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.


  1. Taco Tico does have a corporate structure. The Fort Dodge and Lexington locations have just been allowed to operate licensing the name as of yet. In the future they may be forced to become official franchisees or close. The corporate owners just re-opened a four year shuttered location in Wichita from when the previous corporation was seized by the KBI for not paying taxes.

    1. Interesting. I was under the impression that the remaining Taco Ticos were all operating more or less independently. (Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in Wichita) It’s nice to see them bouncing back from the financial trouble they had a few years back.

      In addition to the cluster of locations in Kansas, are two Taco Ticos each in Kentucky, Iowa, and Oklahoma, plus one in Louisiana. It would be nice to see some new ones open, but I’d hate for it to come at the expense of losing the handful of historic Taco Ticos.

    2. The Wichita, Derby and Arkansas City, Kansas have been open again for about 2 years and are all still operating. They are still my favorites!!

  2. You can be order the meat on the taco Tico website.