Taco Bell

N.B. As of August 2020, Taco Bell has reopened.

I know many people scroll to the bottom of my reviews to check the rating and the summary, the tl;dr equivalent of slogging all the way through my deathless prose. I know, too, that some people think my reviews are too long; God knows how many people make it to the end of the middle section where I (finally) get round to telling you what the food tastes like.

Well, this will confuse plenty of those people – let’s start at the end for once. Taco Bell is bloody awful. Truly. Don’t eat there. I can’t think of a single good reason for visiting Taco Bell unless you’ve never been to one before and are genuinely curious about what it’s like. That was me before I did this review, so I tell you what: I’ll satisfy your curiosity and then you can save your money, your calories and your dignity and have a better meal somewhere else. Sound all right to you?

Although I hadn’t been before, both my two dining companions for this visit had eaten at Taco Bell. Dr. Quaff (author of the excellent Quaffable Reading: other pub blogs are available, but they’re not as good) and Graeme had both been while on trips to the States, something I didn’t know until we queued up.

“Did you like it when you had it over there?” I asked.

“No, it was terrible” said Dr. Quaff, and Graeme concurred. Were they being public-spirited or suckers for punishment in choosing to accompany me?

I genuinely was curious, though. I’m not averse to fast food or junk food if done well, and one thing that’s fairly indisputable is that American cuisine does specialise in both those things. And Taco Bell opening in Reading was noteworthy: there aren’t that many of them in the U.K. yet, and there’d been a certain amount of noise in what passes for our local media these days.

So I really did turn up with no axe to grind, which means that all of you can say I told you so in the comments: it is one of life’s great pleasures, after all. Also, I know many of you – lurkers, fans and haters alike – particularly enjoy reading about me having an appalling meal. If that’s you, this one should give you a special thrill.

Taco Bell is along the side of the Broad Street Mall, Reading’s second favourite mall (a title it has achieved through all but two of the malls in Reading closing). Inside it looked like a slightly lower-rent McDonalds, with some tables and chairs and a bar with uncomfortable stools to perch on (fun fact: the following day I was nervous about the prospect of a very different kind of uncomfortable stool).

There are a couple of those big terminals where you can key in your order, like at McDonalds or KFC: on our visit only one was working, which makes them more like the spectacularly useless ticket machines in Reading Station. Failing that you go up to the counter and try and find something on the menu you can feel enthusiastic about. The dishes on offer are broadly similar to the U.S. menu, so it’s a choice of tacos, burritos and quesadillas. We tried to cover all angles, so I had the grilled chicken burrito, Graeme ordered a quesadilla and Dr. Quaff had the fajita burrito. Dr. Quaff also got a bonus taco because he’d signed up for something online. This is typical of him, a man who has one of those whizzy cameras attached to his doorbell so he can watch people delivering pizza to his kids while he’s down the pub.

He’s also a man, for that matter, who spent some time in the pub afterwards explaining how he’d used an API from Reading Buses to measure the average lateness of the number 22 bus. It’s three and a half minutes, in case you’re interested – and I know that because I double checked with Dr. Quaff in the course of writing this review and he told me, although not before saying “let me just fire up my data science workbench”. Dr. Quaff is the kind of man who says “let me fire up my data science workbench”. Graeme, on the other hand, is the kind of man who says “what’s an API?”

I think you can tell, from these diversions, that my companions were both more interesting and palatable than the food. Let’s get this bit out of the way. My burrito was flat with brown marks from the grill which looked more like stains, as if it had been sat on by somebody who hadn’t wiped properly. Inside was a mush of tasteless pap – you could make out the constituent parts by sight and by texture, but not by anything else. Apparently it had a blend of three cheeses, although how they found three cheeses that all tasted of nothing I’ll never know. “There’s just enough cheese that it’s stretchy”, said Dr. Quaff, “but that’s it.”

The chicken was in regularly shaped pieces that made me think it was precooked and came out of a catering pack. It had parallel dark lines on it as if to give the impression of chargrilling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been added with a Sharpie. When I placed my order I was told that they didn’t have regular grilled chicken, just Mexican chicken. “It’s more spicy”, the lady told me: God only knows how bland the normal chicken would be.

There was rice, too. At least it looked like rice.

“It reminds me of the microwave rice you get” said Dr. Quaff.

“What, like Uncle Ben?” I said.

“I was thinking Tilda, but same thing” he said kindly: I forgot for a second that he lives in Caversham Heights.

Dr. Quaff’s fajita burrito was equally cruddy but with flavourless peppers instead of flavourless beans. “It doesn’t look like the picture, does it?” he said, showing a masterful flair for understatement. His taco with minced beef looked, if anything, less appealing than the burrito. I would say my photo below does it justice, aesthetically speaking. “It’s okay”, he said, but it’s sort of been piped in.” Piped in, like Muzak. Or sewage.

Hard to believe, but we were the ones who got off lightly. Graeme’s quesadilla was a greasy, sweaty thing in a body bag with a mingy smear of that not-very-Mexican chicken and more of the triple threat cheese. He felt queasy eating it, queasy walking to the pub afterwards, queasy in the pub and, as he later told us, queasy the next day. “Goodness that food was rough” he said. “Thanks for taking one for the team” replied Dr. Quaff, magnanimous as ever.

All the orders come with Mexican fries which were dusted with red seasoning that tasted almost pleasant. The fries, though, were hot and stale to begin with and cold and stale soon after. Dr. Quaff ended up trying to suck the seasoning off the fries and said it tasted like tomato flavoured Cup-A-Soup before you add the hot water, but the whole spectacle was a little too Leslie Grantham webcam, so we had to ask him to stop.

The only way to make the food taste of anything was to use the sachets of sauce available. They came in Mild, Hot and Fire which, translated, mean Bland, Mild and Equally Mild But In A Slightly Different Way. Somewhere on the packaging it also says “You’ve Got This” – I imagine if you eat there a lot they’re probably referring to scurvy. On the plus side, you get bottomless cherry flavoured Pepsi Max, but you could just buy a bottle of the stuff and save yourself roughly four pounds. Our meals came to a total of just over sixteen pounds – cheap, but not good value. Cheap and nasty is closer to the truth.

We beetled off to the Nag’s Head after that where we drank – mostly to forget – and Dr. Quaff bought some Scampi Fries and Mini Cheddars. Both were tastier, and infinitely better value, than the meal we had just endured. Still, at least we had survived – and if it had been an iota worse we might have wound up getting matching tattoos. When I got home from the pub, around midnight, my other half was waiting up for me.

“So is it worse than Mission Burrito?” she said.

“Yes. It’s nowhere near as good as Mission Burrito. Or McDonalds. Or KFC. Or pretty much everywhere.”

You know how this review ends, because I told you at the beginning. But the other thing I got from visiting Taco Bell was a realisation: as long as people still queue round the block to get into Taco Bell in the weeks after it opens, my work here isn’t done. Not that any of those people read my blog, of course, but you’ve got to have faith. And, despite the fact that it was a meal that stayed with me in all the wrong ways, I still don’t regret visiting Taco Bell at all. Sometimes, counterintuitively, you need to go to places like this, just to understand how lucky we really are.

Taco Bell – 3.9
207 Broad Street Mall, RG1 7QH
0118 9597213

https://locations.tacobell.co.uk/reading/207-broad-street-mall.html

Mission Burrito

N.B. As of August 2020 Mission Burrito has reopened. 

Sometimes you just don’t want a sit down three course meal (this even happens to me – believe it or not). Sometimes you’re off to the cinema or out down the pub and you just want something quick, easy and tasty. And for years, in central Reading, your only real choice was who made your burger and whether it was chicken or beef – three McDonalds, three Burger Kings and a KFC are testimony to that. That all changed when Mission opened on the Oracle Riverside and gave diners another option which wasn’t griddled or fried and didn’t come with fries: the brave new world of burritos.

Mission is a mini-chain that started in Oxford and has slowly expanded – first to Reading and then further west to Cardiff via Bath and Bristol (someone there must really like the M4). It always makes me proud, as a Reading resident, when places decide to expand to Reading first; back in the days when Bill’s was new it felt exciting and cool that they opened here. But Bill’s is a big chain pretending to be a cuddly independent whereas Mission, for now at least, feels like the real deal, an independent that had a good idea, did well and has grown gradually and organically. But is it any good?

The plot that Mission has in the Oracle isn’t very big – it can be a bit of a squeeze to get a seat and the queue sometimes stretches out the door (a promising sign in itself) but it turns out Sunday afternoons are fairly quiet so I got there and had no trouble getting served or finding a seat. The room is pretty unremarkable – space along one side to queue until you’re up at the counter, and plain dark wood tables with long benches. Get in, get your food, eat your food and go. And that’s fine: I never understood when McDonald’s started introducing what looked like Arne Jacobsen chairs. Who eats a burger in one of those? (Not Arne Jacobsen, that’s for sure.)

Ordering involves all manner of choices. There are three types of dish – burritos, fajitas (which are like burritos but with vegetables instead of rice) or tacos, which are three soft flour tortillas rather than the rigid corn shells so beloved by Old El Paso (and so impossible to eat). There are then three types of filling – beef, chicken or pork. Or if you fancy paying through the nose for a dish with no meat, or are vegetarian and therefore have no choice, there’s vegetables. Then you pick your extras – guacamole or cheese (which cost extra) or pico de gallo and sour cream (which don’t). Finally, just to crank up the number of different types of combinations, you pick from one of three different sauces with varying degrees of heat. The possibilities, as Eddie Izzard used to say on that TV advert about recycling, are endless.

I make it sound really complex but it really isn’t too bad and the staff behind the counter, running a factory line all doing different parts of the process, are very friendly and efficient and in next to no time I was at my table tucking into my choice.

The burritos are big – a twelve inch tortilla liberally stuffed with rice, pinto beans (which had been “cooked in bacon” according to the staff, although I’m not sure what that entails), guacamole and the slow cooked beef. Rolled up and served in foil, it wasn’t possible to eat tidily unless you kept most of the foil in place. It’s not a delicate dainty meal but it wasn’t half bad: I loved the beef, rich and cooked until it had no fight left in it, and the beans, although not really tasting of bacon per se, were smoky and tasty. The guacamole was a little more disappointing – huge chunks of avocado, too coarse if anything, not distributed evenly throughout the burrito. The chipotle sauce didn’t come through at all, leaving me wondering if I’d asked for the wrong one or if the staff just hadn’t glugged on enough. The cheese didn’t register. But I suppose these could be viewed as fussy quibbles about what was basically a big edible pillowcase stuffed with a lot of quite good things (they also do a smaller version, presumably for lunchtime and less ambitious eaters, and a larger version – presumably for Eric Pickles).

The tacos are three thinner six inch discs which are assembled but left open. I had two with chicken and one with pork – just to cover all the bases, you understand – topped with lettuce, sour cream, cheese and a smidge of chipotle salsa. These were also delicious, if almost impossible to eat – you end up trying to roll the edges together but end up with a big sloppy tube, dripping sauce from both ends. (Sounds lovely, doesn’t it: who doesn’t enjoy a big sloppy dripping tube?) The chicken was particularly good, cooked until it was falling apart and perfect with the note of heat from the chipotle sauce it had been roasted in. The cheese, again, was a bit lost in the mix so you could easily leave it out and save yourself the princely sum of thirty pence but the sour cream worked well, offsetting the heat from the salsa. The carnitas was less exciting than the chicken: drier and lacking in flavour with no hint of the thyme or orange zest it had apparently been cooked with.

Mission - tacos

Dotted around the tables were bottles of hot sauce (because some people really like not being able to feel their lips) and big piles of paper napkins (because some people really don’t like to be covered in sauce). I avoided the former, because I’m not that kind of person, and enthusiastically embraced the latter, for similar reasons. That said, I did add a little hot sauce to my last taco and very nice it was too, even if it did require the use of yet another paper napkin. If you are on the fastidious side this might not be for you but if you like getting stuck in and don’t mind reaching the end of a meal looking like you need to be hosed down Mission might be right up your alley.

Drinks options are, unsurprisingly, limited but the Modelo, in a bottle, was exactly as you’d expect. The frozen margarita was I think a better choice – zesty and zingy without the rough edge that tequila can sometimes have, and surprisingly refreshing after the richness of the food.

Dinner for two came to almost exactly twenty pounds and the burritos, fajitas and tacos come in at just under the six pound mark: I was in two minds about whether this was good value (and I still am) although I am pretty sure it represents iffy value for money if you’re a vegetarian. If a vegetarian has to endure a burrito restaurant the very least you can do is give the poor sods free cheese and guacamole, and even that seems a bit stingy.

On reflection, I liked Mission but maybe not as much as I should have done. The food is good, the value isn’t unreasonable, the service is very pleasant and they have a clear proposition. They’re exactly the kind of independent place Reading needs and they do what they do very well. But I was left with the feeling that if a friend said “let’s go to Mission before the cinema” I wouldn’t object, but I’d be unlikely to suggest going there myself. It’s funny how sometimes a place just doesn’t grab you: I guess, like the sauce in my burrito, I felt a little warmth, but not quite enough.

Mission Burrito – 6.7
15A The Riverside Level, The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
0118 9511999

http://missionburrito.co.uk/