Saturday, January 17, 2009

Life outside the bun - A tribute to Taco Bell

I would like to have included a comment from my sister-in-law Gwynne, who actually worked at the Bell in the 80s, however she is currently in South East Asia eating other dangerous foods from hawkers and is unavailable for comment.

My love for both Australia and US always has me torn, but there is one department in which the US beats Australia hands down. I'm hesitant to proceed all gung-ho because the quality of fast food in American is considerably worse than in Australia in terms of cleanliness, presentation and customer service, but really, is a spic and span fast food joint worth the trouble when it pails in comparison to Taco Bell?

Let me be clear. I love fine food. I may not be the kind of foodie who can identify all the herbs and spices and hints of this and that, but I do like good, well crafted food and like to eat at nice restaurants as often as is financially possible. But I also like salt. I also like grease. Can the two palettes co-exist? I think so. It's like a whole other section of the tongue that requires satisfaction and it can quickly and cheaply be remedied thanks to the good(?) folks at Yum Brands who bring us Taco Bell.

I don't remember my first Taco Bell experience, but I know it was after my first Del Taco experience which is somewhat of a travesty, but that's the way it goes. Being from Australia where Mexican food is scarce and of poor quality when you do find it, my knowledge was poor and the hard shelled fast food tacos matched what I was used to from the Old El Paso home kits. My best guess is that Taco Bell hit, and hit hard in 1999. As I said, I don't recall the first time, but clearly my random, but obvious choice of something with beef resonated as I was soon sheepishly asking for and seeking out Taco Bells to bring me the unparallelled joy that only a beef taco could bring.

The first Taco Bell in Downey, California, started by Glen Bell

I moved to Sacramento beginning my serious Taco Bell journey in March of 1999, and became a vegetarian in May of the same year. Not much time of eating beef tacos, but it is a famous and revered time in the early stages of my relationship with Gregg. Though he had been a vegan for years, he found something endearing in my obsession with the beef taco and never hesitated to quench my needs, perhaps recalling his own love for it back in the 70s and 80s. At one time he took public transport all the way out to the East Bay from San Francisco after finding no Taco Bell in the city. He told me time and time again how far the Bell had sunk from those glory days, with the bean quality being severely compromised, but since I had never known his Taco Bell era, these were MY glory days.

When I first got into Taco Bell, this little guy was all the rage. I have a few stuffed talking dogs, and another key chain that travelled around on a bag on many international trips. He was so endearing, we were not ashamed. Then those morons at Yum Brands, got rid of him and replaced him with nothing. Read more about his life here.

Upon becoming vegetarian, I moved on to bean burritos which weren't quite as satisfying, lacking the careful seasoning added to the beef. We tried to duplicate them at home with a Taco Bell brand seasoning packet we got at the supermarket, and some faux ground beef made of soy, but alas, it just wasn't as good. Some magical ingredient or hazardous chemical was omitted to ensure we'd be back to the "restaurant".

Once I found the 7-layer burrito, I was thrilled. It was fat and loaded with goodness. No less than seven ingredients as the name suggests. Many complain about the quality of the guacamole, but I believe as long as you don't isolate it and judge it, it works well with its six brothers and sisters.
I munched on these for many years, though never with the same initial vigor I had for the beef taco. Then one day before acting class, I stopped at TB or 'Tuberculosis' as I like to call it, an ode to my understanding that I am playing with fire by eating at such a place, when I bumped into another girl from class. She was Indian and was raised vegetarian. We talked about what we liked to eat there and it was then that the Mexican Pizza without meat was revealed to me.

You light up my life.

Since this discovery, I think I get a 7-layer burrito just 1 in 10 visits with some taco supremes with beans replacing meat thrown in too. The Mexican Pizza, as idiotic as it may sound, is incredibly delicious. It's two tostadas (flat, fried, hard tortillas for you foreigners) with beans (usually ground beef also) in between. On top is some magical red supposed "pizza" sauce, a three cheese blend and diced tomatoes. There use to chopped green onions too, but after a salmonella scare involving said onions, they were removed and have never returned. It took me some time to overcome this tragedy, but I've finally grown accustomed to life without it.

On the Taco Bell website, this helpful nutrition calculator allows you to accurately incorporate your exact order into a strict calorie controlled diet. I lost 30 pounds/12 kilos in 7 months and enjoyed Taco Bell weekly along the way!

In the 7-layer burrito period, Taco Bell was merely an emergency meal. I'd rarely seek it out, but at the slightest twitch of the stomach on a road trip, Tuberculosis was the answer. Once the notion set in though, I became crazed. I had to have it and no other fast food will satisfy me. When, after so many heart breaking exits before it, the purple bell finally glows on the reflective highway sign, in my delirious joy, it resembles a halo. I have been saved.

Since the Mexican Pizza, Taco Bell is still technically an an emergency or convenient meal however emergencies and inconveniences seem to be omnipresent. I'm proud to say that I never get out of the house and drive with the sole purpose of obtaining it, however I do find myself jumping at a convenience opportunity to get it. If I get it for lunch while at work (I only work one full day a week, half day the rest), it affords me more time to nap in my car. If I get it before we hit the road when we leave right from work, it gets us on the road quicker. It sounds like a compromise, but honestly, I just love it so much that I relish these opportunities. In writing this, I am freeing myself. I love good food, but I also love Taco Bell. I am no longer ashamed.

These people aren't ashamed either. They got married at Taco Bell last week. Glad to see another Aussie has been indoctrinated into the ways of Taco Bell

Let me be clear that despite all this love, I DO understand where Taco Bell sits on the food chain. It's low, and I know it. Smart people can enjoy reality TV and The Da Vinci Code (actually, maybe I made that last one up) along with quality TV and books so I can enjoy Taco Bell along with finer cuisine (though not in the same sitting). Stephanie, a carnivore who claims the basic bean burrito as hands down her favourite fast food, has a strict policy against eating meat at Taco Bell. Her husband David also shares in the fervor of loving Taco Bell, ordering up to five menu items almost indiscriminately (he'll only order one item containing ground beef for safety reasons) when at his most ravenous, but we still all understand what Taco Bell really is. On a day following a fabulous meal at Hugo's Tacos, I advised Gregg I would be having Taco Bell for lunch while at work. "But you just had great Mexican Food yesterday! What's your problem?" "It's not Mexican food! It's Taco Bell!" I understand the difference.

Okay, so I think he loves Taco Bell more than I do.

Having said all this, I actually have the audacity to judge others for eating at Taco Bell. I feel sorry for the Mexicans who work there (though oddly, I was skeptical of how my food would be when ordering at a fully white staffed TB in Albany, NY) and baffled by the Mexicans eating there. Don't they know better? It's not Mexican food. It's Taco Bell. That should be their new slogan. I pretty much look at everyone eating there and think it's depressing, even though I am there, placing an order enabling me to judge them. On a recent visit, one in which I flushed red as the words "Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes*" spilled out of my mouth, I dared to mentally question the patronage of some office folk. If I were going out to lunch with a co-worker, I felt it wrong to go to Taco Bell with a decent Thai restaurant across the street. Obnoxious, I know, but if you've been a regular reader of my blog, you shouldn't be surprised. If I had to go out for lunch every day with someone, I'm sure I would end up at TB sooner rather than later. But this was far, far worse. As I sat down with my tray, I felt like I was intruding at my own Taco Bell. I was sliding into the middle of a year end sales meeting consisting of 7 or 8 people. In the middle of the "restaurant", a manager of some sort was holding forth about sales figures and this year versus last year. I'm sorry but it is just flat out sad and WRONG to have a business meeting at Taco Bell.

Snapshot I took of Taco Bell staff meeting, not consisting of Taco Bell staff.

Just after I witnessed this meeting, I spread the picture and story around and was prompted to write this blog. Gregg told me a sad story in which for a job he had years ago in which he was high up in the company, after doing some work with a large chemical distributor in Florida, some big wigs offered to take him out to lunch. They wanted to take him out to a fancy steakhouse, but alas being vegetarian, that wasn't going to work. Gregg didn't burden them with the news that he was vegetarian so the suggestions kept on coming "How about this seafood restaurant?" Nope. Vegetarians don't eat fish. Being the early 90s, vegetarian options weren't as prevalent as they are now and Thai and Indian restaurants were scarce in that part of the country. "How about Taco Bell?" was his grim suggestion. They seemed crestfallen, but took him where he asked to go. While the whole incident pained him, I'm sure that bean burrito was awesome.

Just couldn't wait for his Grilled Stuffed Burrito and Frutista Freeze, I guess. I totally understand.

Still hungry? Try our 89c Blog Menu for a hilarious and sincere conversation between Stephanie and I from earlier this week detailing our love of Taco Bell.

*The Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes were a gamble but if you get them without the cheese, being that the cheese is nothing like the fine cheese they use in the burritos and tacos, but garbage, liquefied nacho cheese sauce, they are actually quite delicious and also come with tasty sour cream!