Happy Taco Bell Tuesday! I’ll dive right in:
Cantina Bell menu emblematic of fast-food progress: Matthew Yglesias at Slate argues that “The entry of new higher-end places [like Chipotle] is precisely what’s driving the Taco Bells of the world to raise their games” and adds that “[i]n the end, it means that nasty fast food as we know it is almost certainly doomed.” The whole piece is worth a read.
I’m with him on the first point but skeptical of the second. With improved technology and higher standards come change — and in most cases improvements — across society. Many say the ongoing popularity of food trucks is a fad, and to their credit I suspect that ultimately corporatization of mobile restaurants will push many of our current local favorites off the streets. But the food-truck thing is undeniably a product of contemporary technology: The Internet allows truck owners to easily communicate where they’ll be and what they’re serving, which lets hungry lunchers everywhere eschew the crappier nearby options for something more interesting and specialized. As recently as 10 years ago, popular and inexpensive marketing tools like Facebook and Twitter were unavailable or more difficult to update than they are now, meaning that typically food trucks and their ilk needed to anchor to a regular location or neighborhood and rely on word of mouth to foster the lengthy lines we see all the time all over big cities now.
So yeah, it’s reasonable to say that Chipotle has forced Taco Bell to “raise [its] game.” Look at the quality of television now versus the network-dominated 1980s. Sure, there’s plenty of dumb stuff to watch, but thanks to the competition there’s also way more smart stuff to watch. I suspect no one would make Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Wire if we still only had three or four networks catering to the broadest possible tastes, just like Taco Bell would never have to launch the Cantina Menu if it were still the only Mexican-inspired fast-food joint in the national market.
But does it spell doom for our beloved Crunchy Tacos and Big Macs? I don’t know. Again: The good stuff on TV has not replaced the dumb stuff on TV, it just adds to it. Maybe people soon won’t stand for typical fast food that’s not prepared fresh, but as long as there’s a market for delicious, inexpensive food sold at presumably massive markups and served in seconds, Taco Bell’s not going to stop selling its traditional fare. But then I’m biased and trying to remain optimistic, and I never thought Taco Bell was “nasty” to begin with.
Speaking of which: On a drive to Ithaca for a wedding Saturday night, my wife and I stopped at a Taco Bell Express in a truck stop off the interstate. I ordered a Cheesy Gordita Crunch, but the woman at the register told me they were unavailable at the location — I imagine because they don’t stock the precious Zesty Pepper Jack Sauce. They didn’t have Volcano Tacos either and I wound up ordering a couple of old-fashioned Crunchy Tacos, the staple of the Taco Bell menu but one I normally ignore in favor of more complex Taco Bell fare.
Man, how great are tacos? I mean tacos like the way you used to know them, before anyone told you that the tacos you grew up with in the school cafeteria are “inauthentic” and/or bastardized versions of their Mexican ancestors (which aren’t really that old anyway). The crunchy yellow shell, just thick enough to stay firm despite the orangey grease from the salty and spicy ground beef within, crumbling apart slowly as you chomp each bite of crispy lettuce, tasty cheese and delicious meat but perfectly sized to remain intact until the finish.
You question Glen Bell’s greatness? Glen Bell gave this to you! And we could discuss for hours whether he actually created the thing or even the innovation that allowed it to be produced for the masses, and debate whether the glorious reign of tacos was inevitable regardless of Bell’s role in their ascendance, but what happened happened: It’s Bell, Glen Bell — Taco Bell! — that ushered this perfect treat into ubiquity.
Speaking of which: Did you know that Glen Bell’s ancestor Joseph Bell was the Scottish forensic scientist who inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes? I didn’t, and I know so much about Glen Bell. Now we all know, thanks to OMG Facts and famed WFUV host and MetsBlog contributor Amit Badlani, who passed it along.
Lastly: In Ithaca, there’s a Taco Bell with the old-style sign. I know that a lot of research goes into what color combinations make people hungry and enthusiastic for Mexican-inspired fast food and everything, but I much prefer this scheme to the purple, pink and yellow one you see on most Taco Bell signs now: