Taco Bell versus Taqueria Coatzingo: Kids’ Take
This was my dream tour. An unbiased comparison between fast food Mexican and real Mexican food – by a group that is supposed to love the fast food version: Kids. I wanted a group who were naive and inexperienced, ones that would have a predilection towards Taco Bell – Unfortunately, this group was too smart.
The Food Writing Project from NY Cares seeks, “in a structured way, to expose students to food and food writing through workshops, collaborative activities and field trips to local restaurants and food vendors.” One of the organizers, Josh Goldblaitt, wanted to do an outing with a food writer, and apparently I was the closest thing he could find… I was asked to show them, as a blogger, how I operate and how to improve their writing swagger. Now, these students were already prepared with hooks and the critic’s nose, but, if you know how I operate, you’ll know that I wanted to break all that down.
For me, the most important thing is to be helpful. There is usually something redeeming about a place, no matter where you are, and as a writer you have the responsibility to advise your peers on this; you should think about if your friends were stuck here to eat: How should they approach the situation?
These students, like most adult foodie bloggers, were already conscious to paying attention to ingredients, talented people, and authentic food, with quite a number of advanced eating experiences and opinions on the state of dining between them; but, unlike many of my contemporaries, they weren’t annoying at all. The biggest surprise I got was that none had had Taco Bell before. This was amazing to me, because as a teenager Taco Bell was a regular part of my life. In high school, school lunch was a choice between Burger King, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut (if we feeling fancy that day). In a way, as I got too mature for McDonalds, Taco Bell had this edginess and drought of smiles I was comfortable with. At that time, the only other experience with Mexican food for me was on Seaford Middle School’s legendary 8th grade Spanish class trip to Don Juan’s in Massapequa. I can still taste the blandness.
As for the corporateness of it all – while I do love the brands of White Castle and Nathans, with a fast declining affection towards McDonalds and KFC, I appreciate Taco Bell for bringing Mexican food into the common American’s lexicon. If I never had Taco Bell in high school, gorditas and quesadillas would have remained a completely foreign dish for me for much longer than they did. Yes, it took some reinventing for my brain to realize the actual Mexican forms of the foods, but at least it created something of a foundation – at the very least I became familiar with the concept of a chalupa.
I wanted a completely fair assessment from the group. We would order the same items at Taco Bell and Taqueria Coatzingo (40-18 82nd St Elmhurst), giving a comparison to the interpretations the foods at the each location. I made sure not say anything negative, and I asked them to evaluate what was happening and what they were eating. As a food writer, I wanted their objective to be to advise their peers how to have a good time at either place. I did not want them to get hung up on “authenticity” and scolding chefs for not being authentic Mexican because that is a different issue altogether: Food is always evolving with limitations, neighbors, and availabilities so we should not exclude our own culture in the US from having influence on something. We cannot say how it’s supposed to be done, only if we like it or what we can relate it to.
I gave them tips for my process, like taking pictures of signs to remember addresses and menu details. Taking pictures of actual items next to their names. Using the menus for my notes, etc – just as a way to be efficient and accurate with their notes and thoughts.
I gave them forms for them to fill out, to guide them on what to think about. They had questions like:
What is this neighborhood like?
Who is eating here?
What is being in the restaurant like?
Did we wait long for the food?
Did it seem like a long time to wait?
What was your favorite item and why?
What would you not recommend and why?
If you had to come here again,
– what would you order?
– when would you come?
– where would you sit?
What is the best way to have a good time here?
And on top of each form to fill out, I gave them pieces of advice:
- Remember: Be constructive, help your audience enjoy it!
- Remember: Be fair, you’ve only visited once!
- Remember: Write for you!
We ordered tacos, gorditas, chalupas, quesadillas, burritos, and nachos. See below.
Results: At the end of the session, we compared our two experiences. We found that most of the dishes at Taco Bell resembled each other; Apart from the nachos, everything was basically meat in a wrap form of different sizes and either fried or not fried. At Coatzingo, the items were distinctive from one another.
The 13-year olds came to a heavy consensus that Coatzingo had better food, was more traditional, and had a fun atmosphere - but an interesting thing happened when I asked them where they would rather take their friends – nearly all of them said Taco Bell. They thought their friends, who they didn’t perceive to be as educated as they were in the culinary sense, would prefer the fast food of Taco Bell more. Even as this whole group thought Coatzingo had better food, was better for you, and more appropriate for their family, their after-school hangout with classmates would still be Taco Bell. I definitely understand. Kudos, Taco Bell.
Highlight from Taco Bell sheet: What would you not recommend and why?
All because they all tastes the same or similar
Highlight from Taqueria Coatzingo sheet: What is being in the restaurant like?
plants, decorations, religious decorations
Highlight from Taco Bell vs. Taqueria Coatzingo sheet: What can Coatzingo learn from Taco Bell?
To expand like Taco Bell.
Which do you think is better for your health? Why?
Probably Coatzingo because theres no preservatives and they make it to order.
I have to admit, Taco Bell was fun. They have great signage, and they make the menu look like a lot is happening there. The space is updated, and there is a good stream of people coming in and out. And the tacos, actually, weren’t that bad.
One of the interesting responses I got was when I asked the students was What could Coatzingo learn from Taco Bell? Based on Taco Bell’s apparent success, this was an important question. Most of them remarked that the seating was comfortable and the price was more agreeable (though the portions were much larger at Coatzingo). This low entry price gives them a greater amount of people who will walk in their doors.
This was kind of like the Kramerica tour. Where a group of people take a few steps in the life of a crazy maniac. In this case, it was me. Personally, this tour was a lot of fun, a great experiment, and a dream come true. As a forever researcher into the tastes of people, this is such an interesting audience to study. I would love to do more programs with the youth of today because they are so creative and fun to work with – also the structure of a class gives a wide range of personalities which creates an interesting challenge as an organizer. Last year, I also did a tour with a charter school of the area and that was soooooo eye-opening for all parties too – they even took me on a tour of their school to return the favor. Kids are awesome.
Special thanks to the 82nd Street Partnership who contributed to the NY Cares program in order to make this excursion happen. This organization helps the area with advocacy, marketing, sanitation, beautification, and working with the government – it’s also the organization that I did the Viva La Comida festival with.
Thanks NY Cares!