Taco Bell: Recession cuisine?

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Things have been tough for Taco Bell lately. First there was the whole E. coli scare in 2006, which people are still talking about. Then there was the chain's new grills, which it claimed were "green" because they used less water and electricity than traditional steam tables. One of Taco Bell's execs even went so far as to state that "Whether you take shorter showers, turn off the water while brushing your teeth or purchase a Grill-to-Order menu item at Taco Bell, you can save water and impact the environment without even thinking about it." In point of fact, as CNN pointed out, Taco Bell's heavy reliance on beef makes it far from green. Finally, who can forget about Taco Bell's famous rat infestation video, which featured dozens of the furry little critters taking over a New York restaurant.

Still, even with its bacteriological and environmental shortcomings, Taco Bell is my go-to restaurant when it comes to fast food, for the simple reason that it consistently offers relatively healthy (compared to a Big Mac), surprisingly flavorful food for a very low price. My loyalty to the place dates back to when I was a poor starving college student. There was one semester in which I was particularly broke and could only spend about $50 on food. Throwing variety to the wind, I subsisted on plate after plate of hummus, lentils, tuna macaroni salad, and ramen. Whenever I could, I'd find some change in my couch and wander off to Taco Bell, where I could get a burrito for 59¢. It became a lifesaver. Many were the nights when I'd grab a table, pick up a burrito, load it with hot sauce, and savor the joy of something other than my regular fare. When I had an extra couple of cents to splurge, I'd pick up a bottomless cup of soda and revel in my wealth.

Over time, of course, Taco Bell phased out the super value menu. By that point, I had a little more money, so it didn't hit me too hard, although I remember feeling a pang when I discovered that my favorites were now a little more expensive. However, in addition to its push for green cred, Taco Bell seems to be returning to its roots. On May 15, it is rolling out its new "Why Pay More" menu, featuring items that cost 79¢, 89¢, and 99¢. Given that many customers are currently concerned about their ability to pay for gas, the super-cheap menu is coming out at the perfect time. And, to be honest, I will probably be taking advantage of the new offerings.

And I'll remain a Taco Bell regular as long as the rats remain among the patrons, not the ingredients!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. A recovering fast food junkie, he still dreams about Wendy's "Big Dave's Deluxe" burger.

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