Taco Bell declares breakfast war on McDonald’s. Peter Nowak heads to the front lines

Waffle Tacos are better than you’d expect

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waffle-taco

The Waffle Taco: it actually kind of looks like a taco. (Peter Nowak)

It’s not every morning you get to live out Taco Bell’s “run for the border” slogan, but that’s exactly what a friend and I did Thursday as we headed to New York state to try the chain’s new breakfast menu.

Pretty much everyone we encountered had a hard time believing we were indeed making the hour-and-a-half drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls, N.Y., just for some fast food. The evidently suspicious border guard asked me to roll down my back window, hand over my keys and pop the trunk.

Nevertheless, we were but innocent taco seekers with nothing to hide, so we were soon on our way. We arrived at the Taco Bell at 7300 Niagara Falls Boulevard – I’m mentioning the address for a specific reason, which I’ll get to below – just after nine. To our delight, posters highlighting the new breakfast menu hung in the window. The restaurant was empty as we entered and the counter staff greeted us warmly. They asked where we were from and looked as surprised as the border guard upon learning we’d come all the way from Canada. We’d apparently missed the big rush – customers had been waiting since 6 a.m. for the restaurant to open at 7 a.m.

At that point, the only other non-staffer in the restaurant – a smartly dressed man in a shirt and tie – approached us and asked, “Did you really come here all the way from Canada?” We affirmed it, simultaneously saying we were fans of Taco Bell and that we also tended to do silly things in the name of adventure. It turns out the man was Dale Moulton, the local franchise owner. He was hanging out at the restaurant to see how the big breakfast menu launch was going. It was, as we’d overhear another customer later saying, “a historic day” – a moment in time where Taco Bell had officially declared breakfast war on McDonald’s. Check out this funny commercial for proof:

I’d done my research before running for the border. It turns out that although the breakfast rollout is U.S.-wide, not every restaurant was getting it immediately. The Taco Bell near the big Galleria mall that’s frequented by Canadians in Buffalo – it’s actually Cheektowaga, Moulton corrected us – apparently won’t have breakfast for a while. High-volume restaurants like his are getting it first.

What about Canada? Moulton said it’s only a matter of time. Taco Bell has tried breakfast items before, but this is a major rollout that “is here to stay.” It’ll be interesting to watch that happen as the chain won’t just have the McDonald’s and Starbucks to contend with, but also a certain cultural institution known as Tim Hortons.

So, without further ado, we turned our attention to the big board and were surprised to find a wealth of options. I knew I’d be ordering the marquee item – the Waffle Taco – but I wasn’t sure what else to try. There was the Grilled Taco, the Flatbread Melt and the Breakfast Burritos. Most came in different options too, either with bacon, sausage or steak.

Having read some of the previews, I decided to also go with the Bacon A.M. Crunchwrap, a breakfast-ized variation on the regular Crunchwrap where the hash brown provides the proverbial crunch, rather than a tortilla. The combo with orange juice and an additional hash brown (you can get Cinnabon Delights instead) ran me about $5, with the extra Sausage Waffle Taco tacking on $2. My friend went for two Waffle Tacos – one each of bacon and sausage – and the Flatbread Melt, which is kind of like a Tim Hortons or McDonald’s breakfast sandwich, except with… well… flatbread instead of English muffin.

First up was the Waffle Taco, which looked thoroughly unappetizing in the preview photos I’d seen. Confronted with it in the real world, I was pleasantly surprised. The smallish waffle holds a sausage patty in its curve, with scrambled eggs and shredded cheddar cheese on top. It didn’t look bad at all and was easily something that could be constructed at home. Perhaps most importantly, at least to the drive-thru crowd, is that it can be easily eaten one-handed – I made sure to test this.

A couple of bites in and I couldn’t see what the naysayers were worked up about. Some people have a natural aversion to fast food, but the Waffle Taco was perfectly normal tasting and certainly not something that should be vilified. If anything, it was a little dry. The solution: maple syrup. Actually, strike that – the packets the counter staff handed me just said “syrup,” so I’m fairly sure it didn’t come out of any tree but perhaps rather a corn field. Nevertheless, the sweet stuff completed the package and I was thoroughly satisfied. My friend also liked his tacos, but he actually preferred them without the syrup, which he felt made them too sweet.

Next up was the Crunchwrap, which was surprising to bite into since I wasn’t expecting the slight tinge of spice. It was made up of the same basic breakfast ingredients – bacon, scrambled eggs, hash brown and cheese – so I was confused as to where the kick was coming from. The guy at the counter said it was jalapeno sauce, which was evidently hidden somewhere inside. I took his word for it and kept going, although after a few bites I figured it wasn’t a proper Taco Bell meal without some actual hot sauce, so I cracked open a packet and added some more zing.

In the end, although I liked the Crunchwrap, I couldn’t finish it. I was already too stuffed, which I understand is something that customers don’t often say at Taco Bell or U.S. fast-food joints in general. I could barely manage a few bites of the hash brown which… yup… tasted like a hash brown. My friend was also full and enjoyed his food.

Moulton topped off our visit by coming over and giving us $20 gift cards as a thank-you for coming all the way from the frozen north. We posed for photos with him – which he said he would share with his friends – and the staff cheerily bid us adieu.

Now, I know that everyone was likely on their best behaviour because the boss was around, but I’d never experienced such great customer service at a fast-food joint before. Moreover, after my recent misadventure of trying out the Big Boss sandwich on launch day at a Toronto KFC, I was impressed by how well trained and prepared the Niagara Falls staff were for their big new product rollout. Unlike their counterparts up north, they were ready and handled our orders – apparently my friend’s Flatbread Melt was the first they’d made – with ease.

All told, the staff was great and the food was great. Let’s face it, this is not gourmet breakfast fare and I probably wouldn’t make the drive again just for Waffle Tacos, but Taco Bell is certainly now a worthwhile option for Americans looking for a quick morning bite, which is not something I’d have ever expected. Again, the chain will have a much tougher go of it if and when it moves the breakfast menu north, but it is just slightly different enough from its competitors that it could at least stand a fighting chance.

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