On The Road: The Gourmand & Co. Journey To Mexico

When people ask me about my religion, about what I really believe in beyond all other things, I often need a moment’s pause to ponder the subject. Do I believe in something all-pervading and universal, something sacred and life-giving, something that brings nations, families and friends together in communal ecstasy? Of course I do. I follow the ultimate religion: food. After all, who can turn away from food and become a true heretic? Who can fail to break bread with his brothers or his enemies, fail to share in the simplest act which is common to us all, whatever our age, race, class or occupation? Forget your petty differences: be you Jew or Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, (or Christian, if those guys still exist), we all know that at the core of every religion lies a doughy, edible heart. So, with an innumerable band of followers and an unshakable credo, the religion of food required only one more thing: a good, old-fashioned pilgrimage! This, dear friends, is the subject of today’s tale.

Photo: Raph Torrance
Lakeside Taco Bell – our Mexican Mecca

Some of you may have heard of the Unholy Trinity of McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, who lay their greasy spread across our beloved Cornmarket Street. Some of you may even be satisfied by the cheeseburgers, the chips, the chicken, and crave nothing more. But one day, staring wistfully out of my Mitre window, my stomach groaning for some novelty, I decided that enough was enough: I would set out for America, land of cheap Mexican food. Taco Bell: the land of opportunity, the gleaming beacon whence shine forth ethereal images of Crunchwrap Supremes, Doritos Locos Tacos and 7-Layer Burritos. I would break the chains of oppression, spit out the bread of affliction (matzah is a crime against humanity), and sally forth towards deliciousness. A quick Google, however, led me to territory unknown: the Taco Bell…UK site?! Surely this was in jest! But no, it was all true. Taco Bell currently have three locations in the UK: one in Manchester, one in Basildon, and one in Lakeside; according to Wikipedia, there were more in the ‘90s, – in London, too! – but the bastards closed them down, and now all that remains is this holy trinity of taquerías.

And so it came to pass that on Good Friday 2013, the Gourmand and his loyal Features Editor, Shirley, set out for the distant shores of Essex, braving manifold perils along the way and bearing the weighty cross of an insatiable hunger for adventure, excitement…and Mexican food. After many days’ (read: probably about an hour and a half’s) trek, we reached Lakeside. Our third pilgrim – ex-editor James Restall – had travelled from deepest Kent, and when he arrived he was spitting blood about the Bank Holiday traffic on the M25. But the beast, shouting “I CAN’T BELIEVE WE’RE HERE TO GO TO THE FUCKING FOOD COURT!”, was tamed – and we were all humbled – by the sight of those gloriously illuminated words of violet accompanied by a majestic bell. We headed straight for the queue and, after a wait, were asked to order. But the menu was extensive and bewildering, and I couldn’t help myself from wanting to taste everything; thusly did we come away with Crunchwrap Supremes and tacos in both Mexican chicken and ground beef, porky fajita burritos and piquant fries, crispy fried churros with luscious chocolate sauce and drinks to wash it all down.

It was good. No, it was divine. It was everything I’d ever dreamt of and more. A revelation: no more sugary, spongy buns, no more bland hockey puck burgers; instead, a symphony of spice and tang; sour cream and gooey cheese cooling the bite of the chicken and pork slathered with a variety of fresh, flavourful salsas; cloud-soft tortillas giving way to crunchy surprises inside providing just the sort of exciting contrast needed to give the old fast food market in this country a kick up the arse. We ate and ate and ate until we were full, then we went back for more. Even Resty, typically disillusioned and pessimistic, had to admit that the food was so good that it had made the M25 traffic worth enduring, and that “if Taco Bell were to come to Oxford, McDonald’s could kiss [his] custom goodbye”. What’s more, the quality of the food seemed entire disproportionate to the prices, as the entire multi-serving extravaganza for three set us back no more than £20; on top of this, a kindly man – a prophet, perhaps – approached us with magical discount vouchers which made the experience all the sweeter.

How and why Taco Bell has not yet managed to properly spread its wings and soar majestically onto the UK scene is utterly baffling. It would doubtless sweep away any and all competition, and I’d be mighty glad if it did. As it stands, however, its majesty is restricted to its three locations, to which I would be more than happy to return on another pilgrimage.