Thursday, January 10, 2019

Zantigo Returns

A year or so ago, I was back home visiting my parents in Kentucky. My father and I were in the car after having lunch at Lexingon's only surviving Taco Tico, as we often do when I come to town. He was reminiscing about how he came to love Mexican-inspired fast food, and recounted an early date he went on with my mother in the late '70s to dine at Lexington’s sole Zantigo, location, which was still open in the early days of the very Taco Tico where we had just eaten. As we passed the former site of the Lexington Zantigo, just a couple miles east of the Taco Tico we were returning from, he pointed out the building to me.

This was once the Lexington, Kentucky Zantigo

It was a distinctive looking building with floor to ceiling arched windows adorning the front facade along with a prominent buttress. The roof was also odd, with a flat-topped center portion extending skyward atop a more conventional hip roof. The building was sitting disused when I managed to stop by to take a picture of it a while later, most recently functioning as a Chinese, or perhaps barbecue restaurant, (There were remnants of signage for both.) but it had begun life as a Zantigo, and in its heyday, it served as a venue to my parents’ budding romance.

At some point after my father struck out with my mother’s cousin Agnes following their first and only date at Darryl’s, he began seeing my mother. They opted to give the nearby Taco Tico a pass to have dinner at Zantigo instead, and my mother, having eaten her fill, stuffed a couple leftover tacos in her purse to enjoy later, only to forget about them, and find them still in her purse a few days later. The narrative serves to illustrate not only my mother’s forgetfulness and lax attitude toward food safety, both of which persist to this day, but also my father’s cheapness, bringing a date to a fast food taco joint, perhaps learning his lesson after an expensive first date at Darryl’s.

Given my pre-existing interest in near-forgotten restaurant chains, and perhaps a feeling that I might not exist had my parents not eaten at that exact Zantigo, I became obsessed with the Zantigo brand after hearing this story. Predictably, I found myself spotting other former Zantigo locations in my travels. With their unique architecture, they’re certainly easy to spot, not unlike former G.D. Ritzy’s buildings. Naturally, I read up on their convoluted history as well.

This payday loan place in Columbus, Ohio isn't fooling anybody. 

Neither is this Wendy's in Belleville, Michigan.

Marno McDermott, not to be confused with Dermott Mulroney or Dylan McDermott opened the first Zapata restaurant in Minneapolis in 1969. His operation was purchased by Hueublein, then parent company of KFC, in 1974. Hublein changed the name of Zapata’s restaurants to Zantigo, and changed the name of Zapata’s grocery products to Ortega, a brand which still exists today. Heublein was acquired by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 1982, which merged with Nabisco in 1985, after which the restaurant division, including KFC and Zantigo were sold off to PepsiCo, who already owned Taco Bell. As a result, the 80 or so remaining Zantigos were either closed or converted to Taco Bells by 1988. Meanwhile, Marno McDermott had moved on to his next venture, again selling a Midwestern version of Mexican food, co-founding Chi Chi's in 1975, after which, he co-starred in My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts. Or maybe that was Dylan McDermott? Regardless, the Zantigo brand was effectively defunct for the next decade, until a former Zantigo manager bought the rights to the name, and revived the chain with the original menu, plus some additions. 

Classic Zantigo building, modernized for the modern Zantigo customer

The dining room is on the small side, but the large windows and high ceilings make it feel spacious. 

Modern electronic menu board

Ever since learning this, I had been trying to find an excuse to drive out to Minnesota, as all four locations are in and around the Twin Cities. Two are in nondescript strip mall locations, another is in a former Pizza hut, but the fourth is in an original 1970s-era Zantigo building, that housed a Taco Bell in the dark Zantigo-less years of the '80s and '90s. Not unlike the restored Stuckey's I visited last summer, I couldn't resist the allure of a resurrected Zantigo building, so I hopped in the car, and drove the 700 miles to St. Paul at the first opportunity I got. I arrived to find a vintage building that someone has obviously poured a lot of money into. The interior and exterior appointments felt modern, but with a decidedly vintage feel, as if the building had always been a Zantigo that slowly evolved into having modern decor, as if it's from an alternate reality where the Zantigo brand had never disappeared. Menu boards were on flatscreen monitors, and everything felt shiny and new. The building was even in the process of getting a new roof during my visit. 

I was making the most of my time in the Gopher State, and I had a full day of eating planned. I had to pace myself, and this was my first meal of the day. My plan was to order judiciously, purchasing just a few items that best exemplified the Zantigo experience. I went with the classic Mild Chilito, a Taco Deluxe, and Cheese and Chips, the latter being at the recommendation of my father. A couple weeks prior, I'd also ordered and eaten a Chili Cheese Burrito at a Toledo, Ohio Taco Bell so I could compare and contrast it with the Zantigo Chilito, as the Chili Cheese Burrito at Taco Bell is based on the Chilito, and seems to be the only Zantigo-related item you can sometimes still find on the menu at certain Taco Bells operating in former Zantigo territory. This phenomenon, and the website that helps fans locate Taco Bell locations that sell the Chili Cheese Burrito have been discussed in-depth over at Tedium

The Taco Deluxe is a decent enough menu item. I'd order two or three of them on my next Zantigo run. 

The chips and cheese lived up to my father's hype, though they were simple and easily replicable, consisting only of grated cheddar jack cheese melted in the microwave over a bed of tortilla chips with a side of pickled jalapeƱos. I enjoyed them much more than any fast food nachos I've had in recent memory. Real cheese instead of fake liquid nacho cheese made all the difference. Likewise, the Taco Deluxe, a taco in a crispy corn tortilla wrapped in a soft flour tortilla adhered with a layer of refried beans was also a pleasurable experience. The meat had a mild flavor that blended nicely with the other flavors at play. With its refried beans and guacamole, it reminded me a bit of a hand-held seven layer dip. The only let-down was the much anticipated Mild Chilito, which wasn't as good as the Taco Bell burrito. The Chili Cheese Burrito I'd had in Toledo was the same size as a Taco Bell bean burrito, but filled with chili and melted cheddar instead of beans. All that chili made for a hearty and delicious, if slightly messy, meal. The Chilito from Zantigo on the other hand was a tortilla with a light sprinkling of cheese and a token smear of chili folded flat, and rolled up, more of an untoasted quesadilla than a burrito. As a result, I tasted the tortilla as much as, or more than I tasted the filling. I wasn't a fan. While much easier to eat, the Chilito comes off as bland, and skimpily topped compared to the Chili Cheese Burrito. You heard it here first. Not unlike Lance Ito, or Samuel Alito, I judge the Toledo burrito to be superior to the Zantigo Chilito.

Pleasantly plump Chili Cheese Burrito at Taco Bell

Sad, deflated Chilito at Zantigo. 

Regardless of the slight disappointment I felt when experiencing my first Chilito, I'm always excited when an extinct chain makes a comeback, and Zantigo is no exception. I'd love to see them expand into more of their old buildings, and I'll probably always plan on stopping by Zantigo any time I happen to be in their territory, since they have special significance to me. After all, if a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history, then it's entirely possible that I wouldn't have been born if my parents had eaten at Taco Tico instead of Zantigo.


  1. Our Zantigo's in Indianapolis, as far as I can tell, were less "odd Pizza Hut" and more Taco Bell with a wedge for the entrance. Don't ever remember eating at one (I was 8 in '88) but I've always been fascinated by then. You're on my list, Minnesota!

  2. Zantigo's was excellent food for a very reasonable price. Yes the chips and cheese and salsa dip was very good.

  3. Check out Zanz in Mankato Minnesota (about 2 hours south of Minneapolis). "1041 Madison Avenue, has been home to the famous Cheese Chilito at Zapata, Zantigos, and now Zanz Mexican Restaurant since the early 1970's. The owners, Rick Otto and Marie Simmonds, purchased the business in June of 1987 and have built what has become a Mankato Landmark for the last 30 years." Until recently the menu boards were those I remembered from my high school years before my 1981 graduation. Check out their website:

  4. Broke my heart when Zantigos shut down in Middletown Ohio. Every payday..Friday..I would treat myself to 2 mild chilitos. They were good sized and so delicious. Wish there was one close around here.