Taco Bell is the healthiest fast food, according to something I read on the internet. Or maybe it was something I wrote on the internet. Either way, makes sense: Lettuce! Tomatoes! Er … additional tomatoes! No, wait — chilies. They're green. It's hard to avoid vegetables at Taco Bell, which should be their motto.
But what is it, exactly? Is it Mexican? Tex-Mex? Quasi-Mex? You don't care. It's like the delusions you tell yourself when you order Chinese takeout:
1. It is actually Chinese.
2. You will not hoard the soy sauce packets this time, preparing for some horrible day when the economy collapses and packets of brown saltwater are used as currency. Even if they are, everyone will have soy sauce packets. They will be the penny of the post-apocalypse economy. Have a packet, leave a packet! Need a packet, take a packet!
3. They want you to order by number. That's what you think, and why wouldn't you? It's on the menu. Everything has a number. It looks like this:
61. Curry with vegetables.
62. Vegetables with curry.
63. Curried vegetables (spicy).
64. Mock vegetables in curry sauce (hot).
65. Taunting curry with mocked vegetable segments (internal bleeding).
66. Duck with glaze.
67. Glazed duck.
68. Mock duck szechuan style with napalm glazing.
69. Tofu floating in oily broth.
70. General Tso's chicken.
71. Rear Admiral Tso's prawns.
72. Field Marshal Tso's pint of slop.
And it goes on for another 100 items. You suspect it's really half a dozen things with different levels of spice, or a different kind of "meat." But you persist:
"Yes, I'd like No. 23, and … "
"What is that?" you're asked.
You want to say, "Don't you know? I'm reading off the menu you had by the cash register the last time I went." Then again, it's possible that they're under new management and an autocratic owner declared, "Shrimp dishes are now in the 40s! Pork dishes have been promoted to the 20s!" Then he picks up the ringing phone and barks, "Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed!" which for once would be useful.
But no, you have to tell them. "Curry chicken with rice," you say, and you picture the order-taker writing down "#23."
It's really a mutually agreed-upon fiction. If you said you want hot chicken glop, you'd get slick lumps of meat from the back of a bird, outnumbered by curiously miniaturized corn, with a supporting cast of indistinct organic mush. If you said medium beef glop, they'd swap out the poultry for stringy strips of burned cow. Mild pig glop, please — no, I changed my mind. Mild glop with things that once swarmed. They'd understand.
That's what it comes down to, really. Glop. And it's delicious! Finish it off with a ceramic cookie, and it's your basic takeout experience.
It's no different at Taco Bell: It's all the same stuff. Really. They remix the same five or six ingredients into something new every other month. "Announcing the Quesodillorita Crunch Supreme! Two Flavors: Ranch and Bold, neither of which are really flavors at all! New! Limited Time! We'll yank it away for no reason and never explain why! We will deny it ever existed!"
Next month they'll introduce the Crunchodortimo, which is the same thing except the crunch part is inside instead of outside. And you can have it Loco or Diablo Style, which means a cashier has to say "Loco or Diablo?" in the tone of someone who has remarkably little invested in your decision.
But here's a secret. If you ask for a Taco Macho Grande Gordita Extreme, which hasn't existed since 1994, they'll probably nod and make it.
I frequently order a chili-cheese burrito, which isn't on the menu, and they make it without blinking an eye. Literally; it's unnerving how they just stare straight ahead when they make it.
It hasn't been on the menu for years. In fact, I'm not sure it ever was part of the official Taco Bell gustatory compendium. If I remember correctly, it was a Zantigo's item, and at one point Taco Bell took over Zantigo's, and kept the chili cheese burrito around to placate the Zan fans who were furious over the change.
The Taco Bell I patronize was a Zantigo's, but that was decades ago. The store was torn down and rebuilt — but still they will make a chili cheese burrito, as if there's some persistent institutional memory that cannot be banished.
It makes you wonder what's really real in the fast-food world. If you go to McDonald's and ask for a Filet-O-Scrod, would they blink an eye? If you ask Taco Bell for a Mortarito, would the clerk say, "Do you want the diced ghost peppers? Because you have to sign a release form." If you ask the Chinese takeout place for No. 6,047, would they say, "Mock Octopus smeared with lotus pollen, right?"
No. That's No. 6,046. Don't you know your own menu?