MONTERREY, Oct. 27 -- Studying the menu above the counter of the new Taco Bell in the Plaza Bella Mall in Monterrey, Mexico, I am drawing a blank. What the hell’s a tambache? And what’s a tacostada? Then, thanks to the photos, I start to puzzle it out.
A flour tortilla folded around a tostada and a ground beef filling is a called a Crunchwrap Supreme at Taco Bell in the U.S. “Tambache” is the made-up name Taco Bell has given it in Mexico. And since rigid fried tortillas like the ones Taco Bell uses for its tacos are called tostadas in Mexico, Taco Bell changed the name of their signature item from a taco to a tacostada to avoid getting into that whole “what is a taco” debate with the Mexicans. Hmm… so shouldn’t they rename the chain Tacostada Bell in Mexico?
While they are at it, they need to come up with a Spanish word for “spork,” that combination spoon and fork they make you eat with at Taco Bell. Combine cuchara and tenedor and you end up with the cutesy “cuchador.” Is the more macho “tenechara” better?
I sample a few bites of a tacostada, a tambache, and a burrito with carne asado to see if there is any difference in flavor. My fuzzy memories of Taco Bell cuisine are based on visits to the drive-through lane at three in the morning after being overserved. But as best as I can recall, this stuff tastes just as bland and gloppy as the Taco Bell junk I ate in the middle of the night back home.
Of course, the real question is: Why would people in Monterrey, Mexico, a city with awesome taquerias, carnicerias and street vendors, eat at Taco Bell?
Looking around the restaurant, I would have to say that the answer has something to do with kids. Three of the six tables taken are occupied by familes. I go over and sit down with Alfredo, Raquel, and their son Ronaldo, who are polishing off a burrito, some nachos, and a tacostada.
Alfredo likes the nachos, which you can’t get anywhere else around here. Raquel says that the picadillo is high quality beef. “The food tastes good and it isn’t as greasy as the tacos you get at a taqueria on the street,” she tells me. But Raquel confesses that they eat at Taco Bell because young Ronaldo, a very picky eater, likes the food.
When the folks at Gourmet magazine devoted their September issue to Latino cuisine, they got angry letters accusing them of being un-American. As you might expect, our southern neighbors are just as unhappy about Taco Bell in Mexico and everything it symbolizes.
“A lot of Mexicans are angry about Taco Bell coming here,” a 21-year-old music student named Lydia tells me. “They say it’s watering down our culture.” But Lydia admits that college students in Monterrey aren’t quite as concerned about the encroachment of American fast food as the self-appointed guardians of Mexico’s culinary patrimony. “We already have McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, KFC, Bennigan’s, Applebee’s and Chili’s, so it’s not that big a deal,” says Lydia.
Lydia prefers Carl’s Jr.’s burgers to McDonald’s, but she is most fond of Chili’s, a chain that is already hugely successful in Monterrey. “I wouldn’t go to Chili’s on a date,” she says, “But it’s right there in the mall and it’s so convenient.” She always orders the boneless chicken wing salad.
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Fifteen years ago, when the first Taco Bell opened in Mexico City, I made a pilgrimage there, ate a taco, and wrote a story equating the arrival of Taco Bell in Mexico to the sacking of Rome. But, surprise, surprise, that first Taco Bell quickly went out of business. And somehow the tradition of the taco, a food which traces its origins back to the dawn of time, remained pretty much unchanged.
I don’t think the Taco Bell in Monterrey will have much luck selling ice to the Eskimos either. Kentucky-based Yum Brands, Inc., which now owns the chain, is trying to expand internationally because Taco Bell sales are flat in the U.S. If I had to guess why, I’d say Taco Bell is having trouble competing with the immigrant-run taco trucks and taquerias that are popping up all over the U.S.A.
Let Carlos Fuentes and the Mexican intellectuals bemoan the second coming of the talking Chihuahua. I say: May the best taco win. And what do you want to bet that the ancient corn culture will beat out the fast food guys -- and not the other way around? – Robb Walsh