First look at U.S. Taco Co., a Taco Bell side project with lobster

The "Southern Squealer" taco with flour tortilla, pulled pork, peach jalapeno BBQ sauce, corn cake, slaw, jalapeno and cilantro.
The “Southern Squealer” taco with flour tortilla, pulled pork, peach jalapeno BBQ sauce, corn cake, slaw, jalapeno and cilantro.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

U.S. Taco Co., a new fast-casual taco restaurant in Huntington Beach, will open Monday. But with lobster, brisket, ghost chile ketchup and milkshakes on the menu, many will be surprised to find that the company behind the new venture is none other than Taco Bell.

After conducting a dining survey about 18 months ago with Taco Bell, Jeff Jenkins, who is heading the launch of the first U.S. Taco Co., found that a certain demographic simply won’t eat at fast food restaurants. Aiming for that group of people, who favor restaurants such as Chipotle, Jenkins and his team decided to open a fast-casual taco concept.

Taco Bell funded an eating tour of the country for Jenkins and U.S. Taco Co. executive chef Rene Pisciotti for menu research. The two decided to take their favorite, most iconic American meals and turn them into tacos. That translates to a menu of tacos inspired by Philly cheese steaks, lobster rolls from Maine, Tex Mex queso and Southern fried chicken.

“It’s American, but it just happens to be served in a taco instead of a roll or between sliced bread,” said Pisciotti, at a recent preview for the restaurant.

There are 10 6-inch tacos on the menu, including “Brotherly Love” with a flour tortilla, carne asada, housemade roasted poblano queso, grilled peppers and onions, cotija and cilantro ($3.25), the “Winner Winner” with flour tortilla, crispy chicken, housemade jalapeno Southern gravy, roasted corn pico de gallo, jalapeno and cilantro ($3.75), and “The 1% Er” with lobster, garlic butter, slaw, housemade roasted poblano crema and cilantro on a flatbread ($9.90).

In addition to the tacos there are fries and milkshakes. The fries resemble flattened steak-cut wedges, served with ghost chile ketchup, jalapeno ranch or roasted chile queso. You can also get them topped with Pisciotti’s house habanero dust or your favorite taco filling.


“It’s food truck food you don’t have to chase,” said Jenkins. “It’s playful, it’s different, it’s not about creating the next chain concept.”

There will be three shakes on the menu with rotating flavors. When the restaurant opens Monday, guests can order the “Friggin’ Fried Ice Cream” with vanilla ice cream, caramel and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, the “Choco Loco” with chocolate ice cream, Mexican-spiced chocolate sauce and chocolate flakes, and the “Shut Your Pie Hole” with vanilla ice cream, strawberries and pie crust pieces, all priced at $4.

The ingredients on the menu are a mix of housemade items, meats from various distributors around the U.S. (such as brisket flown in from Texas), and sauces and tortillas with specific recipes from Taco Bell distributors.

You can also order a selection of specialty sodas. There will be no alcohol at the Huntington Beach spot due to local restrictions, but Jenkins is already looking for a Los Angeles location. Pisciotti plans to serve beer and boozy shakes at other U.S. Taco Co. restaurants.

Jenkins says that the theme and decor of the restaurant were inspired by the Mexican holiday of Día de lost Muertos. The color scheme is neon pink, yellow, teal, turquoise and red, with painted brick, colored tiles and painted wood throughout the restaurant. A glowing sign reads “Eat Tacos” on one wall and a large Día de los Muertos-style skull greets people outside on the patio.

“I learned the holiday is a celebration of life, not death, and it’s really a food holiday,” said Jenkins. “Music is going to be pumping in here, and it’s going to be lively.”

U.S. Taco Co. will be open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays.

150 5th St., Huntington Beach,

Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris