Taco John’s new Restaurant Support Center and Test Kitchen in St. Louis Park

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Whether it’s simply nostalgia or it’s the pure magic that is Potato Oles, I’m a longtime fan of Taco John’s.

I’m also quite vocal about my love of the chain to anyone who will listen. So when my pal Amy Nelson, a former boss of mine who is now the editor of Minnesota Monthly, forwarded me an email inviting her to tour Taco John’s new Restaurant Support Center and Test Kitchen in St. Louis Park, she added two words to the message: “Hell yes.”

I joined Amy for the tour, which took place on the afternoon of Election Day. (We both welcomed the distraction.) Not only did I learn a lot about Taco John’s, I also ate a whole lot of Taco John’s food. More on that in a bit.

I first tried the fast food chain, which began as a trailer called Taco House in Wyoming in 1968, when I was a college student in Moorhead in the early ’90s. A dear friend of mine named Thad introduced me and gave me some sage advice I remember to this day: “Ask for extra seasoning on your Potato Oles.”

If you’ve never had them, Potato Oles are similar to tater tots and tater tots are, of course, awesome. But there are two reasons why Oles are even better. First is the texture, which is creamier than a tater tot. (I learned that’s because the recipe uses mashed potatoes.) Second is that seasoning, a proprietary blend that’s instantly craveable and unlike any other fast food treat out there. I was a fan from the first bite.

During the decade I spent in Moorhead, and later Fargo where I wrote for The Forum newspaper, Taco John’s was a regular stop for me, whether for a quick lunch or a late-night snack. I spent a total of – days? months? – either dining in or waiting in the drive through at the Center Avenue Taco John’s for my fix. Life was good.

When I moved to Washington state for a new job, I discovered new fast-food treats like a spicy teriyaki chicken bowl I’ve never been able to find the equivalent of here in Minnesota. That, and the Costco $1.50 hot dog combo, which I continue to fully enjoy to this day.

But there was not a Taco John’s anywhere near my home in Olympia. One of the only Taco John’s in the state at that time was on a military base. A friend of mine went for a story she was writing and returned with what felt like edible gold, a large Oles, two soft-shell chicken tacos and a fistful of hot sauce packets.

During the four years I spent in Washington, Taco John’s was always a destination when I visited Minnesota. Yes, I’ve eaten plenty of other Tex-Mex and Mexican food, from fine dining to food trucks as well as in Mexico itself during several trips there over the years. I fully realize Taco John’s is not authenic. But I’ve never found anything quite like it. (I’ve always found the most obvious option, Taco Bell, disappointing. There’s a certain synthetic quality to the chain’s food that turns me off.)

When I moved to St. Paul, the now-closed Maryland Avenue location became a regular haunt. In the years since it shut its doors, my Taco John’s meals have become much less frequent, largely because the two closest options are each 10 miles away from my house.

One big takeaway from my Taco John’s Election Day adventure is that things are going to be changing for me here soon. Now that the chain has new offices in town, they have plans to open more locations across the metro, starting with new restaurants in Eagan and Burnsville that open next month. CEO Jim Creel told me they’ve been scouting other possibilities, including in St. Paul and West St. Paul, where Robert Street seems absolutely ideal.

Taco John’s corporate chef Brad Bergaus in the test kitchen where he experiments with new menu items as well as new equipment. (Ross Raihala/Pioneer Press)

The Restaurant Support Center and Test Kitchen are located in a roomy second floor spot in The Shops at West End. With plenty of big windows – including in the kitchen itself – and a bright, open design that replicates the colors and design of the most recent Taco John’s remodels, the space feels like a tech startup, complete with a hangout room for employees when they need a chance to relax. It houses various corporate staff from the company, which also maintains its longtime office in Wyoming.

But the local presence not only means the brand will have wider availability, but fellow fans will also have the opportunity to try the latest recipes from corporate chef Brad Bergaus, an affable guy who previously oversaw a complete core menu transformation at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Bergaus experiments with new menu items in the kitchen and also tries out cutting-edge equipment meant to ensure consistent results throughout the chain. One of the things he seemed most excited to show us was a contraption that dropped precisely measured amounts of frozen Oles into baskets that go directly into fine-tuned fryers to achieve the perfect level of crispiness.

While it will take a while for the new tech to show up in restaurants – the vast majority of which are operated by franchisees – it’ll be worth it. As someone who has eaten a whole lot of Oles, I can tell you they need to be fried properly lest they become a soggy, oily mess.

They’ve also developed a device that drops a perfectly measured dose of seasoning on the fried Oles. (In my case, I got two doses.) We also learned earlier versions of Oles were larger and stuffed with things like beans or salsa. But that never quite worked, as the filling would get too hot in the cooking process.

Next to the kitchen is a plain white room where staff members host taste tests for the public, with a series of stations, each with a small door for chefs to deliver food hot and fresh. (They light the space in red with the idea it helps keep the focus on the food and nothing else. That said, it did give it a bit of an eerie vibe like something from a Ryan Murphy series.)

The taste tests are invite-only and the best way to get into one, the staff said, was to download the Taco John’s mobile app. And I can attest that isn’t just a marketing trick. I’ve had the app for years and periodically get invites via email to apply to participate in taste tests. (I was never able to take part, however, as I would get opted out after marking my occupation as a member of the media on the application.)

We toured the offices and met staff. I gave Creel what I consider a million dollar idea that would earn Taco John’s headlines across the country. Start selling THC seltzer. Work out the legal and logistical details in time to launch on April 20. His response: “Well, we would sell a lot more Oles.”

After that, we settled down at two seats in the kitchen for a tasting menu of sorts. We started with Oles and I think I impressed a few employees after forgoing the nacho cheese and instead drizzling my Oles with hot sauce (and eating them with a fork). We also tried a Taco John’s staple, a crispy beef taco.

From there, we sampled three new (or coming soon items). First up, the queso fried chicken taco, which was basically a fried chicken finger wrapped with cheese and lettuce in a soft shell taco. The chicken maintained an impressive crunch given the item’s creamy sauce.

The pulled pork carnitas quesadilla featured what they say is “eight-hour pit-smoked carnitas” in a four cheese blend. I thought the pork itself was kind of bland, but the chipotle lime sauce gave it a nice kick.

The beefy tostada is a new menu item coming to Taco John's in 2023. (Ross Raihala/Pioneer Press)
The beefy tostada is a new menu item coming to Taco John’s in 2023. (Ross Raihala/Pioneer Press)

The best of the bunch was the beefy tostada, which included beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo and – in a nice touch – queso fresco on a crispy, flat shell. It’s going to be available on the restaurant’s value meal along with a less expensive option that swaps refried beans for the beef. I look forward to the chance to consume many more beefy tostadas once they’re released into the wild.

We wrapped with a tasty churro and even tastier order of donut bites, which are like mini donuts from the Minnesota State Fair, but covered with a rich cream cheese icing.

Throughout the afternoon, chief marketing officer Barry Westrum made references to the chain’s “cult following,” particularly in the Midwest. I totally get it. I find that if people have an opinion about Taco John’s, it’s a strong one. (And, yeah, there are certainly TJ haters out there.) If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a proud member of the Taco John’s cult and the future looks bright for me and my fellow followers.

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