For Whom the Bell Tolls

'I Love Taco Bell. There, I Said It.'

In a state and a region that are overflowing with quality Mexican restaurants, does Mexican-inspired fast food even have a place? Our writer argues yes.

By Lauren Jackson April 12, 2023 Published in the March-April 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

I was just a young tot when Taco Bell Baja Blasted into my life. At the time, I didn’t yet know about tried and true Mexican flavors like al pastor (spit-roasted pork), carnitas (braised pork) or moles (rich sauces used in a wide variety of dishes), but I did know that a beef soft taco hit the spot like nothing else. Add some cinnamon twists or a choco taco and, game over, we were done.

My tastes have become more sophisticated over the years. For example, my current favorites at the Bell are a chicken quesadilla or a crispy chalupa. I’ve even ventured to Del Taco, a California chain billed as an upgrade on the Taco Bell experience that expanded into Bradenton last year. The menu at Del Taco is a little too stoner-friendly for me (even by Taco Bell standards), and I found the flavors a touch too rich. However, I admired the chain’s creativity, and saluted the restaurant for catering to an underserved demographic in need of sustenance.

But as I was crushing a loaded queso burrito at Del Taco, I couldn’t help but wonder: In a state and a region that are overflowing with quality Mexican restaurants, does Mexican-inspired fast food even have a place? I argue yes. For
those of us who were not blessed with a grandmother who makes tamales for Christmas or an uncle who roasts a whole suckling pig at family gatherings, Mexican-style fast food often acts as our first introduction to a whole
For Whom the Bell Tolls culinary universe. If it hadn’t been for a childhood filled
with soft tacos and bean burritos, I may not have developed an interest in better Mexican food. These fast food places have helped introduce generations of Americans (white, suburban Americans, in particular) to a world of cuisine they may not otherwise have had a chance to sample.

Sure, in Florida, we have an excellent taco stand around every corner, and Tex-Mex food abounds. But for the rest of the country, in places like North Dakota, where my husband is from, the local Taco John’s may be the only place where residents can sample something even remotely spicy. Many of us have never been introduced to authentic Mexican food until we have our own bank accounts and an interest in broadening our palate.

These days, I live with a Taco Bell at the end of my block, and I will fight anyone who says it’s not the best one in town. I abuse the privilege of having one so near to me, but it’s not always my go-to. Some days, I feel a little fancier, but am still in the quick service mood, so I’ll venture over to Poppo’s, a locally owned chain with great Mission-style burritos.

The higher-brow menu at Poppo’s makes my affection for Taco Bell feel like a forbidden secret I should never share with anyone, but I know that’s a silly attitude. There’s good fast food and there’s terrible haute cuisine, and it’s fine to love what you love. When I go to Taco Bell now, I think back to old memories of cruising through the drive-through with my mother after dance practice and I rejoice in my familiar favorites. It’s like checking in with an old childhood friend. You’ve grown up and moved on, and you may not talk as often as you once
did, but when you need them, they’re there for you, just like Taco Bell.

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