I spent most of my teenage years a vegetarian. In the 1990s, fast food restaurants in America weren’t exactly vegetarian friendly. Read: they had no vegetarian options whatsoever (save for french fries, if that counts as a meal). This was long before the days of McDonald’s stocking “healthy” menu items like salad.
One of the few fast food restaurants that did offer vegetarian options was Taco Bell, often mockingly referred to as “Taco Hell.” Sure, most of the tacos contained beef or chicken. But there were also bean-based meals like the 7 Layer Bean Burrito, containing seven layers of mass-produced goodness: beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and guacamole. Or, the good old “Pintos and Cheese” bowl (refried beans, cheese, and red sauce).
And, back in the day, all of this cost $0.99. You could have a good solid feed at Taco Bell for under $3.
I remember the first time I went to Taco Bell. I wanted to make sure the beans were actually vegetarian since many refried beans contain animal lard (yes, I was one of those vegetarians that checks every label for every ingredient). Perplexed by my question, the cashier opened a cupboard beneath the counter, hauled out a large sack, and flipped it over to examine the label. It looked like a sack of cement. In fact, it was a sack of dehydrated, powdered refried beans that Taco Bell would reconstitute by “just adding water” (like instant mashed potatoes). After carefully reading the ingredients label, the conscientious employee informed me that no, the beans did not contain lard. They may, however, contain cement. But they are definitely vegetarian.
You think that would have scared me off, but I forged ahead and ordered my bean burrito anyway. And there was no looking back. To this day, I love Taco Bell. Go ahead, judge me. Think whatever you like; I’ll keep on eating it. I won’t deny the fact that Taco Bell is a perverse abstraction of Mexican food. Or, the fact that I’m even putting the words “Taco Bell” and “Mexican food” together in one sentence is likely to cause fits of outrage among many of my readers. But please forgive me: I’m from Connecticut, not Texas. I can claim the excuse of not knowing any better.
It’s so artificial and yet so good. And it’s not only the beans that are fake – notoriously, the sour cream, guacamole, and liquid orange cheese all come out of a food gun. Imagine something like a squeeze-handle caulking gun, but with tubes that fit inside it that contain toppings (I hesitate to use the word “food”) so the people rapidly preparing the Tex Mex delights can just shoot some guacamole onto your taco with a quick squeeze of the trigger. Mmm, so good.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Taco Bell has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts to expand its franchise outside of the US. Taco Bell entered the UK market in 1986, but apparently British people didn’t understand the allure of orange cheese and reconstituted beans, and all the locations were shut in the mid-1990s. More recently (in 2010) it has made attempts to re-enter the market. Maybe 21st century Britain will have more appreciation for the culinary art of expediently delivering guacamole with the finesse of a food gun.
I found a post in a forum which speculates as to why Taco Bell has been an “utter failure” in many of the international markets it has tried to break into. The writer of the post asks, “Any theories?” And one reader posted in response: “Could it be that Taco Bell in general sucks?” Not. True. I ❤ Taco Bell.