On a cold, November day, on a largely uninspiring high street in West London, a queue is forming. It’s mostly 20-somethings in suits, dorky-looking couples, and a few teenagers making ambitious lunchtime excursions during school. An employee on the door offers advice to those at the front of the queue, gleefully relaying his recommendations and handing out menus like small Bibles. “Have you ever been to Taco Bell before?” he asks of the newly converted. “No? OK, well this is what I’d recommend … ”
Taco Bell, the Mexican-inspired fast food chain from California, clearly has a dedicated congregation in Britain. But many of those queuing today have probably never eaten a hard shell Taco Supreme or Crunchwrap Supreme Meal—and yet they all know about Taco Bell. Maybe from American TV shows or Twitter or Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sasquatch” (“Soared to Taco Bell and I ordered some gorditas/Mmm, that's good!”). Or perhaps just Mean Girls. From Kanye to Supertramp, Taco Bell holds a special place in pop culture.
Taco Bell’s new Hammersmith branch, which opened this week, isn’t the capital’s first. It is, in fact, the fourth. In the 1980s, Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! Brands chose the UK as the country in which to start its European global expansion, launching restaurants in Covent Garden, Uxbridge, and Earls Court. By the 1990s, however, all three had closed.
Despite this hiccup, Yum! Brands didn’t give up hope on the UK. In 2010, the company cautiously opened Taco Bells in other parts of England, avoiding London for regional shopping centres and, somewhat inexplicably, two locations in Barnsley. It hit trouble again in 2013, when horse DNA was found in its beef products—part of the countrywide horsemeat scandal—but this didn’t seem to slow its growth. There are now 25 Taco Bells around the UK, and after a juicy £29.4 million funding injection from HSBC earlier this year, three more are set to open in London following Hammersmith. But will the capital be more receptive to Taco Bell’s greasy charms second time around?
Back in Hammersmith, I edge my way past the crowds and into the pristine store to survey the menu. There are the tacos loaded with beef and sour cream and three-cheese blends; thigh-sized burritos; quesadillas oozing with more cheese, and then a bunch of brand names that are literally gibberish to me. Crunchwrap Supreme Chicken Griller and Stuft Burrito Volcanos—or something. Directionless, and hungry, I begin queuing at the counter and decide to reach out to some American friends for guidance on what to order. My cousin, born-and-raised in New Orleans, is zero help.
“I’m probably one of the few Americans that you will meet that will say no [to recommending Taco Bell],” she replies to my frantically typed Facebook message, then reels off a few items she has heard are good. “I wouldn't have high expectations as it’s better to eat after a few pints 😝,” she adds.
Still none the wiser on how to navigate Taco Bell’s exhaustive, fake cheese-slathered menu, I message MUNCHIES’ official Taco Bell correspondent, a.k.a. senior editor Hilary Pollack. It is the day after Thanksgiving and also very, very early in the morning in LA, but she is my best hope.
“hilary!!” I write in a Twitter DM, edging worrying close to the front of the line. “i realise you are on holiday AND it is like 5 am in LA BUT i am going to the first london taco bell for an article and i need recommendations.”
Alone, lost, uncertain, and in Taco Bell, I do what anyone would do. I go rogue. Armed with my cousin’s recommendation of booze, and the life-changing realisation that Taco Bell has an alcohol licence, I order a tequila lemon slushie. Then a hard shell taco with beans, some nachos, and a quesadilla. I decide that I must also get the “Crunchwrap Supreme,” a popular, hexagon-shaped tortilla stuffed with meat, so I order one of those and then some chips—and a “cheesy double decker taco,” purely because it looks absurd. Then, in a strange wave of enthusiasm, I decide to get dessert, ordering the churros and something called a “Chocomarsh Melt.” For good measure, I ask whether the restaurant has a Chicken Chalupa, an off-menu item mentioned to me by someone who works for the company, which is essentially fried chicken moulded into the shape of a taco, then filled with salad and salsa. They do, so I order that too. Hilary, I think. Help.
According to the 2011 census, there are 9,065 Mexican born-people in England and Wales. As a result, Mexican-owned restaurants are few and far between. Most of London’s most popular Mexican eateries, including Taco Queen and Breddos Tacos, are founded by English chefs with a particular interest in the cuisine.
“There is a lack of Mexicans and Mexican communities of cooks in the world in general,” Santiago Lastra, a Mexican chef, told me last month when I interviewed him about his supper club. “The immigrants, they're mostly concentrated in the States, because to go to Europe is really expensive, and also most of the Mexicans in other countries have senior jobs.”
While the food Taco Bell serves is closer to Tex-Mex—a fusion of American and Mexican food—the brand is clearly looking to take advantage of the growing demand for Mexican-inspired food in Britain, as well as increased fast food sales following the recession.
“Twenty-five years ago, things were very different. The Mexican category was not established and our brand overall was much smaller,” Jorge Torres, general manager of Taco Bell Europe tells me over email, when I ask why the company decided to relaunch a London branch. “The landscape is very different now as the Mexican category is bigger, much more prevalent and growing, and the Taco Bell brand at large has grown tremendously.”
Settling into the cushioned seats at Taco Bell Hammersmith, I’m ready to try and Live Más. The first thing I go for is a hard shell taco. It has all the hallmarks of a delicious fast food item, without necessarily being notable in that deliciousness. The cheese is gummy and flavourless, and coats the beans like a creamy blanket. I expand to the other menu items. The fries are unusually good for a chain more interested in tortilla chips. At one point, I think I’m eating a taco, but it actually turns out to be a piece of fried chicken shaped like a taco. This must be the Chicken Chalupa.
Things start to become a little blurry at this point. Whether it’s the sugar, tequila, salt, or just the overwhelming excitement at finally being part of a pop cultural phenomenon, I have very little idea of what I’m putting in my mouth. I try not to eat too much meat, but end up consuming beef tacos, then inadvertently biting into something sweet when I was expecting savoury. Ah, the Chocomarsh Melt. We meet again.
To mark this significant dining experience, I had turned up to the restaurant wearing a Taco Bell jumper I was sent as a promotional gimmick, plus matching cap, and begin to pose with my food for photos to accompany this article. People start to watch and take their own photos. I continue to pose. Am I….Am I Taco Bell?
I finish the 14 dishes. I manage to order another slushie, this time with rum. It is 2 PM. Taking my leftovers with me in an intimidatingly large box, I stumble back outside, greasy and ashamed. A gaggle of teenagers surround me wearing Taco Bell hats, chanting. Taco Bell! Taco Bell!
I cannot escape.