BY ANDREW BITKOWER
“YUM,” the stock symbol for Tricon Global Restaurants, among whose operations are Taco Bell and KFC, is misleading — to say the least. Perhaps “YUCK,” “ICK” or “PUKE” might have been more appropriate. Need I say more about our “dining” experience at Taco Bell and KFC? Mais je veux faire ça comme il faut.
Our weekend jaunt to the Taco Bell/KFC near Porter Square was something of a birthday celebration: Tricon, spun off from PepsiCo on Oct. 6, 2001, has just turned four years old. But this was a birthday party that I was not looking forward to attending. (For how much fun can a birthday party be without cocktails — preferably Bombay Sapphire martinis? The Tricon restaurants do not even have wine lists.)
Judged purely on its products, Tricon is one of my least favorite spinoffs. After all, Tricon lacks the adolescent sex appeal of Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF, $20.53 — Hello, Davis!), the techno-geekiness of Palm (PALM, $1.49), and the wholesome middle-America-ness of Delphi (DPH, $12.01). And don’t even get me started on my favorite tracking stocks! But I digress …
Taco Bell’s mission is a worthy one: to bring Mexican culture to the masses. At what other restaurant can you get a mini vacation to Mexico for $1.49 plus tax (Chicken Soft Taco)? But ultimately, Taco Bell fails to live up to its promise. The pink and grey décor (if one can call it that) evoked more garage sale than Guadalajara. The temperature inside the restaurant seemed more like Canada than Cancun (does this establishment have any climate control?). To be fair, however, the lack of cleanliness did vaguely remind me of Mexico City, albeit somewhat less smoggy.
But on to the food. We chose to order á la carte (there was no dégustation menu — and only one in our party even got a tray!). My “Super” Chicken Burrito seemed to be mainly sour cream or mayonnaise (or some such white, fatty substance) and extraordinarily runny refried beans. There appeared to be virtually no chicken in the burrito, despite its name. In fact, I recall more edible food on a sketchy charter flight from Boston to Puerto Vallarta. Only the Fire Sauce made the burrito pass the minimum threshold of acceptability. (I note, for those who are interested, that Fire Sauce also polishes pennies to brilliant shine. If it can do that to coins, imagine what it does to your stomach!). The chicken soft tacos were only slightly better. Sadly, the highlight of our meal came from the KFC side of the menu, and it was not even the chicken but rather some more pedestrian potato wedges ($1.19). At least they were pleasantly seasoned.
For the real Mexican experience, save those polished pennies (and all the money you made from short-selling PALM) and head to the Four Seasons in Punta Mita.
The service at the combined Taco Bell/KFC was very professional. Food was prepared quickly, and the counter staff was helpful when I was bewildered by the choice of prix-fixe options (known as “combos”). Service was decentralized, so that each patron was on alert for his or her own order. Such a system ensures that there is no undue delay between order and ingestion (the warmth of the food may make it less harsh on one’s alimentary system), and that the potential for altercation with members of the wait staff, over the size of the gratuity, is minimized. Indeed, although there were no Abercromibe boys there, everyone who patronized the restaurant during the entire half hour we were there was friendly and laid back, including a gentleman of advanced years who, according to an olfactory report from one of my dining companions, had evidently forgotten himself before he entered the restaurant. Yet no one made a fuss — it’s that kind of a place!
The décor, in delightful pastels, was a welcome relief from the drab fall and winter that will soon envelope us. In a nod to the current fashion of interactive dining, the chef and the sous-chefs all prepared food in an exhibitory area. It was not just their consummate skills in deep frying, reheating and wrapping that were on display, but also the more esoteric aspects of pre/post culinary preparation. One sous-chef, for instance, squatted on the floor, supported a large pan of refried beans vertically with one hand, and scraped them into a horizontally placed pan with the other. I was not able to confirm whether the beans, thus scraped, were saved for a special recipe, or for another day or for eventual disposal.
Of the two types of cuisine offered at the combined location, I would have to admit I have a slight preference for the KFC side. (The establishment has yet to offer a fusion menu.) My chicken soft taco ($1.49) was good, but, as noted by my fellow reviewer, the taste of the chicken was not salient. I think the preparation was too flavorful. With so many other exotic spices, cheeses and lettuce, the chicken was submerged and did not stand out. The KFC chicken legs ($4.69 for a combo with two pieces, a biscuit, a side dish and a drink from the automatic sommelier), however, were all the chicken one could want. They were incredibly juicy and succulent, especially given that the crispy coating, of a dark brown color, seemed at first-sight hard and impenetrable. Best of all, the accompanying biscuit (complimentary) was compact, well-salted and just greasy enough to make the entire experience feel a bit sinful.
All in all, I have to say, my dining experience was a wholly satisfactory one at the combined TB/KFC. Now, two days later, I continue to function normally, and no aberrant levels of bacterial activity have so far been detected.
At long last, and after a summer of slumming at various pretentious New York establishments, we were able to convince the editorial staff of the RECORD to send us on a run to the border: Sunday we dined at Taco Bell.
Actually it was a Taco Bell / KFC, located on Massachusetts Avenue three blocks north of Porter Square. (For diehards, there are also Taco Bell locations a block away from Koreana (see our review in this space last month) and in the Cambridgeside Galleria — or use the handy location finder at http://www.tacobell.com/ourcompany/fr.htm.) And I would add that whatever dicta my esteemed colleagues muster in detraction (or sarcasm) is inevitably ascribable only to the presence of the plebian KFC. I will never understand why a parent company would so foolishly mix the quality and wholesomeness that are Taco Bell with the low-rent simple tastes of KFC. You don’t see Lamborghini/Dodge Neon showrooms, or joint embassies for Great Britain and Canada.
Yet the food always prevails in the end. What Taco Bell truly offers, other than crypto-racist ad campaigns, is a top-notch taco for under a dollar. And, granted, the slop they call meat, the plastic-gloved handful of lettuce, and the three or four strands of cheddar cheese are not in themselves enough to draw a crowd. But just combine that 79