Sunday, 4 December 2016


14. “You don’t realise that Taco Bell was the only restaurant that survived the Franchise Wars.”


Marco Brambilla’s 1993 film “Demolition Man” is an odd concoction. Far from remaining a footnote in the series of explosive action films of the early Nineties featuring a Stallone, a Schwarzenegger, or a Willis, “Demolition Man” is looked upon as a vision of the technological and social future as prescient as “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

However, because George Orwell wasn’t working literal explosions into his story, he spent more time exploring the implications of Newspeak, doublethink, and Room 101. Instead, “Demolition Man” shows something, or has a witty line, and nothing further happens, leading to years of discussion on how the Three Seashells in the bathroom work.

Among gags about Arnold Schwarzenegger reaching political office, self-driving cars, video calls, teleconferencing, voice-activated appliances, and Wesley Snipes being sent to prison (in real life, for tax evasion), there lies one of the biggest instances of product placement ever seen – that the only restaurant left is Taco Bell. Presumably, the “Franchise Wars” had KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell were all on the same side, as they were all owned by PepsiCo when the film was made, but did there follow a Stalinist plot to make KFC and Pizza Hut “un-chains”?

In countries where Taco Bell did not have a presence – there were a couple in London, that closed by 1995 – Pizza Hut was dubbed in, with logos changed by computer, but you were left feeling some sort of mystique about the restaurant: is Tex-Mex cuisine the all-powerful winner it was made out to be?

PepsiCo’s restaurant business has since been spun off as the bizarrely-named Yum! Brands, and Taco Bell has twice attempted to enter the Mexican market without success. However, it is slowly spreading around the UK, with a new branch opening about ten miles away from me, in the city of Southampton – the next nearest one is 127 miles further away, in Chelmsford. I had to take a look.

I was wary of fast food always producing a blander, more processed version of whatever it is intending, so I am overjoyed to report that Taco Bell’s food, in contrast to various burger-centric places, tastes of SOMETHING, and that is largely down to the ingredients. Having a fast food restaurant offering guacamole, rice or nachos as a side dish is refreshing. The tacos themselves are a good alternative to a chocolate bar, and contain a similar number of calories to a Mars bar. The cinnamon-covered “Churro” pastry snacks were delightful. Far from the limp “wraps” found elsewhere, to have a proper burrito containing pulled pork, chargrilled peppers, rice and sour cream was brilliant, and something I will definitely buy again.

For a brand new branch, there were a couple of teething issues, as they appeared to be having trouble with the cash register just after opening, and it was odd to be asked what flavour of drink you wanted, when they then gave you a cup to use at the self-serve area, but these will be worked out.

Fast Tex-Mex food is not a new concept for the Americans, or Taco Bell, but it was for me, and to visit a fast food restaurant that does not sell a single burger is certainly welcome, and will keep the pressure on the more established chains to offer healthier options – I probably did see the future at the end of that burrito.

By the way, in the customer toilets, there were no seashells in sight.

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