Ring, ring, ring the bells for more fast food hell
For most British people, their only knowledge of Taco Bell will be from the infamous scenes in Sylvester Stallone’s mildly diverting 1993 sci-fi yarn Demolition Man. In the dystopian future setting of the film, Taco Bell is apparently the *only* restaurant left in the world following the ‘franchise wars of the 1990s’ (as Sandra Bullock’s character explains with a straight face) before inexplicably pivoting to fine dining.
While clearly meant as a cheap joke for American audiences of the time, Taco Bell – like many other fast food franchises – is really a transformational pivot of another kind in taking the richly diverse food culture of Mexico, dumbing it down to make it easily and quickly replicable on a mass scale, while also whitewashing it for the lowest common denominator tastes of our Euro-American cultures.
One of the most obvious indicators of this process in making Mexican food palatable for your skinflint, casually racist uncle from the shires is how Taco Bell reuses the same handful of ingredients over and over again.
Vaguely moreish minced beef, along with limp lettuce and tame tomato is one of three filling options. You can have this beige heap of beef in a ‘soft taco’ – a floppy and largeish wheat flour tortilla. Or in a ‘hard taco’ – a dry shell of a tortilla that was light, only somewhat crunchy and a tad oily. Both of these taco attempts were inoffensive at best on their own terms; a pale imitation of far better tacos available elsewhere at worst.
You can opt to double-carb the minced beef with the Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Here, the hard shell tortilla was cupped with a flabby, doughy quasi-tortilla that looked and tasted like an iffy gua bao impersonation than an actual corn-based gordita, while some tired sauces and cheese spooned the beef filling. As this double carbing was essential in making the beef mildly less dull, the Chalupa Supreme – almost identical to the Gordita but without the hard shell tortilla – was pointless.
In an attempted sleight of hand worthy of a hungover, half-arsed magician at a child’s birthday party, the Crunch Wrap Supreme encases the minced beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato along with tortilla chips in an inexplicably hexagonal soft wheat tortilla. Aside from greater portion size, the tortilla chips were the main distinguishing factor between this dish and the soft taco, but don’t hang about – they can quickly become flaccidly soggy from the cheap sauces. Without their occasional crunch, the Crunch Wrap Supreme really is no more charming than the already charmless soft taco.
The Volcano burrito is probably the best thing on Taco Bell’s menu, at least in its default beef version. Effectively an embiggened and more tightly wrapped soft taco, it benefits greatly from the mild, intermittent heat of the hot sauce and the umami of the soft, small-grained rice. It’s certainly not ‘volcanic’ in any way, which is all the better in appealing to all the spice and flavour dodgers out there.
The second of Taco Bell’s fillings for carnivores is chicken – either ‘grilled’ or battered and deep-fried – which was just as meek and apologetic as the beef. You can opt to have the undemandingly bland, soft and bitty ‘grilled’ chicken in the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, Chalupa Supreme, the Crunch Wrap Supreme, Volcano burrito and the tacos if you really want. The deep-fried chook was somewhat less yawn-inducing with its intermittent crispiness, although that does mean the Crispy Chicken Burrito should be more aptly named as the Baby Food Burrito.
The surprisingly bland and thin yet borderline gummy cheese in the quesadilla could easily have been mistaken for vegan-friendly cheese substitute. The transient mildness of the ‘spicy’ sauce and billowing emptiness of the over-sized soft tortilla was bad enough; the quality of the cheese was just insulting.
The other options for vegetarians involve dense and reasonably nutty black beans. They made up the bulk of the filling inside the largely inoffensive double cheese black bean burrito, a loosely wrapped and therefore somewhat messy affair. One cheese was far too sweet, while the other was reasonably milky. Both were curiously unidentifiable.
The ‘seven layer’ burrito was, as far as I could tell, the double cheese black burrito but bulked up by a tired, bedraggled mix of tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole, rice and sour cream.
Although crispy on the outside, the churros proved to be excessively doughy and chewy on the inside with none of the airy puffiness that helps complete the very best churros. The faintly aromatic cinnamon was far too weak, while the dulche de leche on the side was alarming in its excessive sweetness.
Cinnamon twirls were almost like a dessert version of prawn crackers – airy, oily and crisp, but with only a mild whiff of cinnnamon at best.
It’s almost too easy to slag off Taco Bell for its meek, whitewashed and depressingly dull food. Like Demolition Man, it’s a series of bad jokes masquerading as something worthwhile.
One of the weirdest things about Taco Bell is that it’s not especially fast for fast food, with an order taking approximately ten minutes to be ready for pick up, whereas the likes of Tortilla and Chipotle can rustle up something somewhat better in around a third of the time. But then, you come to the realisation that – in their default minced beef form – Taco Bell’s efforts are effectively just cheap burgers wrapped in Mexican-ish cosplay and slung out at a third of the price of something from Chipotle.
Taco Bell is cheap and while that’s nothing to be sniffed at – especially these days more than ever – sometimes you really do get what you pay for.
What to order: The beef Volcano burrito.
What to avoid: Everything else.
Name: Taco Bell
Branch tried: 62 Powis Street, Woolwich, London SE18 6LQ
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11.00-22.00. Friday-Saturday 11.00-23.00.
Average cost for one person: £15-20 approx.