this morning.

Meat slurrey, ground beef, plus water, plus stirring and mashing. 
Meat slurrey with fillers, seasoning, and butter added. 
The mixture moves in interesting ways as it cooks. 

After mixing the ingredients in the skillet, I let it simmer to cook through and thicken for half an hour. I’ve browned a lot of ground beef in my life, but I’ve never attempted to cook a meat slurrey before. I watched in horror as it bubbled and sputtered its way from a raw pink to an unappetizing gray, to an almost-edible looking brown. Once I had the approximate consistency, I spread the meat on a large burrito sized tortilla, and added lettuce, tomato, and shredded cheddar to recreate my go-to Taco Tico order, a Sancho.

Taco Tico's Sancho
My attempt at a Sancho

The recipe did a great job recreating the appearance and texture of Taco Tico meat, but the flavor was on the bland side compared to my memory of the real thing. I suspect I didn't cook off enough moisture leaving the spices diuluted. Since Taco Tico doesn’t really have a corporate structure anymore to keep different locations consistent, it is also possible that a Taco Tico in Iowa may be using a different recipe than a Taco Tico in Kentucky. The next time I try this recipe, I’ll let it cook a little longer and go a little heavier on the seasonings. If I still have trouble dialing the flavor in, I’m just going to have to road trip to Kentucky for the real thing.

Edit: A few hours later, I ate a quesadilla I made with the leftovers. before reheating the meat, I added a dash of garlic salt to it, and it yeilded a flavor much closer to that of Taco Tico's meat. I think the addition of garlic, plus the reheating drying out the mixture a bit more was all it took. 

Pair your homemade Sanchos with Ale8-1 for the Kentucky Taco Tico experience.