Tuesday, January 12, 2021

A Love Letter to Taco Bell


I can smell this sign

~~~

"Would you like any hot or mild sauce?"

"Lots of hot sauce, please," my dad said. He paid for our entire order with a $10 bill and change left over.

"Okay sir, your order number is 44 and it will be out shortly, thank you."

"Just a second, I forgot something..." said my father with a sly glance in my direction. 

My dad looked up at the menu and gesticulated with his finger as if he was really searching for something. The cashier positioned herself in front of the register, her hand hovering over the labeled buttons. I could tell my dad was teeing up a joke, but surprisingly I couldn't guess what it was. He seemed to be stepping outside of his usual dad-joke routine. He smirked and then slowly looked at the cashier, his eyebrows raised.

"What is free?"

The cashier furrowed her brows for a moment and then chuckled. Her co-workers took secondary break from preparing food and turned their heads to look at my dad. All in unison they said:

"Smiles!"

Yeah, Taco Bell was our happy place.

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A couple of mornings ago, my husband and I were adjusting our eyes and brains to the morning light and yes... as is the norm these days, we both grabbed our phones to see if we missed anything crucial overnight. After deleting the barrage of retail emails and skimming our news notifications, I heard Paul make a "huh" sound without any follow-up. "What is it?" I asked.

Turned out a columnist had written an article about Arby's... yes Arby's... and the important part it had played in his life. It was part of a childhood routine after church on Sundays and remained a constant comfort to him well into adulthood even as his career moved him to cities where a trip to Arby's required a long drive. Sure, the food wasn't anything more than mediocre, but the pleasures came from the comforts of that uncomplicated cuisine, ambience and moments with his father. Arby's just happened to be the backdrop for many of his childhood memories. 

As I stared up at our bedroom ceiling fan while Paul read the article aloud, I was transported to my own version of what this author was writing about. For me, it was Taco Bell, an absolute staple from my childhood and one that I still indulge in when I need a reminder of those simpler times. To say we were "regulars" at a few Taco Bell locations is an understatement. It was our most frequented fast food choice by far and I felt compelled to write about why we so often ran for the border. 

Brown People LOVE Mexican Food

My first job was hostessing at a Mexican restaurant in high school. Casa Lupita was a regular haunt for our family when we wanted Mexican food that was fancier than our beloved Taco Bell. A few months into my new job, a frustrated server came up to the host stand to peep the lobby and tip potential during the last couple of hours of his Saturday night shift. He did a once-over and groaned.

"You need something, Scott?" I asked while figuring out the next table in my rotation.

"I need you to not seat me another Indian table," he said half-jokingly with his voice, but un-jokingly with his everything else. 

I glanced at him and rolled my eyes and then noticed the lobby was full of my fellow brown peeps. 

"That's racist, Scott... get away from me." I retorted lightly. Our rapport had that odd air of an Indian 11th grader and a white waiter dude pushing 30, which is to say, I humored his dumb comments and he saw no flaws in his behavior. 

"What? I'm sick of getting stiffed by them!"

"Stiffed? They don't leave anything?"

"Well, no... but it's, like, 12 or 13% at the most when I usually get about 20%! Plus, they are high maintenance. Parties of at least 8 people and tons of substitutions. I work my ass off and only clear a 12% tip, it's bullshit."

Scott wasn't wrong about working his ass off. He was, by far, our best waiter. And as much as it pained me to admit, he wasn't totally off about his assessment of Indian folks who came to the restaurant. Hell, I had been part of those parties of 8 to 12 people (few families, ya know) and cringed when the parents would hound the server with a billion questions. They would ask them to double check with the kitchen about various things and a few choice aunties always looked at their plates with suspicion before raising their finger to ask the harried server, "This is vegetarian chimichanga, right?" As to the tipping practices by our parents, I had to plead ignorance since us kids were always on the opposite side of the table laughing from the sugar high of our Sprites and fried ice cream. But, speaking for my own parents and their affection for chintz, I cannot imagine they were tipping like Rockefellers. 

"Fine," I shrugged, "I'll skip you. But if they request a table your section, you're stuck with them unless you want to switch with Chantal."

"Shit... and that's another thing, they are never happy with the table!"

"Oh my GOD, I get it, you hate Indian people!" I shout-whispered into Scott's face.

His frustration softened as he looked into my eyes with regret. Perhaps it was the lack of political correctness in the 90s or the fact that I was 16... probably a combo of both, but I wasn't as mad about his bigoted rant against my people as much as I was annoyed with yet another server trying to influence my hosting duties! MY territory! 

"Well... I do love YOU!!" he said in a sing-songy voice while putting his arm around me and laying his head on my shoulder. Again, as most 30-year-olds do with teenagers. Shit, hindsight sure is creepy/creepy. 

"But seriously, why do so many Indians like Mexican food?"

"They just do, okay? I gotta go check tables." I hurried off to do my job, which did not entail explaining the inner-workings of Indian immigrant eating habits to a grumpy, racist waiter. As my eyes swept over the restaurant to assess the vacating status of the tables, his question did burrow into my brain a bit. We Indians loved Mexican food. Ugh, something else Scott was right about. My thoughts didn't delve too deep into the answer that night, I'm sure they were occupied with traumatic flashbacks to the Rachel haircut I had gotten months earlier, but now I can properly analyze the parallels between Indian folks and Mexican cuisine. 

Por Que?

After she arrived in the United States in 1974, one of the biggest complaints my mother had was with the blandness of American food. Indian grocery stores were in short supply back then, so much so that special trips had to be made over the border into Canada to find any decent Indian ingredients. When my mother gave birth to my brother in 1975, a friend of hers snuck Indian food into the hospital since my mother couldn't choke down the hospital food. Even today, my mother's eyes shine with the same relief she felt on that day when her friend opened her purse to reveal Indian flatbreads and shaak (spicy vegetable mix) still warm in Tupperware. 

"Oh god, she saved me," my mother says. 

One thing you cannot say about Indian food is that it is bland. So a lifetime of tasting bold spices doesn't just go away because you move to another country. Starting a life in a completely different land no doubt includes trying to find any comforts of the home you left while assimilating to the new world around you. Food is such an integral part of Indian culture so I'm sure it was difficult for those immigrants landing in the United States in the 1970s, their tongues longing for familiar bold spices in a sea of bland. 

For that reason, it's not difficult to understand why Mexican food appeals to Indian folks. Here's my completely unscientific analysis:

Spice

While the flavor profiles between Indian and Mexican food don't totally match, there is a lot of overlap with specific spices used in each cuisine. The majority of what you taste in Mexican food hits the same taste buds as Indian food and makes them dance. Plus, we especially love the options to bring up the heat of the food. Never did my father go to a Mexican restaurant without asking for the extra hot salsa or a side of pickled jalapeƱos to amp up his already flavorful dish. We Indians enjoy meals that we can taste long after we've left the table. 

Vegetarian options

When describing the quintessential American person, one often hears the phrase, "Oh, he/she is a real meat and potatoes type." We Indians, for the most part, embrace only half of that nutritional equation. While I did not grow up in a strictly vegetarian household, many of our Indian friends practiced vegetarianism for religious reasons. 

Mexican food is very adaptable to vegetarian options given that beans are a protein choice. Even if we didn't opt for the beans as a meat replacement, you could get a mix of spiced up veggies as filler in your fajitas, quesadillas, burritos... what have you. Mixing both veggies and protein in one dish is big in Indian cuisine. While Indians may do that with a curry or dahl, Mexicans like to do that and wrap it up in a crunchy or soft package! And again, all dishes adaptable to a meatless version. 

Full of bright flavors and vegetarian? "Done and done," says most Indians! 

Rice & Tortillas

A tortilla is like roti, naan, chapatti, etc. Rice is like... well rice. So... yeah. (I told you this was unscientific.)


Mane Taco Bell Joye Che (Yo Quiero Taco Bell in Gujurati)

Now that I've so precisely proven why Indians tend to love Mexican food... enter Taco Bell. Ah yes, Taco Bell. At the mere mention of the name I can smell and taste a very significant foodtrack of my youth (note to self, try to get "foodtrack" trending somewhere). Besides my mother's cooking, Taco Bell holds up as one of my favorite food comforts to this day.

In addition to the airtight reasons I provided above, in regards to Taco Bell, you can add another one: IT IS CHEAP and Indians are cheap AF. It's okay, I'm allowed to say this. 

Our visits were so frequent, we got to know the employees at our favorite locations. The one on Crooks Road was our "home" location, on the corner of Livernois and Maple was our "backup home" location and then the Saturday location was near Oakland Mall where my mother worked. At each Taco Bell, they knew to add extra onions to our bean burritos, make sure the tostadas weren't soggy and give my dad a side of green sauce (an elusive spicy sauce that wasn't even on the menu!!). 

We all loved it, but my dad was really our Taco Bell champ. A lover of food in general, my father was an equal opportunity employer between fine dining, chain restaurants and fast food. Every new introduction to a fast food menu was a source of excitement and usually a special trip was made to savor all the processed, salty goodness. I still remember when Taco Bell released the Gordita. My father saw the commercial and immediately said we had to try it. Off we went to our "home" location and a few minutes later my dad experienced a mix of emotions. While the actual Gordita satisfied his taste buds to the highest level, he bristled at how "expensive" it was. Paying over $3 for a single item was UNHEARD of with our usual Taco Bell orders, so he resigned himself to order his beloved Gordita only on special occasions. 

As I reflect now on those days, the thought of Taco Bell takes me back to a simpler time in my life and a time when I still had my father around. For a man who could get a overly serious about many things, Taco Bell brought him such uncomplicated joy.  More than craving an enchirito (ugh, which they took off the menu last year) or tostada, I crave those memories of my dad's frivolous giddiness while carrying a bloated bag of burritos, tacos - and if it was a special occasion - a Gordita. 

I rarely let myself enjoy Taco Bell these days, but every now and then I will indulge in all of it's cheap-ass pseudo-Mexican food glory. And I have to say, it RARELY disappoints. The flavor always comes through... and so do the memories. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There are arguably better options out there when it comes to casual Mexican dining, but to me, Taco Bell will always win. As I find myself ascending in years, grabbing hold of those connections to my youth gets more and more elusive and slippery. Thanks to that Arby's article, I've gotten lost in the memories of Taco Bell... many of which aren't even very vivid or linear in nature, but are delightfully all-encompassing nonetheless. 

Thanks for the good times, Taco Bell... now, off to get a pricey Gordita in honor of my Dad. 

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