Taco Bell

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

Persia House

By July 2020, Persia House had closed and been replaced by another Persian restaurant called Persian Palace. It has a completely new website, so I assume it’s a completely different venue. As a result I’ve marked Persia House as closed, and I’ll keep the review up for posterity.

This is my second attempt to review Persia House, the new Iranian restaurant tucked away on the other side of Caversham Bridge, and it differs from my first attempt in one important respect: I turned up when the restaurant was actually open (nearly six years writing this blog, and still so amateurish at times). I’d wanted to go for some time – Iranian food sounded fascinating and exotic, and from my research I hoped to have my head turned by a new favourite cuisine, the way it had been by Georgian or Hyderabadi food. Read an article like this and you’ll see what I mean: tell me it doesn’t make you hungry.

My dining companion for the first, unsuccessful, visit was Dr Quaff, author of Reading’s excellent pub blog Quaffable Reading, and he graciously agreed to overlook my ineptitude and accompany me again second time round (although he did still say “are you sure it’s open today?” as we were nursing a pre-dinner pint in the Crown: bloody cheek).

Going through the front door we were greeted by a very large and almost completely empty restaurant. I’m so used to saying “it’s a long thin room” about restaurants that it’s quite a relief to be able to say something different for a change: Persia House is huge. By the windows looking out on to the road there were some low tables where you sit cross-legged (possibly authentic, definitely for people who’ve done a lot more yoga than me) but the rest of the restaurant was more conventional and there really were an awful lot of tables. The bare wood floor was broken up with the occasional rug, there was art on the bare brick walls and some of the tables at the far end looked out over the river. I quite liked it, but it did feel cavernous.

We took a table by the window – close to the only other pair eating in the restaurant – and flipped through the menu. I’d researched it online, but the Persia House website is so user-unfriendly that trying to work out what I might order filled me with a sudden desire to throw my laptop at a wall with great force. We had no trouble picking a mixture of starters but we were undecided about our main courses: our waiter said that was absolutely fine and took that order, along with a bottle of red.

We’d also enquired about the rather bling oven you see as you enter the restaurant, so our waiter invited us over to see our naan breads being made. It was an incredible contraption, hotter than the sun (and not even running at full whack, as he proudly demonstrated by turning it up: it’s a miracle that Dr Quaff and I still have eyebrows). We watched as he stretched, rolled, and shaped the dough for the naan before effortlessly flipping it on to the roof of the oven for mere seconds before taking it out, cutting it up and putting it in a basket ready for our starters. All very impressive.

He said that he was from Afghanistan, although the owner was Iranian. The restaurant had been running for nearly six months and all was going well, he said, although he added that it was normally busier than tonight (only one other pair of diners arrived while we were there, not long after the other two customers had left).

By the time we returned to our table from that little culinary detour, our starters had arrived. The menu divides the starters into cold and warm appetisers and we’d picked from both sections, although I didn’t discern any noticeable difference in temperature. The best of them was the baba ghanoush, which really did have a smoky taste (you could picture the charred skin being taken off the aubergine before the flesh was combined with everything else). But the dolmades were deeply unspecial – the rice in them was claggy and dense, and they didn’t taste of much. The decision to serve them with a little pot of what looked like balsamic glaze but which I assume was pomegranate molasses might have been to conceal the lack of flavour, but it seemed an odd choice. I would have thought these were shop bought but one of them was so saggy and lacking in filling that I think they probably were made by hand.

“You can have the last one” I said to Dr Quaff, which obviously translates as I don’t like these much.

“No, I insist” he replied, or in other words I don’t like them either.

The last of the dishes was called halim badenjan, a stew of aubergine, tomato and braised lamb. We both quite liked this – although again, not enough to fight over the last few mouthfuls – but it didn’t knock my socks off. The lamb was in soft strands, the aubergine was tasty enough but it didn’t really feel like anything I hadn’t had before (the yoghurt on top, though, added a nice contrast).

By now, you’re hopefully wondering if that naan I saw being baked in front of my very eyes was any good. Well, I’m afraid no, not really. It might just be me, but I found it a bit thin and nothingy – despite being bubbled it had no fluffiness and no real texture. It might as well have been crackers, and by the end the last few pieces were hard enough that they pretty much were.

A mixed bag, then, and as our waiters took the plates away Dr Quaff and I sipped our wine and decided on our next move. We’d ordered a Malbec for twenty-two pounds and although it got better as the evening went along (what booze doesn’t?) it felt a bit thin and weedy to me, with nowhere near the depth or complexity I’d expect from Malbec: with hindsight, it might have been emblematic of the whole meal.

The main courses were split into three sections – kebabs, stews and other Persian specialities. Dr Quaff had decided to test out the grill, and I was torn between a traditional stew or the Persian biryani, a dish called lubia polo. I asked another waiter, and he said the stew was a “good choice” but that he’d had the lubia polo earlier in the evening and that it was very good. He also said that you couldn’t get these dishes anywhere else in Reading (which, come to think of it, may or may not have been a good thing). Like all the people who looked after us that evening he was friendly, smiley and engaging, and so I was won over and took his advice.

The problem with taking advice from people you don’t know, like reading reviews from people you don’t know I suppose, is that you take them on trust. So it’s possible that the Persian biryani is the best meal that waiter has had in a while, but if it is I think he rather needs to eat out more often. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve had in a restaurant for a while – not specifically bad, but so failing to live up to its potential that it might as well have been.

It was rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans and it tasted of rice, tomatoes, lamb and green beans. No real discernible depths of flavour, no nuance, no wow factor, no heat and no spice (Dr Quaff thought he detected cinnamon in it: I think he’s being charitable). I expected so much more – I wanted it to open my eyes to something new but instead it made me want to roll them or, worse still, close them for some time. Even the texture didn’t work; the lamb was nicely soft but so were the green beans. The latter had the feel of beans which had either come from a tin or been cooked so long that they might as well have done.

Dr Quaff had opted for the mixed grill for one, pretty much, the kebab bakhteari (“it sounds like bacteria” he said to the waiter, a tad ominously). It was a skewer of kofta, a skewer of chicken shish and a skewer of lamb shish, served with some rice with a little yellow hat from the saffron, an underwhelming-looking salad and – completely randomly – an individual portion of butter from a catering pack (what for? we both wondered).

“What do you think?”

“With lamb, you want the lovely caramelised exterior and for it to be pink in the middle” said Dr Quaff. “This is just grey”.

He generously let me try some of each of the kebabs, although once I ate them I realised he wasn’t really being generous, it’s just that he wasn’t fussed. The chicken was the best of them I thought, but all of them were middling at best. This dish cost eighteen pounds, a full five pounds more than the equivalent dish at Bakery House. There you get beautiful yellow rice, a perfectly dressed salad and all the garlic and chilli sauce you want. Here you get cross.

“It’s not as good as Bakery House, is it?” I asked.

“It’s nowhere near as good as Bakery House.”

You probably have the general idea by now. I really didn’t rate Persia House, I think there are dozens of better ways to spend your money in Reading and several better ways to have similar food – at Bakery House, at Kobeeda Palace, even at Clay’s if you want a biryani. And if your response to that is to say “but they’re not Iranian food” then fine, I agree – but based on what I experienced at Persia House I wonder if that’s Iranian food either. It didn’t feel distinctive or authentic to me: apart from the lamb stew with aubergines, we didn’t have anything you couldn’t get elsewhere, and that dish didn’t make me desperate to try the rest of the menu. I hoped for fireworks, I got a sputtering tealight.

What’s a little sad about it, though, is a couple of things. One was the service, which was unfailingly nice and polite – although, to be fair, we made up fifty per cent of the clientele for the duration of the visit. The other was that when we asked for the bill they brought some little sweet pastries and a beautiful black tea, poured into tiny glasses which tasted quite lovely sweetened with a little sugar. Such a nice touch, but too little too late. Dinner for two – three starters, two mains and a bottle of red – came to seventy pounds on the nail, not including service.

I wondered about how to end this review. Originally I was going to say “I hope Persia House does well”, but that too feels inauthentic. No, I hope Persia House does better. God knows, they easily could, but I suspect this is the kind of food they want to serve and the restaurant will either succeed or it won’t. Caversham is not blessed with loads of good restaurants, so perhaps novelty value will keep them afloat for some time yet. But at those prices, for that quality, it’s not a place I could recommend. In any case, what do I know? A few doors down Picasso – one of the most uninspiring meals I’ve ever had writing this blog – continues to ply its inexorable trade, years after many places I’ve adored have closed their doors for the final time.

Persia House – 6.4
2 Bridge Street, RG4 8AA
0118 9470222

https://www.persiahouse.co.uk/

German Doner Kebab

The new year always presents a myriad of opportunities, doesn’t it? A fresh start (unless, like pretty much everyone I know, you’ve been struck down by one of the many virulent bugs doing the rounds). A chance to change your ways, shed unhelpful old habits and bin off toxic former friends. And, of course, it’s a time to embrace every passing fad for self-improvement, whether that’s kicking the booze or going vegan for thirty-one teeth-clenchingly joyless days. Fuck that, I thought, I’m off for a kebab.

Not just any kebab, I should add, but a German one: German Doner Kebab has been plying its trade since last April, at the grim end of Friar Street near the Hope Tap, the latest creepy topless bar and the big Sainsbury’s (Brutalist on the outside, faintly Stalinist on the inside). Now, I’m not snobbish about kebabs: I’ve always thought that, done right, they can be darned delicious and the best ones, cooked well, are more than acceptable eaten sober.

Generally, in fairness, I mean shish kebabs – there’s something about chicken or lamb cooked there and then on a charcoal grill that’s difficult to beat (let’s face it, there’s a reason I’m always singing the praises of King’s Grill). But a chicken or lamb doner, sliced thinly, cooked on the hot plate to add a little crispiness and mixed with ribbons of iceberg and a really good sauce? That’s the stuff of – admittedly slightly guilty – dreams.

More recently that has tended to be the shawarma at Bakery House, or gyros on holiday in Greece, but I still fondly remember the golden age of growing up in Woodley and having a doner from the van parked up by Bulmershe school, or, years later, stopping at the sadly departed “Kebab Kingdom” on Cemetery Junction.

That was twenty years ago, but I can still remember the crunch of the red cabbage and the kick of those pickled chillies like it was yesterday. Come to think of it, I can remember when you could eat in at Ye Babam Ye, in the bit which is now Up The Junction and just to prove that everything comes around again eventually, here I am in 2019 sitting at a table eating a doner kebab, the hot new (old) gastronomic trend. Maybe they’ll rebrand Wimpy next.

My accomplice for this review was the author of pub blog Quaffable Reading, a man who prefers to be referred to as Dr Quaff (honestly, these anonymous bloggers and their pseudonyms: it’ll never catch on). I had accompanied him last year when he went to review The Retreat, my beloved local pub, and this was part of a sort of exchange program where he joined me to review German Doner Kebab and in return we then went on to a pub afterwards so Dr Quaff could review that. You might say that we approached things in the wrong order: I couldn’t possibly comment, although you might have an idea of my view by the end.

Dr Quaff is – and he didn’t offer any financial inducement for me to say this, I promise – superb company with a huge range of stories which managed to be both funny and interesting. But he also has a surprisingly donnish air (that time up at Oxford, perhaps) and made for a very suitable co-pilot on this visit. He was also willing to order all the things I didn’t, which made for a refreshing change as I’m used to having my second choice of everything on the menu.

The interior managed to be a chic take on a traditional fast food restaurant. The overwhelming theme was monochrome – big black and and white photos of Berlin landmarks (the television tower especially caught my eye), a huge image of the Brandenberg Gate along one wall and smart black button-backed banquettes and booths. But there was also a flash of orange bringing the whole thing to life: you really couldn’t fault their branding.

“It looks very much like McDonalds tries to these days” said Dr Quaff, at which point I had to admit that it was a very long time since I had been to one, and even longer since I’d paid attention (still, he has kids). We ordered at the counter and plonked ourselves at a booth in what was, for a school night, a surprisingly busy restaurant.

The menu gave a wide range of options, from quinoa salad to tempura cauliflower, all the way to… no, really, it’s basically just doner meat. Doner meat in a brioche bun, doner meat in a flatbread, doner meat in a wrap. Doner meat in a quesadilla, doner meat on – yes, really – nachos. It was the doner equivalent of that scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone just walks around saying “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” all the time: doner, doner, doner.

You can get the doner-based dish of your choice for roughly five pounds, or add fries and a drink for two quid, and for vegetarians there is a veggie kebab containing the suitably vague “mixed veggie pieces”. Even the choice of doner meat (beef, chicken or “mixed”) is more specific than that. Personally, I found it weird that there was beef but no lamb, but I decided to reserve judgment.

The first dish to turn up was the lahmacun (or, in this case I suppose, “beefacun”), a thin flatbread smeared in something which may have been beef or possibly just the memory of beef, folded over and served with three dips (chilli, garlic and burger sauce) along with a rather hopeful wedge of lemon. When I started this I quite liked it, but as it cooled down and started to taste more of itself I found I rather cooled down too. But taste of what? I wasn’t really sure – certainly not of beef, and hardly of spice either. It also went soggy quickly which made dipping it in the sauces largely a waste of time. “It’s sort of like a keema nan” said Dr Quaff, and although I knew what he was driving at it still felt like a disservice to keema nans everywhere.

Dr Quaff had also gone for a side dish, the doner nachos. It was a classic example of the old adage that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should: I don’t think the combination of tortilla chips, jalapeños, American squeezy cheese and doner meat is one the world was waiting for.

The beef doner meat, and this was a theme funnily enough for the rest of the meal, was plain bad. It didn’t taste like any beef I’ve ever had, and that includes some pretty dreadful beef: even overcooked into shoe leather the way my former mother-in-law used to do it at least vaguely tasted of beef. This, though, had no texture, so was just limp ribbons of the stuff, a disconcerting shade of beige and looking nothing like beef. It could have been shaved off a cow, a sheep, an actuary or E.T.: if you’d told me it was Soylent Green I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.

Normally when I put photos of a dish on the blog I do a little editing to try and make them look as good as possible: their culinary best selves, you could say. With the doner nachos I just wanted to do my best to make them look exactly as they did in the restaurant. Adding warmth and saturation would be like adding a Snapchat filter to a Tinder profile picture.

“I thought they’d be smaller” said Dr Quaff. I was just glad I only had to have one forkful.

More of the doner meat was to follow in the main attractions. I had a mixed kebab in their signature toasted flatbread, while Dr Quaff had it in a lahmacun wrap. In terms of a vessel for the meat, his was a much better plan – completely contained, easier to eat and much less messy. I also think, overall, Dr Quaff enjoyed the whole thing more than I did: he also pimped his fries so, for fifty pence extra, he got “flaming fries” which were dusted with something which contained paprika but also hints of something like Chinese five spice. “It’s funny”, he said, “because it feels strange to pay fifty pence extra, but it’s definitely worth it”.

By contrast, the toasted bread had a very pleasing waffly texture but was open, which meant that everything would have fallen out if I’d tried to eat it with my hands. This did work to my advantage though, because I managed to remove much of the beef doner meat with a fork (and to think I was always bad at Operation as a child) and focus on the chicken. It was infinitely better: for a start it definitely felt like it might once have been attached to an actual chicken, and along with the salad and red cabbage it began to feel like something I would eat from choice.

I’d paid extra for feta, because friends in the know had told me that was the thing to do, but it didn’t feel like it added an awful lot. The fries were nondescript – in the fast food hierarchy they were better than KFC fries (but so is everything else, including not having fries) but worse than McDonalds or Burger King. I didn’t really have strong opinions about any of the dips – if pushed, I guess I’d say I quite liked the burger sauce because you don’t see it often enough these days, but I’m not sure the fries made it worth going for the meal deal. Nice to have a Coke in the classic glass bottle, though, even if there weren’t any glasses provided to pour it into.

Service was functional and perfectly polite. I had to ask for a fork, I had to ask for a glass, I had to ask for a straw (I’m afraid it was plastic) when they didn’t have a glass, but all of those requests were handled nicely. It’s not the sort of restaurant, really, where you notice service unless it’s terrible, and it wasn’t. Not doner nachos terrible, anyway, but that’s a new level of terrible I wasn’t expecting to encounter in 2019. Let’s hope the year gets better from there. My dinner came to eleven pounds, while Dr Quaff’s, with his fancy chips and freakish side order, came to closer to thirteen.

After our meal, Dr Quaff and I sat there for a bit debating the merits of German Doner Kebab. He was (and is in general, I imagine) much kinder than me – I think he found things to like and could imagine going back, although I’m not sure when or how often. For me, it falls down in far too many places. It’s more expensive than KFC and cheaper than Honest Burgers, but if I wanted fast food in the town centre where I could sit down I would, without exception, pick one or the other over German Doner Kebab. And if it’s that kind of food you’re after – if you really, really need a kebab – German Doner Kebab doesn’t do anything that isn’t executed far better by either Kings Grill or Bakery House.

I could manage a chicken doner wrap there, at a push, but as a quick choice in town a lot of restaurants would have to close before it even made my top 10 (come to think of it, Nando’s is just down the road: judge all you like, but I love a Nando’s). So what – or who – is German Doner Kebab for? I’d love to be able to answer that question for you but, truth be told, I’m stumped. Put it this way: I still maintain that you don’t have to be drunk to eat a good kebab, but even if I’d emerged from a boozer several pints to the good after an evening with the author of Reading’s finest pub blog, wild horses would be unlikely to drag me back to German Doner Kebab.

German Doner Kebab – 5.4
106 Friar Street, RG1 1EP
0118 9589998

http://www.germandonerkebab.com