In 1990, Taco Time franchisee Jon Hanna decided to tear down his restaurant in Wallingford and build a new one from scratch. The previous structure, which had stood there since 1974, was just a regular, unremarkable old Taco Time, but the building that replaced it would become an unofficial Seattle icon, about which passersby have marveled and conjectured since it was built.
We’re talking, of course, about the glass-cube vaporwave Taco Time on North 45th Street, across from the new Ezell’s. The one that looks like it belongs in a background scene of Sega’s “Out Run.” The idea is that Hanna wanted a memorable design for his franchise that would stand out and not share the typical, disposable architecture style found in most fast food restaurants. Hanna aimed for a contemporary turn-of-the-1990s look with high, airy ceilings and lots of sunlight. He liked the finished product so much that he had a twin Taco Time built in Auburn around the same time, at 5 14th Street Northeast.
Now, Taco Time, for the uninitiated, is Washington State’s favorite homegrown fake Mexican taqueria. Established in Eugene, Oregon, in 1960, it was transported to the greater Puget Sound area two years later by Frank Tonkin, Sr., whose family still owns and operates the chain, now headquartered in Renton. Tonkin began opening new restaurants in the greater Seattle and Tacoma area. By 1979, the company became licensee with rights to franchise individual Taco Times, and franchisees took the wheel thereafter. There were 50 Taco Time restaurants by time the Wallingford Taco Time was built only 11 years later.
Back to the matter at hand: Although Hanna’s vision for a spaceship-looking Great Glass Taco Time certainly stood out in Wallingford, where most of the buildings are from the first part of the 20th century, it wasn’t entirely practical. Or as Wes Benson, Franchise Affairs and Sustainability Manager at Taco Time Northwest, put it: “The consensus is if they could do it over again, they might make different decisions. While there is a definite individuality expressed, the buildings get very hot in the summer, and very cold in the winter. Solar gain becomes a dire need for air conditioning at the drop of a hat. And I am willing to bet it is freezing in there this morning.”
The utilities, naturally, are way more expensive every month than other area Taco Times as well. The glass building isn’t especially green either—although, to be fair, green architecture hadn’t really hit its stride by 1990, back when we were all still learning about which recycling bins meant what and McDonald’s was still serving their McDLTs in Styrofoam.
The interior of the Wallingford taco cube also differs from the other restaurants in the chain, owing mostly to the walls being see-through and the high ceilings with exposed scaffolding-like rafters, whereas most Taco Times are outfitted in orange, yellow, and blonde wood tones. It’s also got a bunch of 1990s—well, 1980s, honestly—flair around the counter, which is based on stacked frosted glass blocks backlit in hot pink, along with a sweet neon tableau of a cactus and some mountains, all of which support the overall Ocean Pacific-esque pastel synthwave aesthetic of the exterior. (A few other Taco Times have that neon cactus and mountain too, but it suits this particular Taco Time a million times better than the rest. They were meant to be together, that sign and this Taco Time.)
Like the whole Taco Time kitsch itself, the wacky Wallingford Taco Time is beloved by Seattleites, obviously. So much that public development authority Historic Seattle, which focuses on preserving and restoring the city’s unique architectural heritage, made this building the butt of an April Fool’s joke in 2015 (lovingly, of course, we are sure). After inventing a grassroots advocacy group called “Save Our Fast Food Icons,” the organization printed a press release about how “SOFFI” was aiming to nominate the Wallingford Taco Time as a landmark, as it “hopes to raise awareness and appreciation of our fast food heritage.” Per the article’s made-up source, “If the Taco Time building is a landmark then I can’t wait to get my Magnolia McMansion landmarked in a few years… What’s next? Pizza Hut?”
Affectionate ribbing aside, the question remains: Why? Why tear down your perfectly good Taco Time and build a see-through mini-skyscraper one in its place? Was it purely for artistic reasons? Financial reasons? Practical reasons? All? Neither? We were dying to get an answer from owner Jon Hanna, but at the time this article was published, we hadn’t heard back. If we hear back, we’ll let you know.