As I stood in line at a Taco Bell on NE 36th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, I was not comfortable or hopeful. It had been a long time since I'd been in a fast food joint, and the proximity of all the nutritionally bankrupt white flour tortillas, preservative-packed foodstuffs, and grade D meat and dairy products made me want to bolt.
Admittedly a bit of a vegan drama queen, I thought the fluorescent lights made patrons look even more sickly than they probably were. But I was on a mission to see whether a vegan could get a cheap filling meal (no iceberg lettuce salads) on the go like her omnivorous counterparts.
I'd heard that Taco Bell had taken the lard out of their refried bean mixture years before, and I had also heard that they had a "fresco bean burrito" that came with salsa, onions, and a tangy red sauce, which presumably wouldn't contain dairy or meat. So for starters, I stepped up to the counter and asked Johnathon, an employee trainer at the store, whether their beans really were animal product-free.
"Yes, they are. I don't eat any red meat, so I know about that kind of stuff. They took the lard out when everyone started going vegetarian in the nineties," he said.
Great. So I asked him to recommend their best vegan dish.
Right away, the guy behind me in line piped up. "The seven-layer bean burrito. I'm a vegetarian, and that's what I always get," he said.
"What are the seven layers?" I asked.
"Beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, tomatoes, and red sauce," said the counter guy, which sounded more like eight layers to me.
"Well, if you take out the cheese and sour cream, it's completely vegan then?" I asked.
"Completely vegan," said Johnathon. The guy behind me nodded.
This burrito sounded more exciting than the straight tortilla with plain beans I had anticipated. I took a leap of faith and ordered the thing. I forked over two dollars and thirteen cents plus tax and waited for my warm little bundle of joy.
I ate the burrito in the car, and it was pretty good. I should have added hot sauce, but it had some flavor -- mostly the flavor of sodium, granted -- and certainly filled me up for a sixth of what a typical meal at Whole Foods would have cost me. Still, I felt a nagging sense that I had missed something.
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So I got home and did some Googling. From what I found online, Taco Bell's beans are indeed vegan. Their tortillas get the vegan green light. But their rice seasoning mix -- their stupid white rice, of all things! -- contains some trace amount of casein, a protein derived from milk. So I'd been hoodwinked into breaking my vegan diet.
I'm sure Johnathon didn't know about the casein in the rice. And to be fair, my diet's my responsibility, and I should have done my research beforehand. Plus, I acknowledge that many vegans would not consider patronage of a restaurant chain that makes the majority of its money on the mass slaughter of animals to be a very vegan activity, regardless of the ingredients of what you actually buy.
But what I really learned from this experiment is that if you want to get a vegan meal on the fly at a fast food restaurant, your best bet is to keep it as simple as possible. In retrospect, I would have been safer and felt better having eaten that boring old iceberg lettuce salad.