We've all heard (or made up our own) the pejorative nicknames for Taco Bell. Taco Hell, Taco Fail, Toxic Hell, Taco Smell, Tizzle Bizzle, Baco Tell, Think Inside Your Buns, and Get The Runs From the Border are just a few off the top. It might seem like all of this negative attention would be demoralizing for the company that owns Taco Bell, Yum! Brands, Inc.
Nope. If this company were an actual person (I heard during the election that this was possible), it would be a gigantic, dazzling Rick James, covered with sequins, chunky gold jewelry and huge, glittering diamonds, screaming: "I'm Rick James, BITCH!--and YOU MOTHERF*CKERS DID IT!
The first Taco Bell was erected in Downey, California, by restaurant entrepreneur Glen Bell in 1962; in 1964 former police officer Kermit Becky opened the first franchise in Torrance. By 1970 there were 325 stores, and PepsiCo bought the whole enchilada from Bell in 1978. Interestingly, Taco Bell has tried to insert itself into Mexico twice, once in 1992 and again in 2007, and both times had to close shop because actual Mexicans just didn't eat there.
But Americans eat plenty of Taco Bell, with Yum! Brands reporting "$1.3 billion of net income and over $2 billion in cash from operations" in 2011. And apparently adding the Doritos Locos tacos to the menu sent sales soaring this year, so if customers really are experiencing gastrointestinal complications from the tacos, burritos and caramel apple empanadas, they are still unloading their wallets.
I absolutely love dining in the Taco Bell at 1775 East Colfax Avenue -- for the floor show, if not the food. Fast-food restaurants on Colfax tend to have mixed bags of colorful patrons, and the dining rooms are susceptible to some unintentional Rocky Horror dinner theater, so go prepared to be entertained. I saw the advertisements for the new XXL Nachos and dessert menu, and figured this warranted a visit inside rather than a drive-thru drive-by.
The floor show started early this particular evening, around 7 p.m., and the store was ringed with a circus of homeless people, hustlers and a couple of angry-looking hookers that the high-school-aged employees seemed oblivious to.
I ordered the XXL nachos with half beef, half chicken; an enchirito with extra red sauce the only way to go -- as well as a Meximelt; a 7-layer burrito; pintos & cheese with extra red sauce; a Doritos Locos taco supreme; a sparkling limeade and the two new desserts (the empanada isn't new): the churro and the cookie sandwich. I spent a grand total of $23, and I got that much in entertainment alone during the first fifteen minutes after I sat down at a table in the dining room.
The table next to me had a couple sharing a heated and verbally abusive conversation about whether or not child-support services could locate people on Facebook, and the guy kept waving a tortilla chip in the air for emphasis while repeating the phrase, "Ain't gettin' shit from me!"
A homeless man wandered in, sat down at the table across from me, pulled up a chair next to me and began to dispassionately explain why he needed me to give him any cash or change I could spare. Something about needing to raise capital for an out-of-state move to find work, and how the economy has really fucked over his business, and when I asked him what business he was in, he muttered something about computers, and then declined my offer to purchase him something to eat.
My order was ready.
For the first time in a long time Taco Bell ads weren't exaggerating the merits of the new nacho incarnation: It was a huge plastic pan of chips smothered with nacho cheese, sprinkled with shredded cheese, glopped with refried beans and what-is-mostly-beef, and topped off with diced chicken, pico de gallo and swirls of sour cream and guacamole. These nachos were easily a pound of food -- more when I emptied ten packets of fire sauce on them -- and they were everything promised and more.
They were what the Nachos BellGrande used to be before Taco Bell downsized the toppings but kept the price the same.
The enchirito, the beloved hybrid enchilada-burrito, is only perfect when it's swimming in red sauce, and then killed with exactly four packets of fire sauce. It's what sporks were designed for, and what I had to have after a night of smoking almost-legal Colorado kush. Meximelts are another fine choice after a fat smokeout -- the supreme textural and flavor combination of what-is-mostly-beef, Taco Bell's signature vinegary pico, melted cheese and exactly three fire-sauce packets is just what Dr. Feelgood ordered.
I have had mixed emotions about the 7-Layer burrito over the years, beginning with my affected vegetarianism in the mid-1990s. I like rice, I really do, but Taco Bell's regular Mexican rice is awful. It's bland, chewy and adds nothing to the burrito except to take up space that really should be filled with more guacamole. This burrito was no exception --crammed with too much gummy, tacky rice, and I only belatedly remembered that thanks to the new Cantina Bell menu, there is now cilantro rice available, which is not only palatable but decently seasoned.
The floor show continued with a large group of drunk guys noisily piling around the table to the side of me, with one of them playing air guitar and audibly warbling what sounded like a Sublime song, another one picking mercilessly at one of his ears, and yet another recalling fond memories of the oral sex he received from his ex.
The same homeless guy was still working the room, and he found his marks: a mid-twenties couple with matching mohawks that kept shelling out bills like he was a stripper. If they had ever seen that episode of South Park -- "Night of the Living Homeless" -- they would know what their charitable contributions would bring. I waited for it.
Taco Bell's pintos & cheese with extra red sauce is a tradition of mine going back to childhood, when I learned from my bestie that the addition of exactly six mild sauce packets would turn them into a reddish-brown, soupy mess that tasted like angel poop. I have since graduated to using hot sauce instead, because that is the adult thing to do. The sparkling limeade is the perfect accompaniment to the pintos & cheese, because the palate-cleansing qualities of Sprite, lime syrup and a lime squeeze really squishes the bean goop off your teeth.
There is one big reason that the Doritos Locos tacos have yanked Taco Bell out of a post-mostly-beef-aborted-lawsuit slump: These tacos were obviously created by a bar-hopping misanthrope for the sole purpose of appealing to other bar-hopping misanthropes. And they are delicious, with everything I love about the crunchy, over-salted, neon-hued nacho cheese powder-rubbed chips, cross-bred with the baseline attraction of Taco Bell, which is the original crunchy taco.
The Mohawk couple had indeed brought upon themselves the South Park-predicted barrage of change-seeking homeless people. I wondered whether the first guy had sent out some sort of signal to the outside, because by the time I made it to dessert the dining room was being invaded, but the stream of homeless folks seemed to be making a beeline for the mohawk couple.
I did not have high hopes for the new churro dessert. I figured it would be a single-stick version of the cinnamon twists, but I was wrong. The churro was fat, crisp on the outside and had a warm, cake-like middle, and along with the nachos was my take-away favorite.
The cookie sandwich was weird -- not weird-tasting or weirdly-made, but an odd choice for the menu. The two triangle wedges of reasonably soft chocolate chip cookie were held together with a layer of marshmallow-y flavored vanilla icing, and it tasted fine, but seemed like a strange mismatch for the Texy-Mexy-extremely-unsexy menu.
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My $23, along with the cash of everyone else in the dining room -- minus whatever the homeless folks raked in but didn't spend -- added up to yet another pot of gold for Yum Brands. We make them Rick James rich, bitch!