I’ve never felt more self-conscious walking into a restaurant than I did last week when I ferried two small sacks of Taco Bell into the sun-streaked dining room of St. Cecilia, Ford Fry’s Buckhead bastion. It was almost impossible to miss the sideways glances from the business suits and high-heeled diners who had just finished their lunches of chilled oysters, goat cheese ravioli, and salads topped with lobster and shrimp. Imagine their reaction if I had spent as much at Taco Bell as they had on the above meal—about $54 without tax or tip. That’s practically enough to start my own Taco Bell franchise, or, buy about 50 bean burritos.
I had come looking for Matt Crawford, the restaurant’s general manager and head sommelier who jumped at the opportunity to participate in one daring mission: to reconcile the food of my childhood, Taco Bell, with my drink of choice today, wine. Here’s what we discovered.
Cheesy Gordita Crunch
2012 Chateau de l’Oiseliniere, Muscadet, $12
This wine sees a lot of lees contact—it’s one of my favorites—and it has that lees-y, bready flavor and a pillow-y mouth feel. So, we’re contrasting flavors with the acid from tomatoes and cheese and greasiness from meat but also supporting the hard and soft textures of the shells. You have a bite of this taco on its own, and it’s kind of bland. Hit it with the wine and all of the flavors come out.
Cool Ranch Doritos Loco Taco
Biohof Pratsch, Gruner Veltliner, $12
The acid of the wine cuts through the grease. This taco needs a little green and white pepper spice. The Gruner totally works, and it makes the taco taste a lot better.
Beefy 5-Layer Burrito with mild sauce
2010 Palladino Barbera d’Alba Superiore, $15
With the beef and bean dip, I wanted something kind of funky and earthy with silky tannins. I wanted to go Piedmont, and I thought about going Barolo, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This Barbera is from Piedmont and is their answer to Pinot Noir. This is an aggressive example of Barbera and drinks like a baby Barolo. The spice opens up the wine even more. A lot of time with spice and heat and red wine—especially if it’s firm in tannins and high alcohol—the wine will just blow your palate out. This is just right.
Beef Chalupa Supreme with mild sauce
Bodegas Palacios Herencia Remondo ‘Placet Valtomelloso,’ $36
We’re playing on the textures here. I wanted to focus on the mouth feel of the Chalupa, something kind of bready. White Rioja is known for its high acidity. It sees substantial oak contact, which allows it to breathe, age, and open up. You get a bunch of pillow-y textures. We use this wine for people who want a Napa Chard. You get a lot of baking spices—cinnamon, spice, butterscotch and other toasty notes. I love the texture: the heavy-hit of the Chalaupa with the fresh zip of the wine.
Louis Roederer “Brut Premier” Champagne, $51
When you think Champagne, you think bread, toast, yeast, buttered biscuit, and brioche. Initially, I only tasted the outside of the quesadilla, but the Champagne really brings out the flavor of the chicken. There’s a subtle spice on the chicken that I didn’t get until I sipped the Champagne.
Mexican Pizza with salsa verde
2013 Domaine Fournier Sancerre Les Belle Vignes, $22
We’re going to throw some Sancerre at this one. Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre is known for citrus notes, slate minerality, grapefruit, and lemongrass. This pizza is cheesy with a little bit of spice—honestly, not a lot going on here—so I’m hoping this wine doesn’t dominate the dish. [With the salsa verde], the green wakes up the pizza.
Nachos Bell Grande with hot sauce
2013 Weingut Max Ferd. Richter Zeppelin, $13
Spice and heat can be challenging to pair with. I think sugar, something a little off-dry. Riesling means springtime and summer. The biggest notes are going to be stone fruits, peaches, apricots, honeyed white flowers, honeysuckle and a schist-y, slatey minerality, especially in the Mosel. The heat in the nachos isn’t as much as I’d like, but it works. We get back to the textural contrast: super heavy-greasy-soggy feel on your palate with the cheese and then the Riesling jumps in and wakes everything up.
The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Savannah Verdelho Special Reserve, $52
I love the cinnamon mixing with the raisin and toffee notes of the Madeira. The wine softens up the twist. Before it was super dry and flakey. Now, it feels more substantial.
Smart pairings can turn wine-haters into wine-enthusiasts. I’ve seen it happen. Great pairings are electric like that, capable of catapulting decent bites into memorable ones. As Crawford and I learned, that truth even applies to Taco Bell. That reminds me, does Taco Bell have a corking fee?