Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant Hack: Taco Bell

After I finished my PhD I moved to Los Angeles for a year to do a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA. Living in LA had it’s pluses and minuses for sure. Among the minuses were that it’s GD expensive in every way, and if you don’t have a car it’s a nightmare to try and go anywhere beyond a 5km radius of your house. This is especially the case if you’ve got a toddler and have to take a stroller with you, because some of the transit systems in LA do not allow you to take a stroller on-board the bus with the baby still in it – you have to take the baby out and fold up your stroller before you can board (see p20 here)! WTF! How, I ask you, is someone supposed to wrangle a baby, a stroller, a diaper bag, and whatever else you have with you (for example, GROCERIES??) and get on and off a bus??? One has to wonder if there were any MOTHERS on the panel that put that decision into place. Aargh. And people drive so much in LA that they aren’t used to having to look out for pedestrians, so you’re taking your life in your hands every time you cross the street, particularly if the guy in the car is trying to turn right on a red light. I advise buying extra life insurance before undertaking any pedestrian activity in Los Angeles. They have lawyers there that specialize in pedestrian accidents. Srsly.

But I digress. There were wonderful, wonderful things about living in Los Angeles too, and they included:

The neighbourhood around UCLA (Westwood) had a number of exclusively vegetarian restaurants, and lots of other places with excellent veggie options on the menu. The mall nearest our house (Westside Pavillion – featured in the movie “Clueless”, starring vegan actress Alicia Silverstone) had a food court where you could get vegetarian Hot Dog On-a-Stick and there was a fantastic place for Mexican food that had good veggie options called La Salsa. In general the Mexican fast food in LA was really tasty and had good veggie options; I particularly remember a place in Beverly Hills called Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill where they would make anything on their menu with organic tofu, and had a ‘salsa bar’ with about a dozen different kinds of fresh Salsa. And Baja Fresh (a chain that has locations all over the US) was pretty good too.

It was a tough adjustment coming back to Canada, where good Mexican food of any kind is much harder to come by, and fast food Mexican means only one thing: Taco Bell. And sadly, T-Bell does not hold a candle to any of the chains above.

That being said, as far as fast food options go for vegetarians and vegans in Canada, T-Bell is pretty good. Their standard menu has 2 veggie options: the 7-layer burrito and the bean burrito, either of which could be ordered without the dairy toppings to be made vegan. (Although they used to contain lard, the current formulation for refried beans at Taco Bell is vegan.*)

For a long time the 7-layer burrito was my standard choice; I’m not so much a fan of the bean burrito because it doesn’t have any lettuce and just feels too heavy and stodgy. But it gets a little tiresome to have the same thing every time, especially when they are always featuring some kind of funky (and often questionable) variation on the Mexican theme that invariably includes meat – and sometimes, for reasons not yet understood, I really want to try eating a taco with a black shell, you know??

Although people have probably been getting meat replaced with beans on T-Bell’s offerings informally for ages, at some time in the not-too-distant past, Taco Bell decided that they would take the official position of being willing to replace meat with refried beans for every item on their menu! Cheesy Beef Gordita Crunch can become Cheesy Bean Gordita Crunch; Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme can become Bean Crunchwrap Supreme; Mexican Pizza with Beef can be come Mexican Pizza with Beans; Volcano Beef Taco becomes Volcano Bean Taco – you get the idea? Ask for any of them with beans and no cheese (and no sour cream, where applicable) and you’re vegan.

It’s still no Sharky’s, to be sure. But for its willingness to adapt anything on the menu to the needs of a vegetarian or vegan diet, Taco Bell stands out amongst fast food chains in Canada.

*The same website indicates that the cheese at Taco Bell USA is rennet-free as well! I hope that's true of Canadian Taco Bells too!

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