I’m not a big fan of Taco Bell, the restaurant chain founded in Downey in 1962. I’m not a fan of their food, anyway — or the chain in general as it exists today. I am, however, a fan of the iconic architecture from the Golden Age of Fast Food (1940s-1980s) and I’m an even bigger fan of adaptive reuse. I also love it when old fast food places are reborn as something else, which is the focus of my series Fast Food Undead. In this episode I visit the Thai Town location of Thai Original BBQ Restaurant, one of the many Thai restaurants which have taken over the former locations of Taco Bells.
When I was young I do remember eating at Taco Bell. It was never my favorite chain (for whatever reason I preferred the Kans-Mex chain, Taco Tico). I wouldn’t say that I hate Taco Bell’s food but in a world where other food is available, why would anyone (except for a stoned coprophiliac) purchase and eat something called a Volcano Burrito with Lava Sauce? Taco Bell is pretty gross today. That’s probably down to it being part of a huge chain; it was probably rather different in the beginning.
Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey in 1962. Although Taco Bell is often referred to as a Mexican restaurant chain, it was ostensibly Tex-Mex — a distinction worth noting. The original restaurants were built in the Mission Revival style. I have tried and so far failed to determine what architect designed the original Taco Bell but they deserve to be credited. In the golden age, the architecture of fast food places franchises by the likes of White Castle, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Wienerschnitzel, the International House of Pancakes, was an integral aspect of their branding. The original Taco Bells had real bells, red fake brick floors, small indoor seating areas, outdoor fire pits, and bathrooms in the back. The menu was small and included burritos, frijoles, tacos, tostadas, and chili burgers.
PepsiCo bought the chain in 1978 and afterward the chain underwent an overhaul. I remember feeling sad when the location along my school bus route replaced the metal bell with a plastic sign. A new color scheme appeared too: brown, red, gold, green, and orange. The design of new buildings was generic, with an apparent focus on functionality rather than identity.
In 1997, Tricon Global took over operations of Taco Bell and another overhaul occurred. Most of the old buildings were either abandoned or rebuilt with larger dining rooms and restrooms were placed closer to the dining areas and kitchens (yum). The Taco Bells of this era are anything but generic and seem designed to rebuke defenses of deconstructivism.
A year after Tricon Global took over, fajitas were removed and with them the last pretenses of Taco Bell being a Tex-Mex chain. Advertisements began airing in which a dog expressed his admiration for the new menu. No, it didn’t include Alpo burritos, kibbles and bits con queso, or dog chow puffy tacos; the mad scientists at Tricon instead concocted experimental foodstuffs like Baby Ruth Chocodillas, bacon and egg Crunchwraps, biscuit tacos, caramel apple empanadas, Pizzazz Pizzas, and Waffle Tacos. Was anyone surprised when a Cedar Rapids Taco Bell was found to double as a methamphetamine lab? Presumably, no one who had watched Breaking Bad.
When an old Taco Bell became a Thai restaurant in 2006, it gave me great pleasure, even though I’d never before eaten at the small Thai chain. When the original Thai BBQ opened in 1978 (the same year Glen Bell sold Taco Bell), there was no Thai Town and it opened on 3rd Street in the Wilshire Center neighborhood. Thai Town only began to take shape in East Hollywood in the mid-1980s partly as a result of the Southeast Asian Financial Crisis. Thai Town’s iconic Thailand Plaza wasn’t constructed until 1992. Thai BBQ locations popped up in other neighborhoods and today there are locations in Carson, Cerritos, Covina, Glendale, Las Vegas, Palms, Redondo Beach, San Francisco, Santa Clarita, Tarzana, and Union City.
If Yelp reviews are anything to go by (I mostly read them for entertainment), a surprising number (as in “more than zero”) of diners are quite perturbed by the notion of eating Thai food in a building that was once a Taco Bell. I have to wonder if there were diners a old Taco Bells who took issue with eating Bell Beefers in buildings designed to resemble 18th Century Spanish Catholic missions. Lucky for the outrage addicts, Thai BBQ offers delivery and take-out, allowing diners to eat Thai food in the comfort of their no-doubt authentic ruean Thai-inspired homes. It’s also worth noting that there are over 1,000 Los Angeles Thai restaurants not located inside former Taco Bells but for me this adaptive reuse and inauthenticity is one of the restaurant’s chiefest charms.
Thai BBQ Hollywood is open 11:00-22:00 (10:00 pm) Sunday through Thursday and 11:00-23:00 (11:00 pm) on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s located one block east of the Hollywood/Western Station of the Metro’s Red Line subway. It’s also served by Metro’s 180/181, 207, and 217 buses as well as the Rapid 757 and 780 lines. Sadly, although Thai Town is physically quite walkable, there are relatively few crosswalks in the neighborhood and Hollywood Boulevard’s antiquated design seems to surrender completely to speeding motorists. There are currently no bicycle lanes.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!