A prodigal Taco Bell customer returns to the franchise and is surprised with what he finds.

I’ve long had a bone to pick with Taco Bell Japan. It’s not that typical complaint of Taco Bell not being authentic Mexican food. Criticizing Taco Bell for not being real Mexican cuisine is like criticizing Spongebob Squarepants for not being Shakespeare.

My problem with the fast food chain is that they didn’t seem to be trying very hard at making any headway in the fierce Japanese market – a market where Kit-Kat pizza is old hat and if you’re selling burgers, you better make one that’s a foot tall or unnaturally colored.

Yet, despite making waves with their relaunch in Japan back in 2015 they haven’t really done anything in the way of a crazy attention-getting gimmick. In fact, I didn’t even know a Taco Bell had opened in my home of Osaka until a few weeks ago, when I barely stumbled across one in the downtown area of Namba.

▼ Let’s play spot the Taco Bell!

▼ Give up? Here it is!

It was a far cry from the garish (I say that with love) faux Spanish Colonial restaurants that had played Def Leppard well into the 2000s and served me dirt-cheap tacos and Dr. Pepper after many a late-shift back home.

▼ In all fairness, there is larger signage around, but it’s all so subtly designed that it’s still easy to miss amid the cacophony of downtown Osaka.

This Taco Bell didn’t seem to care whether you saw it or not, so I never went in. I had loved Taco Bell once, but come on. They would have to make even a minimal effort to entice me to go inside after a decade or so of Taco Bellibacy, and it wasn’t until the recent release of the Okonomiyaki Burrito that they did.

Although Osaka is usually associated with takoyaki, the truth is that okonomiyaki is much more frequently eaten and at the core of the city’s food culture. So it’s actually quite bold that Taco Bell would attempt a food so close to the residents’ hearts.

▼ Specific ingredients vary, but okonomiyaki is mainly cabbage fried in a batter with a very rich sauce.

Finally, I had my excuse to go back, and headed towards the amazingly low-key entrance. It was more like a trendy small-plate restaurant than a major fast food chain.

Walking in was very surreal. The polyurethane furniture I remembered was all replaced with hardwood. The lighting was soothingly dim and that trendy mumbly rap that the kids like these days was playing over the speakers. A young woman in a tracksuit was bopping to it while getting a refill of cola from the fountain.

My jaw dropped to see a standard two-soft-taco-combo sell for 900 yen (US$8.11) and glasses of sangria on the menu. The usually stoned-looking teenager working at the counter was also replaced with a cheerily polite Japanese woman. It was all very disorienting – very much like Taco Bell, and yet not like one at all.

▼ I think it might be a Japanese law that a shop or fashion brand has to declare when it was established

But I shook it off and ordered the Okonomiyaki Burrito combo for 700 yen ($6.30) to go. In true Taco Bell fashion I was given a cup to fill myself and was relieved to see Dr. Pepper available. This was an especially pleasant surprise since around these parts Dr. Pepper is only slightly more tolerated than root beer.

After receiving my order I went back to the office by train. During the trip, I and everyone within a two-meter perimeter of me got very acquainted with the distinct aroma of the Okonomiyaki Burrito. It had a powerful and strangely delicious spicy cabbage smell to it.

And this wasn’t just an ordinary smelliness. It was like there was a blast furnace steadily burning cabbage and chili peppers in my tiny paper bag and then shooting the exhaust out with the force of a jet engine.

After getting back and opening my smelly bag, I realized it was actually two things causing the scent. The cabbage and sauce of the okonomiyaki burrito was a part, and then there were the French fries which were thoroughly dusted in a thick layer of taco seasoning.

▼ The package assured me it was ready to be eaten.

After spending the past 20 minutes smelling this thing, I didn’t want to waste any more time and dug right in. The burrito was of good size and densely packed with common okonomiyaki ingredients like cabbage, mayonnaise, meat, and sauce, as well as a few extras like cheese and red pepper.

▼ By the way, disassembling the Okonomiyaki Burrito is not recommended unless you’re a fan of the Alien series and its aesthetics.

The cabbage was very thinly cut and the meat was also shredded, which preserved the okonomiyaki texture and also made the burrito easy to eat.

After I finished there was that familiar aftertaste of Dr. Pepper and Taco Bell that I hadn’t experienced in years. It took me back to a simpler time when Napster and video cassettes were still things people used.

All in all, it was really good. Purists with regards to both Mexican and Osakan cuisine will likely scoff at this creation, but taking it at face value, it’s a really tasty and filling fast-food offering that’s well worth the price.

But more importantly I learned that Taco Bell Japan isn’t lacking in effort after all, and the location I went to was quite busy. It seems instead that they’re trying to be more of a cool player in a nation of increasingly wacky fast-food gimmickry. And since they’ve just opened their second Osaka location last month, it appears to be working.

However, if Taco Bell is in the mood for a little more gimmickry, hopefully they’ll take note of the four awesome and one awful Japanese-themed tacos I developed a few years back.

Photos ©SoraNews24