Carnitas are back at Del Taco for a limited time. You can get your shredded pork in nachos, taco, or burrito form, including the new Primo Carnitas Burrito. We tried the four carnitas variants, plus a new breakfast burrito.
The Carnitas Macho Nachos ($4.49) looked the most promising. A layer of crunchy corn chips gets topped with a generous scoop of shredded pork, pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, and gobs of nacho cheese. Still, it fell short of (already lowered) expectations. The chips lacked flavor, the jalapeños didn't have any bite, the tomatoes were the standard issue fast food variety (bland, a bit mushy) and the nacho cheese tasted flat and artificial...and not even in a "so bad it's good" kind of way.
The only benefit of such a bleak canvas was it allowed the flavor of the pork to shine. The carnitas were slightly fatty, a touch sweet, and unmistakably made from pork. It's sad that last part even has to be mentioned, but some fast food meat is so flavorless that it can sometimes be difficult to identify its animal origin.
Burrito options include the new Primo Carnitas Burrito ($3.29) and the smaller Carnitas Combo Burrito ($2.99). The Primo option is the most substantial of all the limited-time options, with carnitas, seasoned rice, spicy jack cheese, chipotle sauce, and pico de gallo salsa wrapped in a large flour tortilla. The combo burrito is more modest, with carnitas, beans, cheese, and green sauce. Neither of them are great.
The Primo burrito has too many competing ingredients. Spicy jack cheese is a tasty addition to the carnitas, but the rice detracts from the pork and the chipotle sauce overwhelms the whole mess with an artificial, processed flavor. The sauce exemplifies the failure of fast food: it should be delicious, but because it is complicated with so many ingredients and fillers like tomato paste and "corn sweeteners", it ends up tasting terrible and tainting everything in its path.
Flavors on the more straightforward combo burrito also didn't mesh. The carnitas are tasty with the shredded cheese, but the pinto beans are so overwhelming that they mute the flavor of the pork. This might work with the beef and bean burrito, since the beef is pretty atrocious, but the carnitas are worth tasting, so it's a bust.
(There's also another option that I didn't try: the Carnitas Macho Burrito, with red and green sauces, sour cream, and veggies.)
Here's where things got good: the smallest item of the bunch, a simple carnitas taco al carbon ($1.59). Whether it's truly al carbon (cooked over open flames), I strongly doubt... but it was definitely the most/only tasty carnitas item available. Instead of confusing the flavor of the meat with freaky sauces or covering it with fake plastic cheese or watery bean goo, carnitas are placed in a double corn tortilla, topped with "California grill sauce" (tomato and chile), onions, and cilantro, and left the eff alone.
This is how carnitas were intended to be consumed, and for a fast-food version, they're not bad. The pork is moist and rich, with a flavor that approximates actual carnitas. It's nowhere near as good as a legit taco shop, but it's worth trying out of curiosity, especially for $1.59. (Freebie alert: if you "like" Del Taco on Facebook, you can try one for free with purchase of beverage.)
New cheddar potato poppers ($2.49) aren't technically a breakfast item, but they taste like they should be. The fingerling potato-sized pieces have a crisp, salty coating and a molten interior of cheese, potato, and the odd piece of diced jalapeño—kind of like a spicy hashbrown.
The small order comes with four pieces, which seemed measly at the time, but is actually the perfect amount. The first popper was surprisingly tasty, but by the time I finished the second, the salt hit and I couldn't imagine going beyond one more. In small doses, they can be tasty, and I imagine they'd make a great burger topping if you wanted to attempt a mash-up.
Breakfast burritos are usually dependably decent, but Del Taco's newest version, the Grande Scrambler ($3.49), with scrambled eggs, bacon (or sausage), cheese, hash brown "sticks", salsa, and red sauce was horrendous. The eggs tasted like they were made from a liquid mix, the hashbrown sticks (which were small patties) quickly became flaccid from the steam inside the tortilla, and the red sauce smelled of ketchup and vinegar.
If this looks good to you, the good news is breakfast is available from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., and the portion size is gigantic, especially for the price.
Really, that's what Del Taco seems to be selling. None of the food is great, but it's there and it's cheap. The food I ordered was enough to feed 3 or 4 people for a total cost of $19.76.
And for what it's worth, Pixel was really digging the cheese sauce.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her San Diego food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax