The best night of my life was the night I stumbled into the Taco Bell in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, drunk, with the confidence of a woman who had just given a stranger Advil from a plastic bag in her purse. I found myself in front of one of the newly installed ordering kiosks, and, puzzled and delighted, looked through the categories on the screen, searching for my go-to: the Mexican Pizza, the same thing I’ve been ordering at Taco Bell since I was eight and first tried it at a birthday party. I couldn’t find it. Frantic, I FaceTimed my boyfriend asking him to figure it out for me. He couldn’t (I had my camera facing the wrong way). Finally, under “Specialties,” there it was. I added in my usual substitution—refried beans instead of meat—and then saw that the kiosk listed an array of other subs that I hadn’t realized existed. That night, my perfect Taco Bell menu item was born.
The perfect Taco Bell menu item is the Mexican Pizza, sub the meat for beans, add potatoes, Fritos, and nacho cheese sauce. Douse in Fire sauce to taste. Ideally, the potatoes and Fritos would be on top for maximum stability, but sometimes they come in between the two tortillas (which is fine, just requires a fork). My Taco Bell order has been derided as a “Starbucks order at Taco Bell.” But while I have made mistakes—I went through a phase of my life when I tried to convince my friends that having a Microsoft Outlook email address was cool—this Mexican Pizza is not one of them.
I’ve been a Taco Bell evangelist since childhood. It feels enough like home that I’m comfortable eating alone there at 1 a.m. by myself on a weekend or at 6 p.m. for dinner (or, as I like to call dinner at Taco Bell, supper). I will drag friends, coworkers, and people I don’t know that well to Taco Bell, and then I will order too much food and start eating it in the car before we’ve left the parking lot.
Taco Bell isn’t exactly high on the list of respectable fast food. The chain has a reputation for being stoner food, something you eat when you’re high and drunk and want a stomachache. It’s gotten more recent reverence through projects like the Taco Bell Quarterly, a tongue-in-cheek literary magazine unaffiliated with the brand.
It may come as a surprise to some people that Taco Bell has danced its way into the hearts of many South Asian Americans. For South Asians who are vegetarian or keep halal, fast food options can be pretty restrictive. Last summer Taco Bell boasted of a new “vegetarian-friendly” menu. But real fans know that Taco Bell has been vegetarian for a while: all you have to do is ask to substitute beans for meat.
When other fast food restaurants peddle vegetarian options, those items feel corrupted: they’re like the thing you want, but never actually the thing you want. (See Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, which cost more than a regular Whopper and tasted mostly like wet mayonnaise.) Taco Bell’s expanded vegetarian menu seems like it’s geared toward those trying to eat healthy, not necessarily “vegetarian.” As my intestines have quickly learned, it’s possible to subsist for days at a time on cheese and bread without a vegetable in sight. But unlike other places where the vegetarian option means sucking the fun out of food, Taco Bell is still Taco Bell when you swap out the meat for beans. It is still going to destroy your organs, and it is still delicious.
And then, there are the Taco Bell hot sauce packets. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. Desis love hot sauce, and it’s rare to find fast food hot sauce that is flavorful. My mom doesn’t even like Taco Bell, but she still has a small but mighty section of her freezer that’s just frozen Taco Bell sauce packets, never used, but always available in case of emergency. You can take as many as you want, because if nothing else, Taco Bell is a judgment-free zone.
There’s something about Taco Bell that was—and is—cool, in a way that other somewhat-customizable fast food joints (looking at you, Subway) were not. For a suburban teen, it was a place where you could loiter with reckless abandon (or at least until the friend with the car needed to go home). It was part of teen Americana for a lot of Desis I knew. “We used to go after mosque a lot on Fridays because it was the only thing that was open past 10 p.m.,” says my friend Zain Lakhani. “If people kept halal, the options were a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish or a vegetarian Mexican Pizza. Taco Bell always won.”
Even our parents didn’t completely hate it. “Taco Bell was a consistent stop during road trips with the family,” says my friend Dhara Patel.
It is a little weird that a fake Mexican chain became massively appealing to so many South Asian Americans. Taco Bell was created in 1962 in Downey, California, after a guy named Glen “I Fixed Tacos” Bell ripped off a Mexican restaurant. According to Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano, Bell would poke at the cooks at a family-owned spot, Mitla Cafe, about the way they made tacos, pestering them to the point that they took him into the kitchen and just showed him how to make them. He made alterations until it evolved into American food: processed cheese, frozen tortillas fried into oblivion, mystery meat. Taco Bell expanded from California to franchises all across the country.
One of those places was Saginaw, Michigan. Journalist and Taco Bell-lover Ahmed Ali Akbar, who grew up there, remembers Taco Bell’s ferocious following. “For Michiganders, it was their first exposure to their idea of a taco,” he says, noting that while there were some Mexican options where he grew up, there weren’t a ton. “Like chicken tikka masala is a gateway [to South Asian food], Taco Bell is a gateway [to Mexican food]. I think there’s room for these. The nice thing about fast food is that it’s low-entry. The fact that other people enjoy it—I actually don’t mind that.”
Akbar would go with friends and his sisters, and in the early hours of the morning during Ramadan. “For Americans, it’s stoner food,” he says. “For us, it suited our sensibilities. It was so funny to see the overlap.”
Some posit that Taco Bell is popular with South Asian Americans because it loosely resembles Desi food. I disagree. You could argue that fried tortillas could count as fast food roti and that the hot sauce transfers over between the two cuisines. Sure, there are the fried tortillas and hot sauce, but there’s also shredded cheese and papery lettuce. It’s not like Desi Americans go to Taco Bell to replicate the food they can get at home. Maryam Ahmed, another Taco Bell enthusiast, remembers hanging out at Taco Bell nearly every other day with her friends during her senior year of high school. Now that she’s back at her parents’ home during quarantine, she visits the chain when she wants a break from her mom’s Pakistani food. “It’s a good medium between not wanting Desi food, but also not wanting plain white food,” she says.
Akbar is not the only one, though, who sees “a weird synergy” between Taco Bell and Desi food. He agrees that Taco Bell doesn’t resemble South Asian food, but argues that, for many Desis, there’s a comfort associated with it nonetheless. Akbar recalls a time when his family introduced relatives visiting from Pakistan to Taco Bell, in the hope that it would feel familiar. They responded with confusion. “They were like, ‘What the hell? We want fries,’” Akbar laughs. “It’s not that it’s exactly like Desi food, but it does act as a comfort food for Desi people, in a way that other fast food is not. The thing about Taco Bell that works for Desis, I think, is that there’s one item on there that will appeal to someone in your family.”
“Comfort” is the puzzle piece that makes it click for me. I didn’t grow up liking Taco Bell because I thought it was Mexican food. I liked it because it was greasy and fun to eat. It was American food, food that could appeal to picky young eaters like me, a weird only child who was wary of any type of sauce until high school. I wonder now if part of the reason I like Taco Bell is because it reminded me of my mom’s version of Mexican food. Her enchiladas include shredded cheddar cheese, refried beans with taco seasoning wrapped in tortillas, and a salsa made out of pasta sauce, bell peppers, and jalapeños. It doesn’t resemble actual Mexican food, but what my family believed was Mexican food when they moved here from India in the ’80s. This was their first foray into non-Indian food. And since this Mexican food was found in America, to them, it was American food—in a way. Later, my aunts would begin making a Taco Bell-inspired homemade Mexican Pizza.
Like my family’s improvised, Indian-ish “Mexican” food, Taco Bell is a permutation of the real deal. And that’s okay. I don’t think of my mom’s experimentation as Mexican food—I think of it as my mom’s food. I never make her enchiladas for myself because it feels like her cooking territory. I worry that if I tried to make them, I would mess it up. Which is silly, because I know it’s made out of dressed up store-bought pasta sauce. And yet, it doesn’t feel special unless my mom makes it. Who would have thought that an arrabiata-esque bean burrito could be so good? I categorize my mom’s food and Taco Bell as emotional food: one of these is shared between me and other Desis, and another feels unique to my family.
Before my mom disowns me for comparing her food to Taco Bell, let me state for the record that I know the two are different. I feel uneasy glamorizing a fast food chain that doesn’t pay its employees a living wage. I know that when my family makes Mexican-ish food, it’s not like we’re selling it to make a profit, or claiming that this cuisine belongs to us. Taco Bell doesn’t care if I live or die, and I don’t need to shill for them like they pay my bills. But its food is also cheap and accessible and my perfect customized Mexican Pizza is a small piece of joy that picks me up when I’m not feeling great. And, like Akbar says, if that can make you happy, why not?