Saturday, 17 December 2011

An Arndale Odyssey (or Mexican in Manchester)

Manchester's Arndale Centre, giant among Arndale Centres, now boasts two entirely distinct places to eat Mexican fast food. One of them has been around for a while, and the other is a brand new shiny American import, only the third to open on these shores. I thought I'd visit both for lunch on the same day, in spirit of serious culinary investigation.

Taco Bell, Arndale Food Court

The American import is Taco Bell, brought to you by those lovely people at Yum! Brands (their exclamation mark!), more commonly known in the UK as owners of KFC and Pizza Hut. With a track record like that you'd be expecting great things from Taco Bell, right?

I should mention that I've been to Taco Bell before, in America, over eleven years ago. I'm a sucker for these places. Chain fast food restaurants always lure me in out of curiosity. The few weeks I spent travelling around the US that summer, high on Mountain Dew, were a happy daze of Wendy's, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's. They always promised so much, but inevitably ended in crashing disappointment. I actually remember Taco Bell as being particularly bad, so of course when I learned they had arrived in Manchester I was there like a shot.

As you alight at the top of the escalator you can't miss Taco Bell. It's very purple. An army of youths in purple polo shirts and purple baseball caps toil away under a huge backlit purple sign. Just head for the purple. It's the usual fast food set up, order individual items or make them into a meal with chips and fizzy pop. As I was having two lunches I passed up on the meal and just ordered two tacos.

They're cooking every order fresh at Taco Bell, which I suppose is to be praised, but it does mean your 'fast food' may not be particularly 'fast'. It some became apparent that most of the purple clad worker bees weren't really toiling away at all, rather stood around in the back staring at unseen screens with bemused expressions. After what seemed like an eternity my order eventually appeared. The anticipation was killing me.

Taco number one. A Mexican chicken crunchy taco supreme (£1.29). The chicken was almost a pleasant surprise. Almost, but not quite. On the plus side, it was moist and tender. On the minus side the sauce seemed to be flavoured primarily with salt, msg and something else chemically. The lettuce, cheese, sour cream and tomatoes just sort of passed by in a refreshing nothingness. To sum up; inoffensive.

Taco number two. A beef soft taco supreme (£1.19). The same deal, just with beef and a soft taco. This was worse. The beef really is quite unpleasant. You can see it smeared out the end on the photo there. It's completely ground to a mush, so has absolutely no texture to lend it resemblance to meat, and tastes extremely low grade. Have they invented chilli con carne dog food yet? If they have this is probably what it tastes like. To sum up; bad.

A not entirely resounding success, but I'll probably go back at least once more. There are plenty of other things on the menu to investigate, and I'm a glutton for punishment (I once ate a McChicken Korma Nan and I can't get enough KFC hot wings). Thank you Yum! Brands, thank you so much. As an aside Yum! describe themselves as 'the defining global company that feeds the world'. Which is scary.


Kiosk 5 The Food Court
Arndale Centre
M4 3QA

Pancho's Burritos, Arndale Market food court

And so to the other food court in the Arndale Centre, at the opposite end in the little market area. This is where you'll find the small, local businesses as opposed to the 'defining global company's that feed the world' up the other end.

I've been to Pancho's before, and was happy to see that they've now expanded into a second stall just round the corner from the first. They don't sell tacos individually, only as three for £4.60 (70p-£1 more than three at Taco Bell). Five tacos is too many for lunch, but it had to be done.

Or at least it would have been done if they'd had any of the little taco tortillas. They didn't, so I had to order a burrito instead (£4 plus 50p extra for nopales). The fillings are exactly the same as I'd have had on the tacos, so it's still a fair comparison.

This was stuffed with rice, stewed pork, refried beans, sour cream, hot sauce and nopales. I've never had nopales before, they're slices cut from the leaves of a type of cactus. I think they were slightly pickled, as they added a juicy, tangy, refreshing note to the burrito which contrasted wonderfully with the creamy beans and spicy pork. 

The pork was moist, tender and tasty with a slow burning, fruity heat. To sum up: spicy, satisfying, more-ish.


Arndale Market
Market Street
M4 3AQ

The Verdict

With the exceptions of menu availability and extreme purpleness Pancho's wins hand down. Much better food and better service for a price that's only slightly higher. Taco Bell doesn't claim to be authentic (it's 'Mexican-style' and 'Mexican-inspired'), whereas Pancho's does. I know nothing about Mexican food, but if both are telling the truth authenticity wins hands down this time.

Go to Pancho's Burritos and don't go to Taco Bell.


Katie said...

I heard that in some US test markets, Taco Bell is selling tacos with Dorito shells. Nacho Cheese Dorito shells with beef filling, blue flavour Dorito shells (whatever that's called) with chicken filling.

The only fast food Mexican place in the US outside of the southwest that's any good is Chipotle, but luckily for us, Bar Burrito in Manchester and Leeds have shamelessly ripped off the concept thoroughly, down to the smallest detail.

Dave said...

Thanks for commenting Katie. Doesn't surprise me in the least re. Taco Bell and Doritos.

I quite like Bar Burrito, it's way above Taco Bell standard but not as good as Pancho's I don't think.

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