Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hot Burrito No. 1
It was not a great surprise to learn that Taco Bell has arrived in Shenzhen, seeing as how the city is also the site of mainland China's first McDonald's (complete with an official plaque tesitifying to its significance) and counts dozens of KFCs and a smattering of Pizza Huts among its culinary denizens. My pal James-the-Temple-Guy had already been there and was my eager guide to my baptism by-bad-salsa.
"What's it like?" I asked.
"What do you think? Like everything else taken from the US and put here. Just a little bit off."
Prior to our arrival, he made a point of telling me that it wasn't just any Taco Bell. It's an upscale, dine-in only version dubbed Taco Bell Grande with colorful tile tables and unbelievably bad fake Mexican art which makes the routinely bad Mexican tourist art look like Frida Kahlo. The menu has been tweaked for Chinese tastes so there are nada refried beans or Mexican rice, little cheese and it's all fairly bland. But it offers margaritas and Corona.
Unlike Hong Kong which boasts a few fairly respectable Mexican eateries, Taco Bell Grande is pretty much the whole enchilada as far as Shenzhen is concerned, though I've heard scuttlebutt about a burrito eatery in a district I rarely frequent due to distance and transportation costs. But James wasn't wrong about "just a little bit off."
The waitresses all sport straw sombreros with small brims and high crowns, knee-length dark blue skirts and severe looking psuedo-peasant blouses that appear to have been designed in someplace like Serbia and stitched together by Coco the gorilla. But they all greet you with a chorus of cheery "Hola!" when you arrive and "Adios!" upon departure. That was perhaps the high point for me - a chance to inflict what I could recall from my high school Spanish textbook on unwitting ears.
"Hola! Donde esta la bibliotecha? Me gusto mucho los bondegas!" (Hello, where is the library? I really like the meatballs!), were among the inanities I babbled at the smiling, uncomprehending waitstaff until finally settling on hastily teaching a couple of them how to count to five in Spanish.
Just like in the US, though, the service was reassurringly iffy. While my soft shell chicken tacos (no hard shell options) and tortilla soup arrived on time, repeated requests for ice water (bing xui in Chinese) met with many affirmations and no follow through until James and I stood on our chairs, stomped our feet and repeatedly chanted "agua frio! agua frio! agua frio!" ...
No, we didn't. But we were tempted.
The complimentary tortilla chips were passable, the salsa was terrible -- basically just reconstituted tomato paste and the tortilla soup looked like real deal, but basic ingredients like, say, soup stock and spices seemed to be lost in translation and further investigation revealed that all the food and recipes came straight from the Mother Ship of all Chinese Taco Bells -- in Shanghai.
Still, I believe I'll eventually return if for nothing more than another round of elementary Spanish lessons, the chicken tacos and a margarita. But I'm packing my own bottle taco sauce or Tabasco and using it liberally.
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