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2002-09-06 9:05 a.m.


The majesty! The glory! Me at the Taco Bell in Los Banos, CA. Notice the smiley face on the Mexican Pizza.

On the way out the restroom, a man stopped me and asked me if I was "the Taco Bell guy". I knew what he was referring to. He recognized my photo from my recent Taco Bell article in The Wave, a San Francisco Bay Area entertainment magazine which I recently began writing for.


Please help!

I explained to him how the article was much funnier before it got edited and that I was happy he read it. I felt a little silly; I felt a little vulnerable.

For an instant I wondered what it would be like to be recognized everywhere. There would be no rest or solace; there would be no quiet. One's concept of alone would shift and bend in ways which I only barely understand. Our culture treats people strangely—entertainers are the new royalty. They need bodyguards; they dodge cameras. I am not sure if I would want that or not, or if I could handle it graciously if it was given to me.

And, in case you just can not get enough of Taco Bell and my obsessive thoughts on the subject, you can download my Taco bell song here. I recorded this song ten years ago, but I think it is still pretty valid today. (Thanks to Doug Wyatt for reminding me to put this song up here.)

In case anyone is interested, here is the Taco Bell article in its original, unedited form:

Mission: Bell

One brave journalist tackles 15 Taco bells in five days to find out which Bay Area Bell is best!

Are all Taco Bells created equal?

Well...are they? I wanted to know, and clearly the world has a right to know. That is why, over the course of five days, I ate at 15 Bay Area Taco Bells in order to find out whether or not all Taco Bells are created equal.

And I did a lot more than just eat the food. I brought a scale and weighed the portions. I measured the temperature of the food, the soft drinks, and the hot water in the restroom sinks. I compared food prices, quality of restroom fixtures, hours of operation, and comfort of seating. I even tested their artistic skills by requiring them to decorate the top of my Mexican Pizzas with smiley faces. How different is one Taco Bell from another? Which locations were the best? Let's examine the facts...

The food remains the same.

When I began this adventure, I predicted considerable food–quality differences between stores and planned to draw correlations relating food with factors including location, time of day, and number of hickies per employee. Boy, was I wrong. During the course of my five–day eating spree, I found that the quality of Taco Bell's not–very–Mexican–at–all food varied only negligibly from one location to another. I ate 15 Taco Bell meals, each prepared by different hands. With each, I observed how it was not bad, yet not superlative, either. Each one was just good enough.

After sampling many Bells, I feel confident when I say their food will be fresh, clean, and probably not give you food poisoning or Mexican Jumping Stomach Meningitis. But, it will also never soar to any spectacular culinary heights. High throughput, legal liability, and fanatically rigid preparation guidelines are a double–edged sword for corporate food machines like The Bell. Although they work as a strong safety net, they also create a quality ceiling.

Honestly, if you want exceptional food, try Acqurello in San Francisco or Hunan Garden in Palo Alto. If you want terrible or unsafe food, brave the ancient food museum in the very back of your own refrigerator. But, if you want to eat satisfying, hot food for less than $4, including a beverage stop by any local Taco Bell. Strict corporate standards help to ensure their food is always clean, fresh, and just good enough to satisfy.

Locations.

I visited Taco Bells in the richest neighborhoods—San Rafael, Sausalito, Mountain View—as well as the poorest—Los Banos. I was surprised to find the restaurants in lower–income areas such as Los Banos, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy had cleaner restrooms, happier staff, and seemed all–around more pleasant, while, in spite of their ultra–affluent surroundings, San Rafael and Sausalito stores were the worst of all I visited.

The Sausalito location failed to display their business hours anywhere on their building. When I asked an employee what time they opened and closed, his bewildered look and silence revealed that he accidentally forgot to learn English. He then fetched the manager on duty, who, after waffling about it, admitted to not even knowing the hours of operation. He proceeded to get my order wrong, too...as did the staff in nearby San Rafael.

I can't blame them, though. Nobody can survive on $40,000 a year in Marin—clearly someone earning minimum wage there can't even afford to eat at the Taco Bell they work at. My advice: go to a Taco Bell in a neighborhood where the workers can afford to live. They seem happier and do a better job—probably because they not only have hickies, but also a roof over their head and enough food in their bellies.

Restrooms: muy importante.

Through the 70's and 80's, Taco Bell thought it would be a good idea to make their restaurants look like the lame little missions that California school children build retarded replicas of in fourth grade. While these mission–style taco joints were quaint in that "let's Christianize some natives" sort of way, they had one major ball–sucking flaw: most were built with the restrooms around the back. Not only did patrons have to walk far through the harsh California elements to use the restroom, but these unprotected outdoor restrooms always appeared to be the favorite rest stops for roving gangs of beginner graffiti artists and toilet paper thieves with terminal dysentery.

Luckily, very few mission–style Taco Bells remain, as most have been demolished in favor of the more modern "restroom–inclusive" style. Thank god. Have a snack and enjoy sparkly clean, convenient restrooms such as those at 17000 Condit Rd. in Morgan Hill, 100 Donahue St. in Sausalito, or the immaculate 1571 Pacheco Blvd., in Hollister.

But, maybe you enjoy graffiti, like the looks of broken mirrors, and think toilet paper and paper towels are for sissies? Perhaps you want one last stint in an outside–and–around–the–back restroom before they become completely extinct? Don't worry, there are a few mission–style restaurants left, and their diseased toilet–closet/graffiti–museum restrooms are ready for you. Visit 1299 S. 1st St. in San Jose, 402 3rd St. in San Rafael, or 503 Pacheco Blvd. in Los Banos.

Enough of the generalities. Let me share the highlights—the stores that really stood out.

For a Special Occasion.

While driving up Highway 1, make sure to stop and enjoy the view at the Taco Bell in Pacifica, 5200 Coast Hwy. Distance to nearest ocean: 30 feet. Taking advantage of the epic location, this beachfront fast food fiesta sports an outside deck on the adjacent beach. Of course, wet surfers and sandy, lice–infested cretins are encouraged to order from the convenient outside walk–up window. Why eat inside when you can sit outside and munch a quesadilla and get pelted with stupid, sandy wind, filthy sea foam, and feathers from nearby rotting seagull carcasses? A truly unique Northern California experience!

The Biggest, the Best.

Feeding Silicon Valley since 1989, the Taco Bell at 3610 El Camino Real in Santa Clara is the giant mega–mother ship of Bay Area Bells. This glorious taco shrine accommodates 88 inside, 20 in their meeting/banquet room, 20 on the patio, and leagues of drive–through customers in their stadium–sized parking lot. But there's more. The food here was the best of all 15 locations I tried, the restaurant the cleanest, the employees the most knowledgeable, and I would eat off their immaculate restroom floors before I would even touch a doorknob at certain other locations. Plus, their drive–through window is open until 3AM.

Blasts from the past and a glimpse of the future

For years I had heard a rumor that Los Banos was home to a well–kept secret: pilot restaurants where TB's mad burrito scientists tested new products before unleashing them upon the world. I drove to Los Banos to see for myself. The trek proved to be well worth it, too. I not only feasted on some Los Banos exclusives and revisited items now unavailable at other locations, but also heard tales of pilot products that didn't quite make the cut.

Sure, many Taco Bells serve the Southwest Chicken Bowl, but only in Los Banos have I found its Steak Bowl counterpart—it has not been released to the world yet. For dessert, I skipped the cinnamon twists in favor of what appears to be another tasty Los Banos exclusive: Oreo brownies!

Of course, any real TB fan will remember the tostada. Discontinued elsewhere, this inexpensive, messy food value still finds a place on their menu. If you visit, make sure to impress your friends and order a Cheesy Gordita Crunch—no longer on the menu, their elite employees can still prepare this hyper–cheesed double taco.

When asked about "secret" pilot products that never made it out of Los Banos, employees remembered the Crunchiza. Described as a slice–shaped piece of baked flat bread with melted cheese and pizza sauce, the mysterious Crunchiza appeared to never have graduated from its Central Valley testing grounds.

With exclusive menu items, old favorites, and lore of products that never were to be, the three–hour drive proved to be more than worth it. In the scorching hot Central Valley, I truly found the pot of nacho cheese sauce at the end of the taco rainbow.

What have we learned?

With food quality being roughly equal, the best Bells were the most interesting ones—those that did not strictly adhere to a cookie cutter mold. But, even though a few TBs rose to the top by having special features—desirable location, better atmosphere, cleaner restrooms, nonstandard menu items, or employees with fascinating hickies—the modern Taco Bell proved to not vary from location to location nearly as much as I originally expected or hoped.

As I assume is always the case in megacorporate food situations, the goal is clearly to satisfy our constant search for comfort through familiarity. People like to know what they are getting, and Taco Bell does a great job of meeting that need, no matter where you are. Luckily, in spite of The Bell's homogeneity and strict corporate structure, subtle differences in factors including location, environment, menu, and the infinite variability of employees exist—you just have to look in order to find them. So what does that mean? With a few dollars, you can expect to get a hot, clean, satisfying meal at any Bay Area Bell. Add to that an open mind, a sense of adventure, and a tank of gas, and you may even have a little fun while you are at it.



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