Americans Eat 554 Million Jack in the Box Tacos a Year, and No One Knows Why
They are delicious. Tacos > Burgers.The fast-food chain’s gooey, deep-fried beef envelope has been on the menu since the 1950s, inspiring legions of fans; ‘vile and amazing’
More than 1,000 times a minute, someone bites into what has been described as a wet envelope of cat food—and keeps eating.
Jack in the Box is known to most of the country for its hamburgers and bigheaded mascot. But for many of its devotees, the magic of the fast-food chain lies in its interpretation of a taco.
A tortilla wrapped around a beef filling that is dunked in a fryer and topped with American cheese, lettuce and hot sauce, the taco appeared on the menu in the 1950s after the first Jack in the Box opened in San Diego. As the chain spread beyond California, the taco has followed it —with good reason. Jack in the Box now sells more tacos than any other item on its menu thanks to a legion of fans who swear by the greasy vessels even as they sometimes struggle to understand their appeal.
The first time Heather Johnson tasted a Jack in the Box taco, she was at a drive-through in Cincinnati when she noticed you could get two for 99 cents, so she added them to her burger order.
She took two bites, threw the rest on the passenger seat and kept driving. “It was stale, greasy, spicy, crunchy, saucy and just plain strange,” said Ms. Johnson, a 43-year-old director of operations at an advertising agency in Cincinnati and author of a blog called the Food Hussy. “Who puts a slice of American cheese in a taco?”
Two minutes later, she picked the taco off the seat and finished it. Then she ate the other one.
“I was like, ‘I must have more. This is vile and amazing,’” she said.
Mike Primavera believes when it comes to Jack in the Box tacos, there are two kinds of people: those who think they’re disgusting and those who agree they’re disgusting but are powerless to resist them.
He first tried one about 10 years ago when he stopped at a Jack in the Box on his way home from a bar. “I remember pulling it out of the sleeve, and even though I was drunk I was like, ‘I shouldn’t eat this.’ But damn it was good,” said Mr. Primavera, an equipment manager for a general contractor in Seattle. “I’ve been addicted to them ever since.”
Mr. Primavera, who made the cat food comment on Twitter, said the secret to the tacos’ goodness may be the juxtaposition of the “soggy, nasty middle” and the “rim of crunchiness on the outside” that comes from deep-frying the tortilla with the beef filling already inside. One key, he said: “You can’t look at it too long before you eat it. You just kind of have to get it outside of the sleeve and into your mouth.”
Every Jack in the Box taco is born at one of three plants in Texas and Kansas, where tortillas made from stone-ground white corn are cut, cooked and filled with the beef mixture. They are shrink-wrapped and frozen and eventually shipped to stores to be fried, topped and served in taco-sized bags. The company sells 554 million tacos a year, or about 1,055 a minute.
That is about the same number of Big Macs McDonald’s says it sold in the U.S. in 2007, the last time it says it tracked that figure.
“Despite some unusual qualities, Jack in the Box hears from a lot of customers that the tacos are close to authentic,” said Jen Kennedy, director of product marketing at the San Diego-based chain.
Los Angeles restaurateur Adam Koral calls Jack in the Box’s taco “the most underrated taco of all time.”
About a year ago, Mr. Koral started working on a version he could serve at The Nice Guy, a West Hollywood restaurant he co-owns as managing partner at the h.wood Group. Mr. Koral huddled with company co-founder John Terzian and the restaurant’s chef and they came up with a Jack in the Box-inspired taco that uses Nice Guy’s hamburger beef blend and its own mix of seasonings. Price: three for $18.
They started serving them to friends, who asked for them so often that Nice Guy put it on the Tuesday menu. The owners say they will be a permanent offering at a Mexican concept restaurant opening in 2017.
Jack in the Box’s Ms. Kennedy said “We are always imitated but never duplicated.”
Throughout its rise, Jack’s taco has picked up celebrity fans.
“I like this taco,” comedian Chelsea Handler said as she ate one on a recent episode of her Netflix talk show, “Chelsea.” “I don’t know what they use to make it. I don’t want to know. I’m sure it’s healthy.”
Actress and singer Selena Gomez is such a fan that on her 21st birthday, her friends surprised her with a cake made out of them. “My cake was... Jack n the box tacos... Yes,” she posted on Instagram.
Model Chrissy Teigen, a longtime Jack in the Box fan, became flustered in 2015 when her delivery order of two Jack in the Box tacos never arrived. At one point in a Twitter rant, she accused an employee of a food-delivery company of eating her order.
Eventually, she said in a sequence of posts that she may have had them delivered to the wrong address and that she shouldn’t be eating Jack in the Box anyway.
Ms. Handler, Ms. Gomez and Ms. Teigen declined to comment.
Jack in the Box tacos have 172 calories each, with about half the calories coming from fat, according to nutritional information on the chain’s website.
Jack in the Box’s Ms. Kennedy said customers love the chain in part because it lets them “take a break from the norm and instantly satisfy their cravings.”
Naader Reda, 33, a high-school history teacher in Victorville, Calif., and part-time competitive eater, set out in 2015 to eat 50 Jack in the Box tacos in one sitting and regretted it almost immediately. “I didn’t do the math beforehand,” he says at the beginning of a YouTube video chronicling the quest. “Fifty actually turns out to be 9.4 pounds of food.”
The video, which he says has been viewed about 100,000 times, shows an increasingly distressed Mr. Reda coming to grips with the size of the task. It isn’t the considerable grease that makes it so hard, he says at one point. It’s chewing through the taco shell. “It’s cutting up my mouth inside,” he said.
He quit after 42, but says the effort hasn’t diminished his appetite for an item he has been eating since high school.
“It’s strange. You’d think you’d be able to get higher quality tacos elsewhere,” he said. “But yet you want these tacos.”