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MenuMasters 2018: Epic Queso Chicken Burrito, Del Taco

Hitting the trifecta of heritage, a hot trend and operational efficiency

Presented by Nation's Restaurant News and sponsored by Ventura Foods, the MenuMasters Awards honor culinary excellence in menu development.

It’s not easy to evoke brand heritage while simultaneously tapping into current menu trends and streamlining operations, but that’s exactly what Del Taco did with its Epic Queso Chicken Burrito.

“It’s one of our Cali-style burritos,” said Anne Albertine, research and development director of the 550-unit quick-service chain based in Lake Forest, Calif.

“Cali-style” means it follows the San Diego custom of putting French fries inside the burrito — in this case, Del Taco’s crinkle-cut fries, which the chain has served for 50 years. The burrito, which is priced at $5, also has grilled chicken, cheddar cheese and pico de gallo, as well as a new queso blanco, which Albertine and her team spent more than a year developing. 

“It really started with the emerging trend of queso,” she said. 

Although queso simply means “cheese” in Spanish, it’s now the common term for a creamy cheese sauce or dip that’s a hallmark of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Del Taco

Del Taco has served nacho cheese sauce for years — “Very yellow, very ballpark,” Albertine said. “And part of what we’ve been doing over the last four years is really elevating the ingredients that we have.”

The chain started doing concept-testing for the new sauce in 2016. 

“We really wanted to understand first, what’s the right queso for us?” Albertine said.

After identifying multiple styles and attributes that a cheese sauce might have, the R&D team found that customers were looking for a smooth, creamy sauce with particulates for the sake of authenticity, along with jalapeño peppers for spiciness, “but very cheesy, and with a slight tanginess on the finish,” Albertine said. “That tang is kind of different from anything else out there. It really is a bright flavor.” 

But the acid note was also a challenge in a natural dairy product, since acid can curdle milk.

“We had to figure out how to do it, and how to do it really clean,” Albertine said, as prevailing trends indicated that artificial ingredients should be avoided.

“There were five or six different elements that we had to work through — how and when we introduced ingredients and how we shredded the cheese going inside it — to ensure we had that creaminess and didn’t get any breakage,” she said.

“We also had to solve for the right viscosity: How was it going to flow on the fries? What kind of portion sizes could we pour?”

Del Taco

It took about 10 production runs, but Del Taco finally came up with a creamy, white, spicy and tangy sauce that Albertine said customers love. 

The chain also changed how the cheese sauce is dispensed. The nacho cheese sauce had been squirted from a pump, which is harder to clean and slower than the ladles used to pour green and red salsas. 

Besides, Albertine said, “Food coming out of a pump doesn’t resonate with quality for me.”

The chain is now waiting to see if the new sauce “can stand the test of time and become a new classic.”

“As we develop new products, that’s what we try to achieve, and I think we achieved it with this,” Albertine said.

Winning qualities:

Southern California heritage: The crinkle-cut fries inside the burrito reflect a popular San Diego style and remind customers that Del Taco has served fries for decades. 

Culinary upgrades: The new queso blanco is smooth, cheesy, tangy and spicy, and it has a clean label. 

Operational ease: The new queso is ladled rather than pumped, adding to efficiency on the line.

Read more:
Best line extension: Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar
Healthy innovation: University of Connecticut Dining Services
Meet the 2018 MenuMasters

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]  

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary


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