Fast food can be confusing. When you’ve grown up with a set selection of constant menus, sudden exposure to a completely different approach to junk is going to cause a reaction. People get seriously patriotic about their favourites. What might be delicious to a British or European Maccies fan might be unconscionably disgusting to an American. Unless you’ve grown up appreciating the awesomeness of a McNugget or a Domino’s Garlic and Herb dip, you might struggle to get your head around it in later life. All this feeds into to my recent experience in Taco Bell.
No one can deny that people really love Taco Bell. Like, really love it. As the seventh biggest fast food business in the States, this pseudo-Mexican mega-brand has spread its greasy tendrils to every corner of the globe, all in the name of promoting the tortilla gospel. Every day, from Middle America to the Middle East, millions of hungry diners chow down on a strange blend of Central America and San Bernardino. It is clearly a big deal. This is why, upon hearing the news that the chain was opening a new location in London, we had to go.
Because we live closer to Mongolia than we do to Mexico, the UK has never warmed much to the Taco Bell phenomenon. In the great fast food hall of fame, we Brits understand pizza, burgers and fried chicken. Tacos scare us. This explains why a chain that can dominate America can only have a handful of outlets in the UK. Nonetheless, the times have changed according to the powers that be at Taco Towers.
Upon entering the spanking new Holborn branch, it was apparent that there are plenty of other people similarly intrigued by the new edition to London’s fast food arsenal. Compared to the KFC across the street, the restaurant was packed. Punters clung precariously to rammed tables and nervously examined the bright digital menus as they tried to work out the strange new language in front of them. Hushed whispers carried across the restaurant. What’s the difference between a cheese quesadilla and a quesadilla? Is a "Beefy Melt Griller" food or a kitchen implement? Why do all the pictures look like a textbook cross-section of a diseased artery? Nervously, we approached the counter.
We had timed our visit to perfection. As the teller informed us, we had arrived on Taco Tuesday. This meant a taco and a drink for £2. This drink included beer. We like beer. Unfortunately, they were fresh out, so our thoughts soon turned to other options. My dining partner elected to sample the “Spicy Chicken Quesadilla”. I scanned the specialities menu, settling on the “Crunchwrap Supreme”. Because we were foolish taco virgins, we completely forgot salsas and sides then slunk off to find a seat, sip on Pepsi and wait.
Anyone who has eaten fast food understands that there is a big difference between advertising fakery and the reality of what you eat. That being said, our unwrapped food still looked particularly sad compared to the glossy, digitally altered counterparts emblazoned on the wall. The crunchwrap supreme resembled a dead jellyfish. The quesadilla looked like someone had accidentally ironed an empanada. Our tacos seemed to sag slightly, like the open jaws of an unhappy salamander. Nevertheless, we know better than to judge a book by its unappetising cover. We dove in.
After a few bites of crunchy taco, it became obvious that this was unlike any tortilla we’d had before. The beef was salty and wet - like chewing through a soggy paper towel that you’ve accidentally left in the microwave. The taco shell splinters into fragments if gripped too hard, sending shards of yellow plywood across the table along with a few stray leaves and cheese strands. The cheese itself is like accidentally eating a piece of plastic packaging. The combination lets you know that you’re definitely eating something, but exactly what is up for debate. It’s not unpleasant, but it is definitely unusual.
The crunchwrap supreme was neither crunchy nor wrappy, and provided an interesting new definition of "supreme". The meat leaked a curious orange oil when accidentally disturbed, which slowly seeped into the rest of the ingredients and caused the whole construction to quickly disintegrate. Determined to share with my companion, yet unable to locate a knife and fork, I was forced to dissect my jellyfish with two spoons. The oil made progress difficult.
The gooey beef was just as stodgy as it had been before, with the compelling addition of a cloak of cloying, lurid cheese. The cheese didn’t taste of anything in particular, and immediately put us in mind of a tub of child-friendly PVA. The crispy taco layer had turned soggy by the time we got round to eating the wrap, like a plain Dorito left in the rain. Everything was soft and warm.
The quesadilla, which separated into four, flaccid stuffed triangles, was equally intriguing. The spicy chicken was definitely not spicy, but it wasn’t really anything else either. There was more of the strange, gluey cheese. It had begun to turn into thick orange strands that looked like they had come from Venom’s jaundiced cousin. Eating it was fine, if a little strange. Puzzled looks were exchanged at regular intervals.
I love junk as much as the next man, but Taco Bell baffles me. Every other successful fast food brand, whether it’s McDonald’s, Burger King or Pizza Hut, fills a specific void that cannot be satisfied any other way. You go to Domino’s because you have a craving for weirdly thick crusts, strange meat and MSG. You head to Maccies for pleasurably crunchy nuggets and soggy fries. With Taco Bell, that USP is missing. The food is non-offensively fine, yet almost impossible to describe. It’s been less than 24 hours, and I still can’t tell you what it actually is.
When we left, I felt strangely conflicted. I was full, yet hungry. I still wanted more, but my stomach hurt. I didn’t understand where what we had just eaten belonged in the great fast food pantheon. Confused, my companion and I decided to retreat back into something we could get our heads around. We closed the restaurant door behind us, strode over the road and got into a significantly smaller queue. Before long, we were tucking into something mundane, delicious and deep-fried - a packet of KFC popcorn chicken. At last, we were in familiar territory.