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Taco Bell Defy tests the future of fast food with ‘tacos from the sky’

Food prep stations are located on the second floor in the new Taco Bell Defy in Brooklyn Park, Minn., directly above street-level food delivery elevators. (Mary Jo Hoffman/for The Washington Post)
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BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. — Here’s how ready I was to disapprove of Taco Bell Defy.

I had just eaten a lunch of nettle-ramp soup, foraged from my own yard in Shoreview, Minn. I was also — and you’re going to think I’m making this up, but I’m not — scheduled to leave the next day on a flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco, in order to, among other things, make an anchovy-vinaigrette salad for Alice Waters. That really happened. You can ask my wife, Mary Jo.

Anyway, that gives you some idea.

It was Mary Jo who plucked me from this peaceful slow food bubble and placed me in the path of Taco Bell Defy, the next-generation, mobile-app-friendly, drive-through restaurant concept from the fast-food giant. The first prototype in the nation had recently landed, somewhat resoundingly, in a second-ring Minneapolis suburb named Brooklyn Park.

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Mary Jo believes tacos are the most consistently satisfying form of food, and, though appreciative of the entire taxonomy of the taco ecosystem, she has recently been on a very specific quest, scouring Twin Cities trucks, stands and restaurants, to find not the best taco in town, not the perfect taco, but the just-right taco — defined as a sort of self-aware palmful of 200 calories or so that understands what it is, and what it isn’t. Its primary job, when found, would be to bridge, reliably and unfussily, that peckish hour or so in the car at lunchtime, or between an afternoon latte and a late dinner.

How would we know when Mary Jo had found the just-right taco? Because, after taking a bite, she would declare it to be “just right.” Mary Jo is a decisive and unafraid liker of what she likes, and disliker of what she does not.

I was rinsing out the last green flecks of my irreproachably, almost impossibly, local, seasonal and sustainable soup, when Mary Jo looked up from her computer and said, “Oh my God. Tacos from the sky.”

She had happened upon an article about Taco Bell Defy’s promise to make fast food just that little bit faster by allowing you to order remotely from an app, scan a QR code when you arrive, and receive your meal from a prep kitchen above your head, via an elevator tube — a futuristic sort of dumbwaiter, as envisioned by George Jetson.

Brooklyn Park, as it happens, lies a scant half-hour drive from our front door.

“We are not going to Taco Bell,” I said.

“Tacos,” she said. “From the sky.”

It took one minute, forty-six seconds from the time we pulled up to the QR scanner in the drive-through lane that evening, to the time we drove off with a bag containing two hard-shell tacos, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, and something called a Black Bean Quesarito. The frankly handsome modernist building was neon-lit in what might be called either Vikings Purple or Prince Purple. The drive-through screens were oversized, bright and crisp (quite a bit more Tesla than Buick Riviera), and we were guided from step to step with a comforting techie efficiency. We did not interact with a single human being, and gained no insight into whether our little Quesarito had had a happy childhood, or been humanely slaughtered.

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If the general compass heading of mainstream American food is in the direction of more, cheaper and faster, this is the next logical step away from merely very fast food, served by people, toward whatever apotheosis awaits us. Perhaps implantable electrodes in our hypothalami, or brain wave sniffing personal delivery drones that sense when, and for exactly what, we are hungry.

“This is it,” said Mary Jo.

“You can't be serious.”

“This is the taco.”

“You mean you've spent two years driving past Taco Bells in search of a Taco Bell taco?”

“You know what it is?” she asked. “It’s my mom’s taco. Hard shell. Ground beef. Grated cheddar. Iceberg lettuce. This is the taco I grew up on.”

I remembered it too, of course. Family dinner in the ’70s. The package of nested Ortega hard shells, smelling like dusty popcorn. The foil-lined packet of Ortega spice mix stirred into a skillet of ground hamburger. The taco exploding into shards at the first bite. Its innards plopping onto the plate.

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That was already not so much a taco as the degradation of somebody’s borrowed notion of a taco. But it was a formative age, and those sensations had lodged somewhere ineradicable, waiting to be awakened. And here we were, Mary Jo and I, synapses firing, involuntarily calling up — the way some people remembered roast chickens, or cherry pies, or ribs on the grill all afternoon — the corporate food of our childhoods.

And half a century from now, I asked myself, knowing the likely answer, would Taco Bell Defy represent, in the mind of some 50-something parent of two, a simpler time, before the world got so complicated? Was there a 6-year-old in Brooklyn Park right now, whose mouth, decades from now, would water at some sensory trigger, involuntarily resurrecting the exact texture and smell of a Cheesy Gordita Crunch?

“This,” said Mary Jo. “This bite right here.” She held up her half-eaten first taco, and I could see a coarse thread or two of grated cheese amid pale lettuce and triangles of broken shell. I could tell that the beef mix had begun to soften the little gutter at the base of the U-shaped shell, and in spite of myself, I wanted that bite, too.

Does Taco Bell Defy do well what it has set out to do — deliver a bag of food in less than two minutes? It does. Did I miss the burst of static and garbled human voice asking me to repeat my order while I leaned out my driver’s side window? I did not. The app worked seamlessly, and no one, at any time, asked me whether I was having a good day. When I next feel the urge to, in the language of 1980s marketing, “Run for the Border,” would I rather visit this slick new incarnation than the single-lane, bumper-to-bumper drive-throughs of its older siblings? I absolutely would. And there is some comfort to be found in almost anything these days that claims it is new and improved and turns out to be both.

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Taco Bell Defy is the MP3 that out-convenienced the CD, which had out-convenienced the cassette, and so on back to the romantic, analog and cumbersomely non-portable experience of watching live hands make the strings of instruments vibrate.

But is it a good thing that this has been accomplished? Unquestionably, I had just experienced an advancement of some kind. Was it an improvement?

As strings of cheese dangled from my Black Bean Quesarito, tasting like what would happen if you could melt Doritos into a bright orange magma, my question felt irrelevant. Any complaints I might lodge about Taco Bell Defy as a proposed next step in America’s relationship to food would reduce the traffic through its lanes by exactly zero vehicles and result in the appearance of exactly no new organic polyculture farms. It felt like criticizing a Jimi Hendrix solo for all the ways in which it did not resemble a Bach Partita.

There is a rhetorical technique called a Gish gallop in which a debater simply tosses out as many arguments — true, half true, untrue — as can be enunciated within the allotted time. The opponent cannot possibly refute all of them, because it takes less time to detonate a bomb than to clean up after one, and so the first debater ends up looking convincing and hyper-informed, while the second looks defensive and ill-prepared.

Taco Bell Defy is a culinary Gish gallop, and I understood, as I pulled past a Chipotle and a Starbucks on my way out of the parking lot, that I was the second debater, shuffling papers around, correcting abstruse misstatements, caviling at the shading of words, looking bad, and, most certainly, losing.

In the parking lot across the street — and you're going to think I'm making this up too, but ask Mary Jo if this didn't happen — there stood a small panel truck, a mobile taqueria called La Manguita, with two people in line, which we passed on our way to the highway, balling up the wrappers of our Taco Bell dinner.

A week or so later, I texted Mary Jo, asking if I should pick up a sandwich for lunch from Lowry Hill Meats, Minneapolis's rightly revered whole-animal butcher shop.

“Getting tacos today,” she said.

“Sounds good,” I said. “Where?”

A short pause before she answered.

“The sky.”

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