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.
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