Aspen Times Weekly: Fast and Furiously Good
PERHAPS UNLIKE in other small towns with robust tourism, fast food in Aspen is an inconvenient truth. The closing of McDonald’s this past January after more than 30 years signaled the “end of an era” — aside from delivery-only Domino’s Pizza, the Mill Street Mall outpost of the Golden Arches was the only chain eatery in town. The nearest drive-thru is at Wendy’s in El Jebel; similar establishments are concentrated in Glenwood Springs, some 40 miles away.
In fact, a current Google search for “fast food Aspen” yields a list of homespun hot spots, such as 520 Grill, Grateful Deli, Taster’s, New York Pizza. The Popcorn Wagon and Local’s Corner deserve separate shout-outs as reliable venues for fast, cheap eats that are high on flavor, low on nutritional content.
My feelings on our fast-foodscape are mixed. On one hand, I feel lucky to live in a bubble — I mean, community — that is adamant about preserving our small-town charm by banning the kinds of establishments with neon marquees advertising cheap meals saturated with fat, sugar, and simple carbs.
Like many residents who value a healthy, active lifestyle, I’ve seen all of the pertinent scary movies: “Fast Food Nation”; “Supersize Me”; “Fat, Sick, Nearly Dead”; “Food, Inc”; “The Future of Food”; “Hungry for Change.” I’ve read environmentalist Michael Pollan’s works, including “In Defense of Food,” which suggests that much of the real food served in this country has been replaced with “edible foodlike substances,” and that our habits (chowing in front of the TV or in the car, instead of with family) promote mindless consumption.
I’ve attended Aspen Ideas Festival panel discussions on GMO crops and the meatless movement, too. Often the takeaway is grim: multinational corporations are fueling America’s obesity epidemic and the only way to know what’s in your food is to grow it yourself. We’re in a real pickle.
On the other hand, I’m a sucker for a certain brand of fast food: Taco Bell’s Breakfast Crunchwrap. The hand-held snack is a classic case of the sum being greater than its parts: A chewy flour tortilla folded around a crunchy fried hash brown patty, fluffy scrambled eggs, melted cheddar cheese, and bits of chopped bacon — the hexagonal packet is griddled until soft and slightly charred in spots. The eggs might be powdered — honestly, I’m scared to ask — and the bacon is ultra-thin and wispy, certainly not free-range or organic. Drizzled with hot sauce (the only component aside from tortilla that showcases the chain’s trademark Tex-Mex flavors), the Breakfast Crunchwrap boasts the ideal combination of texture and flavor that I crave at almost any
time of day.
Despite knowing that it’s not real food, if ever I’m near a Taco Bell before 11 a.m., when breakfast service ends, I feel compelled to “make a run for the border.” However, since the closest Taco Bell is located in Glenwood Springs, exactly 40 miles from my front door, that happens very rarely throughout the year.
That’s the beautiful thing about living here, in a remote, liberal Rocky Mountain ski town championing environmental sustainability and historic preservation: as an Aspenite, to eat fast-food is a treat. Which is how the wise eater would approach this genre, especially considering Taco Bell’s questionable ingredients (rumors of Grade D ground beef have persisted since before I could drive) and eye-popping tally of fat, calories, and sodium (again, ignorance is bliss). Those who live elsewhere in the country may be bombarded with temptation of fried food and frosty shakes at every turn. No, thank you.
A slew of late-summer road trips in Colorado and New Mexico, though, offered ample opportunity for me to queue up for Breakfast Crunchwraps. It seemed as if every small town with a main strip of supermarkets, liquor stores, and big-box outlets boasted at least one Taco Bell in the mix. I was also driven by a sense of autumn urgency: With winter on its way, I won’t be on the road much if at all, so opportunities to savor my favorite greasy snack are dwindling fast.
Leaving Durango on a weekday morning recently, the craving was so alluring that my gal pal and I politely declined gourmet breakfast sandwiches to wash down our drinks at Carver Brewing Company. Instead, we mumbled something about extreme thirst and saved our appetites for Breakfast Crunchwraps on the drive out of town. Aside from the fact that these compact goodies are easy to eat while driving and texting, they’re darn cheap: just $2.49 for the standard version, $2.99 for a sausage patty or steak upgrade.
Since Aspen is, technically, a fast-food desert, I have no qualms about touting my not-so-secret love affair with Taco Bell breakfast. Certainly it’s not a guilty pleasure, because I have zero guilt about my strange desire and the infrequency with which it is fulfilled.
When I ask my colleague, Aspen Times editor Lauren Glendenning, if her Taco Bell affinity is on-the-record or not, she makes no apology. “Oh, I’m not ashamed,” she says. “I can’t resist a Meximelt on a road trip (and I think a drive down to Denver or DIA definitely qualifies)! Sometimes even Glenwood qualifies.”
Aside from ease of convenience and low cost, the biggest factor, she says, is an expectation of a certain quality. Part of this may be influenced by brain chemistry; high sugar and high fat foods — “highly palatable foods” according to researchers — trigger the release of dopamine to the brain’s reward center, which incites a desire to seek out and eat more of those foods. The other part is simply getting what you expect to get when you order it.
“Not all Taco Bells are created equal,” Lauren continues, “but Meximelts are always consistent.” While her comment might show off a bit of confirmation bias — interpreting new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs — it validates my own obsession with Taco Bell’s Breakfast Crunchwrap: If fast-food items were spirit animals, that crunchy, crispy, chewy, fluffy, salty hexagon topped with hot sauce would be mine.