Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A 21 Mexi-Melt Salute

I'm at that stage in life where it seems nary a week goes by without news of some pioneer or trend-setter that impacted my life departing this mortal coil. Just yesterday news reached me that we recently lost Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, Jr. (The junk culture blogger in me also learned of the passing of Juliet Anderson, the 80s porn icon who was arguably adult cinema's first MILF.)

Bell, who sold Taco Bell in 1978, had been suffering from Parkinson's Disease since 1985 and died in his California home at the age of 86. The fast-food innovator wanted to separate himself from the hamburger-slinging pack during the cheap-grub years of the 40s and 50s and started selling tacos alongside burgers. The first Taco Bell opened in 1962 and began franchising a few years later. The 1978 sale of the company to PepsiCo. brought in $125 million and paved the way for what is now known as Yum Brands. (Check out the Taco Bell website for a tribute to Bell from Greg Creed, current President and Chief Concept Officer.)

At one time in my life Taco Bell was easily my go-to fast-food restaurant of choice. While the inclusion of Mountain Dew in their free refill soft drink bar was a major factor in securing my loyalty, I also really liked the food, especially Mexican Pizza and Mexi-Melts, small flour tortillas packed with cheese and tomato. More than once I'd roll off the bus from Philadelphia, my stomach churning after a mid-day session of Meister Brau at the campus radio station, and I'd find myself walking home downing Mexi-Melts at a furious rate, hopeful that they'd quell the rumbling in my gut. And maybe sober me up a bit before I reached my destination.

Innovations like late-night drive-thru hours and such limited time menu items as Extreme Nachos only solidified my loyalty, and it wasn't odd to find me at The Bell before, during and after a night on the town, long before the chain brilliantly labeled the meal between dinner and breakfast as "4th Meal".

Along with White Castle – another frequent stop for a hard-partying and/or slowly-recovering Hungover Gourmet – Taco Bell was instrumental in the development of the printed version of THG, sprung from reviews written for the pages of my drive-in movie/junk culture zine.
The staff at the Route 30 Bell should be commended for firing on all cylinders during a recent visit. They delivered into my waiting hands what may have been the finest Mexican Pizza ever created. Like those created for photo shoots and million dollar commercial spots, this MP was a precise blend of refried beans, oooozing -- though incredibly stable -- cheese, and perfectly placed toppings that held the two crisp tortillas in suspension. My hat is tipped to the staff.
I wrote that nearly 20 years ago and just seeing those words again takes me back to days spent drinking Mountain Dew and nights spent downing Yuengling Porter as I watched bands from the comfortable confines of bars like The Khyber Pass and JC Dobbs.

By the time I'd returned to the Philadelphia area after a stint in Western PA my Taco Bell consumption was on the wane and Chick-Fil-A had replaced it as my fast-food restaurant of choice. Visits to more "upscale" taco joints like Baja Fresh, Rubio's and Qdoba were instrumental in wiping memories of the Bell's sour cream-dispensing caulking gun from my brain and the chain's tendency to "innovate" by simply adding more cheese and another taco shell pretty much drove me away, unable to be lured back even with limited time offerings, bacon or the cheap, cheap, cheap food.

I can't honestly remember the last time I visited a Taco Bell, but I have a feeling that tomorrow, as my daughter is enjoying some McDonald's from our Wednesday lunch trip, I'll be swinging through the drive-thru for some Mexi-Melts (which now contain ground beef... did they always?) and a Mexican Pizza.

What are your favorite memories of Taco Bell? Share them below...


Cinema Suicide said...

Until the early 90's, Taco Bell in New Hampshire was unheard of. It was like seeing those Sonic and Jack In The Box ads on cable and feeling as though you were being taunted by exotic junk food you'd never get to sample. I finally got a taste of the good stuff in a Boulder, CO Taco Bell in the late 80's and to say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. Fast Food burgers come and go but this was tacos, man! And a shitload of them for short money. When they finally opened one up near me, I was blowing all my money on weed. Even after a righteous burn and skating all day, I still had enough money to satisfy the munchies.

I wound up getting a job at one of the couple that opened up near me in 1992 and it qualifies as the worst job I've ever had. It also affected my hunger for their product. When you see how that stuff is prepared, not even my darling chicken soft tacos could make my mouth water. It was awful.

Spam said...

Dan, you left out what was probably Taco Bell's most significant innovation: The Value Menu. Back in 1988, when they were an easily-forgotten afterthought in the fast food business, they devised a simple yet wildly successful strategy: Unveil a menu of insanely cheap items. The 49/59/69 cent menu was born, soon to be famous as the 59/79/99 cent menu. Every other fast food chain quickly scrambled to come up with their own value menu, and to this day, it's still a staple of every fast food chain's menu.

Here's a classic 59/79/99 commercial from 1992...prominently featuring the late and great JOHNNY CASH!

I'll admit it: Taco Bell is still my go-to fast food restaurant of choice. Like Cinema Suicide, it was in Boulder that I came to appreciate what it had to offer--which, at least at that time and place, included breakfast and 24-hour locations.

As far as the quality goes, I can say this for Taco Bell: The construction of their items and the ratio of the ingredients may fluctuate from visit to visit, but the taste is more consistent than any other fast food chain. Everything's made the moment you order it, so there's never the syndrome of something having melted itself into a completely different item while stuck in holding bin purgatory.

Thanks, Mr. Bell, for feeding me so much and so dependably in my college years and beyond.

Spam said...

And the legacy of Taco Bell's marketing only gets greater: Taco bell is apparently the chain that pioneered free drink refills! Can you even remember the days before that was standard everywhere?

Regarding their invention of the value menu, Wikipedia has a page on the topic that mentions how Wendy's generally gets credit for inventing the value menu, even though Taco Bell had them beat by a year.

Dan said...

Thanks for the comments guys. I never worked at a fast food joint (or any kind of restaurant) for a couple reasons. One, I knew I shouldn't be in a situation where I had to deal with the public. Two, I never wanted to "peer behind the curtain" so to speak. I'm better off not knowing how that food is being prepared or what's going into it.