Sunday, February 08, 2009

6417: Taco Bell Crosses The Border.

From The Chicago Tribune…

Taco Bell in Mexico? Why not? It’s not Mexican food there either

By Oscar Avila

APODACA, Mexico—Leaving the taco shop, I might have assumed that familiar weight in my gut was a sign of gastrointestinal distress to come. But it was probably guilt, guilt that I had bypassed one of many mama-y-papa taquerias and instead chosen the first Taco Bell to open in Mexico after a 15-year absence.

There are all kinds of ways to illustrate our intertwined world: pirated Ashton Kutcher DVDs in Nairobi, Snickers bars for sale in the Amazon rain forest. But one could argue that on the day this Taco Bell went up next to a Dairy Queen in the parking lot of a glitzy shopping mall in the Monterrey suburbs, the cultural walls fell for good.

Since opening in the United States in the 1960s, Taco Bell has taught Americans the Mexican art of cramming stuff in tortillas. Now they’re on the menu everywhere from school cafeterias to McDonald’s drive-throughs. You might not know Spanish, but you know “taco.”

To scarf down a Fiesta Burrito in Mexico felt like patronizing a Panda Express at the foot of the Great Wall. You wouldn’t think of chugging Natural Light at Oktoberfest in Munich. Or sneaking out of the Cannes Film Festival to catch “Transformers.” But, out of curiosity, I gave it a try.

The Mexican intelligentsia were offended by Taco Bell’s incursion in 2007, casting it as something akin to the Visigoths sacking Rome. “Like bringing ice to the Arctic,” sniffed cultural critic Carlos Monsivais in an Associated Press article.

I’m sure many Mexican arbiters of taste haven’t forgotten the talking Taco Bell Chihuahua, which was denounced by Hispanic advocacy groups in the United States as a crude stereotype with its sombrero and accented “Yo quiero Taco Bell” pitch.

For the rest of us, the global sensibility of the 21st Century can be a messy, tacky and gaudy mash-up, not unlike the guacamole, sour cream and other mysterious goop of a Nachos BellGrande.

A food writer at Monterrey’s El Norte newspaper summed up the conflicting emotions many Mexicans must feel at Taco Bell’s take on traditional Mexican cuisine.

“What foolish gringos. They want to come by force to sell us tacos in Taco Land,” he wrote. “Here, they have a year in operation and the most ironic part is that they are doing well. Are we malinches [Mexican slang for traitor] or masochists?”

Then he tried it and confessed: “It surprised me. It is very well-designed, very modern, as cheap as ever and, it hurts my pride to say this, but very delicious!”

To its credit, Taco Bell’s parent company in Louisville never sold its food to Mexicans as Mexican. Taco Bell’s Mexican Web site is Translation: It’s something else.

Upon entering the Taco Bell, the customer gets a menu, complete with pictures and detailed lists of ingredients. If this presentation is to be taken at face value, the cuisine at Taco Bell is as foreign to its Mexican customers as Mongolian barbecue.

I had a crunchy taco that the company couldn’t call a taco because an authentic taco in Mexico comes in a soft tortilla. Instead, Taco Bell invented the term Tacostada for its Mexican audience by combining the shape of a taco with the crunchiness of the flat tortilla that characterizes the tostada.

My meal was decent, but, truth is, I’ll always be drawn to the street stalls and holes in the wall that represent the best of Mexican cuisine: the tender meat hacked directly off a lamb’s skull in Texcoco, the carnitas tacos on the side of a highway near Morelia.

Still, Taco Bell should not be viewed as a hostile invader. It is a neighbor, grudgingly invited, but invited nonetheless. Mexican tradition and culture already have seeped into the U.S. mainstream—consider this a lob back across the Rio Grande.

As I devoured a burrito and watched music videos from U2 and Julieta Venegas with my fellow citizens of the global village, Taco Bell’s old tag line seemed obsolete.

“Run for the Border”? What border?

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