As a lifelong connoisseur of Taco Bell and all its quasi-Mexican fineries, I was elated to learn that, after an eight-month drought, I would be able to satisfy my unrelenting (and, I guess, unrefined) hunger in Seoul. While Koreans were previously able to run for the border (probably not an appropriate slogan for them around these parts), the city has been absent this dirty franchise for the past four or five years. It has finally returned after months of promises and delays.
Ironically (or maybe just tragically), the grand opening of the Seoul Taco Bell occurred over the weekend that I was back in the United States. I enjoyed a heaping helping of the succulent Grade E delights while I was on American soil, but I have to admit that I was somewhat down about missing the event that I’d anticipated for months. The Kansas Health Department would probably say that my Cheesy Crunch Gorditas were made with tainted beef, but I’d argue that they were only tinged with a little bittersweet sadness.
The day after my birthday, my friend Chris and I made the forty-five minute subway ride to the Itaewon district of Seoul, the location of the hallowed Taco Bell, and now the nexus of all fat residents of the city.
There she stood: a three-story restaurant filled with the hopes and dreams of the perversely gluttonous and insatiably depraved.
It turns out that three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon is a choice time to visit. Unlike the first couple of days on that fateful opening weekend, the tiny main floor where customers place orders was not crowded, and the establishment had all of its items in stock. I was next in line to place my order within a minute or two of entering. It was finally happening. Like a nervous high school girl in the backseat of Johnny Football’s Camaro on prom night, I stepped up to the counter.
Unlike American Taco Bells, the Korean franchise did not feature a staff made up exclusively of illegal Mexican immigrants, mentally retarded teenagers, and befuddled old women (“Goddammit, I said cinnamon twists, Nana!”). They were very average-looking Korean women* who just wanted a job, I suppose.
*Lou and I have a running joke that I find every Korean waitress who serves us attractive. I’ve tried to just go along with the joke and mention the hotness of all our waitresses, but I’ve found myself not even joking. I’m still just serious about their well-above-par looks. Almost always, our waitresses are very attractive young women. Taco Bell was (unsurprisingly, if I’m being honest about my assumptions, prejudices, and previous evidence) one of the few exceptions.
Though their looks were nothing to write a blog post about, their service was friendly and fast, and their English was solid. The woman was even able to understand my order through the mouthful of anticipatory saliva that I was involuntarily gurgling: one chicken Grilled Stuft Burrito, one Nachos Bell Grande, and one beef soft taco, for good measure.
Chris got his food first and found a table on the third floor. After only a minute or two more, my hearty platter was held aloft by the server and my order number called in a rush of Korean over the typically static-shrouded intercom. I stepped up to receive my destiny.
In the Korean Taco Bell, they do not have the sauces lined up for the taking with the napkins and plasticware. The server woman just tossed a handful onto my tray and told me to enjoy myself. Yes, fair maiden, I thought, I shall. I shall indeed. Another oddity: you could not get a water to drink. You would think that Taco Bell, knowing that they serve a product predisposed to giving those who ingest it severe diarrhea, would at least allow these people to hydrate themselves properly before having to split for the john.
I climbed the stairs to the third floor, sat down, and dug in. Like any sane individual, I began with the Nachos Bell Grande. The flavors were spot-on*. What a rich awakening for my long-dormant taste buds! I felt like a trolley car hopper who had happened upon a garbage bag full of Thanksgiving leftovers.
*I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: there are just as many dogs wandering the streets here as there are in America, and here it’s not taboo to use them in meals.
I’ll admit to being a little rusty in the fine practice of dining at the Bell, so I don’t feel bad about confessing that I forgot to pick up a spork, the all-important tool that any Nachos Bell Grande-eater cannot do without. I considered making the trek back downstairs to finish what remained on my plate, but settled on just using the trustiest apparatus at my disposal: my greedy fingers.
Waiting on deck was the Grilled Stuft Burrito. I lathered it in hot sauce and took a whopper of a bite. Now, the chicken did not have the kick of American Taco Bell, but the burrito was still a marvel overall. I would possibly argue that the tortilla kept its form and fold much more than the average American Taco Bell burrito.
Finally, I came to the mainstay of any Taco Bell order: the beef soft taco. This item is ubiquitous. Why wouldn’t you just toss this dandy of an eat on top of the rest of your meal? It adds no bloat (well, not any more than other Taco Bell products), costs pennies on the dollar, and leaves you with one more spectacular taste. I have to say, the Korean Taco Bell got it perfectly right with the beef soft taco. Well done, boys and girls. I patted my gut as I sat in dazed satisfaction. The meal was complete.
As I departed Itaewon on the subway train, I thought about the implications of the international transfer of corporations and their multi-billion dollar power in this still-infant global economy, and the subsequent shifts in culture both subtle and overbearing which come with this cross-territory market maneuvering. Also, my stomach was washed over by thick ripples of warm queasiness. It reminded me of the nacho cheese at Taco Bell.