Long ago, I worked out a theory about living in Athens. To do it right, you had to do one of three things: play in a band (or, at the very least, design sleeves for their records), work at DialAmerica, or work at The Taco Stand. If you lived there for any length of time and didn’t manage one of these, I suppose it could be all right, because I was once acquainted with a splendid fellow named Bob who played in one of those beat combos all the kids rave about called The Possibilities while simultaneously holding down jobs at the Dial and one of the Taco Stand’s locations. His overachieving moxie made it okay for two of you, but no more, to slip through the net.
The T-Stand’s been around for thirty-three freaking years now, serving up inexpensive, unbelievably addictive quasi-Mexican creations, heavy on the sauce and easy on the wallet. They haven’t really left Athens, although they have made an attempt. There are three locations in the city and one in nearby Watkinsville. For nine years there was a lone outpost in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood which served the same food for twice the price – rent was a little steeper there, you can imagine – but the gameday crowds gradually thinned away and that location closed earlier this year. Nowadays, us Bulldawgs who want to sample one of our dormday favorites have to make the trip back home for the real thing. That’s probably for the best.
I haven’t actually enjoyed a small meal at the T-Stand since the one game I went to see at the Buckhead store last fall. I guess I got so used to the one in Buckhead that I just didn’t see the need to visit any of the Athens stores on my trips up there, although I did enjoy a very long lunch at this one, the original, on Milledge right near Prince a couple of years ago. That was the Saturday after the release of the fourth Scott Pilgrim book and I gave myself a long, leisurely hour to read it. It was punctuated by the loudest, longest, most ridiculously public laugh I think I’ve ever given, interrupting and amusing everybody there as I desperately tried to quit guffawing over one scene, not to spoil it, where our heroes lose sight of a strange man when a streetcar passes between them. About a dozen people went home to tell people how they wouldn’t believe this idiot losing his shit over a comic book he was reading.
Throughout the nineties, the Taco Stand and the Mean Bean were polite little competitors, serving up similar food for low prices. Over time, they started reacting to increased costs in different ways: the Mean Bean raised their prices while the T-Stand’s portions shrank. Look at that first picture above. That isn’t a mini-burrito; that meal is what your five bucks buys you these days. It’s not a bad deal at all, but once upon a time, the burrito would have been twice that size.
In a college town economy fueled by student budgets, minimum wages and a few low-paying industry jobs, coupled with the more recent and popular trend towards watching your burrito be assembled and paying at the end of the production line, the increasingly expensive Mean Bean could no longer compete with its flashier, more solid competitors like Barberito’s and Moe’s and finally closed in 2009. That leaves the Taco Stand still standing and, against all odds, apparently still thriving. I do suspect, with no evidence, that the beer profits from the more-a-bar-than-a-restaurant downtown location help prop up the others a little. Whatever it takes, friends, y’all just keep doing it.
The Taco Stand is the closest available food to the Mean Bean, which probably never will be surpassed as my all-time favorite restaurant. It’s not the same, and any visit is fueled as much by nostalgia and happiness at all the good times I had as a student as it is by its tasty food, but even if the burrito’s a little smaller than it used to be, nothing like their mix of refried beans and cheese and tomatoes takes me back quite as well as the T-Stand does.
And yes, for any reader following along with this blog and noting the sequence of meals, the kids and I indeed enjoyed two separate lunches that Wednesday in Athens. We started at Weaver D’s, spent a couple of hours helping to unload and sort the new comics at Bizarro Wuxtry and then enjoyed a second small lunch at the Taco Stand before making a pit stop at the Athens Varsity and coming home via Winder on the old US 29 so’s I could tell the kids all my old anecdotes from umpteen drives up and down this road over the years for the umpteenth time. Anybody who says you can’t go home again might be right, but they’re probably also too lazy to bother trying in the first place.