The extent to which Bangkok was hyped about the opening of Taco Bell’s first ever Southeast Asia location was clear when I arrived at MercuryVille, a mini mall in the heart of the city’s financial district. By 9 AM, over 500 diehard enthusiasts of the chain were already in line. Many of them had posted up the night before to stake out their spots ahead of the crowd trying to win free tacos for a year, hot sauce packet pillows, and taco hats from the brand’s promotional models.
The anticipation was real. In the months leading up to the opening, the brand had refused to reveal anything about the new menu, leaving Bangkok to wonder about potential local items that might appear. Thai food and Taco Bell? The possibilities seemed endless. Would it be Mexican pad thai? Krapow tacos? Larb nachos? As an American and someone who doesn’t usually eat meat, I was most excited to revisit the basic bean-and-cheese burritos that I lived on in my college years, and to introduce one of my Thai friends who’d never tried Taco Bell to the famed fast food chain.
It was a fantasy that I ultimately wouldn’t get to live out. At least not in present-day Thailand.
In reality, the single unique food item on the Thai iteration of Taco Bell is called a Kickin’ Chicken Taco, and it’s a couple of chicken fingers in a soft taco shell smothered with spicy lava sauce that’s basically mayo. It’s tasty, sure, but there’s nothing Thai about it, and not much Mexican about it either. Beyond that, diners can get chicken soft tacos for 69 THB [$2.18 USD], pork Crunchwrap Supremes for 119 THB [$3.75 USD], chicken quesadillas for 119 [$3.75 USD], and pork Loaded Griller burritos for 79 THB [$2.49 USD].
Noticed something yet? There’s no beef or beans on the Thai menu.
Some may say a Taco Bell without the beef is no Taco Bell at all, while others would argue that no Tex-Mex feast is complete without legumes. I’d agree. Perplexed, I cornered Ankush Tuli, the Managing Director of Taco Bell Asia Pacific, to find out why.
“Our consumer research showed that the preference here is clearly for chicken, that’s what people love. And we have carnitas. In the future, we may be open to introducing beef,” he said, effectively killing a rumor started by a gossipy Thai site that the beef dishes just weren’t ready yet. “There’s no such concrete plan. But we’ll see the demand and respond accordingly.”
As we were talking, a guy walked by and yelled “Beef!”
For vegetarians, who’ve long considered the Bell a haven where they can always find a hot, affordable meal, the options at the Bangkok location are limited to a cheese quesadilla. “We’ll come up with something for them in the future, but for now this menu caters to Thai people, and that’s how we developed it,” Tuli answered. He went on to explain that Thailand, like many other food cultures in Asia, favors sweet bean desserts but never savory beans. In the brand’s market tests, the Thai testers weren’t into salty, greasy, rich (AKA delicious) Mexican-style beans. At all.
But despite the pitiable lack of beef, beans, and discernible Thainess, my friend and I weren’t deterred. While scoping out the line, we befriended an American, Jeremy Walker, who’d won a year’s worth of free tacos for his early spot in line.
I asked him how he thought he would feel after eating free Tex-Mex for a year. “I’ll probably have diabetes, or never want tacos again, or just have a big smile on my face—oh my god, they have taco hats!” he yelled, suddenly looking over my head.
After the thrill of the free taco hats subsided, Walker whispered his concern that the Fire sauce had been modified for Thailand. “I’m worried; I heard they made it less vinegary,” he said. Once we made it inside, his fears became a reality.
The Thai iteration of Taco Bell only has two options, a steep drop from the four options stateside (five if you count their breakfast salsa, which I personally don’t). Here, the Hot and Fire sauces have been changed completely: the acidic and sweet qualities have been dialed back to make them incredibly spicy. When I asked Tuli about the change, he tried to explain the spice methodology by scale, saying that if you consider the sauces on a spice scale of one to ten with the hottest American sauce at about a one, the Thai sauces would rank around a four.
I tried both. The Hot has a runny consistency, whereas the Fire presents thick, almost like ketchup. The cutesy text on the packages is still there, just in Thai. The packets below say “All for you” and “This must be really cool.”
In general, the spiciness in all the dishes has been amped up to suit chili-loving Thai tastes. While the heightened spice might be a lot for the classic Taco Bell audience, they’re pretty average for anyone used to Thai food. As one diner commented, “It just tastes like Taco Bell.”
Unable to get any of the veggie dishes I’d hoped for, I resigned myself to a pork Loaded Griller burrito, the taste of which immediately called to mind all the times I’d eaten Taco Bell in college. The spice blend was the same, but the increased heat didn’t become apparent until after a few bites. The lettuce and tomatoes have the same crunch and mild, almost non-existent flavor. The texture of the meat was the most noticeable difference: it’s more finely ground, resulting in a paste-like mouthfeel.
We carried on our quest to try more of the menu, including loaded nachos, a pork quesadilla, and a basic chicken soft taco. If you weren’t set on beans or beef, these options would be perfectly satisfying for anyone craving the Taco Bell taste you get in the States.
The disappointment came with our final dish: the new Kickin’ Chicken Tacos. I was struck by how uninspired the lone exclusive dish was. It's not like Taco Bell doesn't innovate in international markets. Tuli himself said that his favorite menu item is an India-only release called Crispy Potaco that replaces the tortilla with deep-fried potato, like a taco tucked inside a giant hash brown. But the Kickin' Chicken seems like something you'd throw together if you'd forgotten to go grocery shopping—some microwaveable chicken tenders in a flour tortilla with a dollop of sweet and spicy mayo and a sprinkle of iceberg lettuce.
About 10 minutes after we’d finished eating, my new-to-Taco-Bell friend seemed to experience the cocaine-like effect that Taco Bell has, where as soon as you come down you want more.
“I think I’d come back if I’d been drinking,” she said. “I’d come back for those Kickin’ Chicken Tacos.”
The Bell has her now.