The last few years of Taco Bell’s existence have been defined by deprivation, as the chain has purged its menu of beloved items only to add them back and purge them once more. If you are a vegetarian, you might know that this week marks two years since Taco Bell killed the 7 Layer Burrito. I had planned to observe the grim milestone in quiet contemplation, but that changed a few days ago, when I came upon a Taco Bell in Santiago, Chile, and discovered that some of the fast-food chain’s discontinued items still exist — provided you know where to look.
My long romance with the 7 Layer Burrito started during high school in Nashville in the first year we were allowed off campus to forage for lunch. While the cool kids hung out at San Antonio Taco Company (“Satco”) with the margarita-swilling college students, my friends and I were being dorky droogs at Taco Bell, ordering complimentary waters and filling the cups with fountain soda. On the way back, we would “sauce” passing cars by twisting hot-sauce packets to bursting point and hurling them at hubcaps.
But why the 7LB? For one, it was filling and cheap — just 99 cents when it debuted, according to the original television commercials, which showed desert drifters beholden by a “vision” of the “cosmic” number 7. But that was only part of the appeal. Instead, the 7LB re-created a very specific Tex-Mex experience: the moment when you’re eating fajitas but you’ve run out of steak strips, so you spoon the remaining guac, sour cream, tomatoes, rice, and beans onto the last tortilla to make a consolation taco.
We all know New York City has better Mexican food, but when I moved there to eke out a living in book publishing, I continued to lunch at Taco Bell, and many years later when I moved to the suburbs, I could order a 7 Layer Burrito at Penn Station and, in the anonymous scrum of commuters, shamelessly stuff it in my face while racing to make the train.
When Taco Bell announced in July 2020 that the 7 Layer would make a run for the celestial border along with ten other menu items in order to “create a more efficient Taco Bell experience,” it was yet another layer of suck squirted into a year that was already overstuffed with it. (A Taco Bell spokesperson says the decision was due to “restaurant challenges that we were facing here in the U.S. during the pandemic.”) After petitions and message-board pleas proved unsuccessful and the final day came, I responded as any sane person would: by hitting the drive-through of the nearest Taco Bell and purchasing several 7 Layer Burritos — seven of them, to be exact — for the purpose of historic preservation. They stayed in my freezer for just over a year along with some extant bottles of Zima. (It’s so hard to say good-bye to yesterday.) After many months, I tried microwaving one — against my better judgment — and it tasted nothing like the ’rito I had known and loved. I might as well have buried it in a pet cemetery. A Brazilian friend told me that the Portuguese language has a word for the specific pangs of unfulfilled nostalgia I was feeling: saudade.
Almost two years after the Mexican Pizza was axed in November 2020, it made a triumphant return amid fanfare led by Doja Cat, Dolly Parton, and the Indian American vegetarians who successfully lit some fire sauce under Taco Bell’s ass. But for now, us 7 Layer loons have no choice but to use copycat recipes and “hacks” of existing menu items. I can tell you from experience that these bore-ritos are about as close to an authentic 7 Layer as the original 7 Layer was to authentic Mexican food.
Which brings us to Chile. After seven months of traveling in the Bell-free realms of Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina, I was surprised to find a Taco Bell in Santiago. A Wiki-worthy history of American intervention there hasn’t exactly instilled a love of Yanqui culture — though there are Simpsons-themed bars where you can take selfies with a fiberglass Homer. But there it was: Taco Bell in the middle of the well-to-do Providencia neighborhood. I had to walk in. I had to make a run for the proverbial border. (I also had to pee.)
That’s when I saw it illuminated by a thousand points of light on the electronic menu: the “Burrito 7 Layer.” Never in my mild-sauciest dreams could I have imagined that the 7 Layer Burrito would live on in South America. The woman who took my order asked if I wanted to combine the 7 Layer with nacho fries, but I knew that I should save my french-fry experimentation for the local specialty known as chorrillana, a meatier version of huevos rotos.
While I awaited my order with all the anticipation of a parent clutching balloons at the arrivals hall, I asked the counterwoman if the Burrito 7 Layer was a popular item. She told me it was “medium” and a favorite among vegetarians. She was sympathetic when informed that it was burrito non grata in the U.S.: “They did that with the chalupa here.”
Then it arrived. I unwrapped it. It had the right heft to it, and the first bite yielded the obligatory opening salvo of either guac or sour cream — in this case, a sour cream that tasted faintly like cottage cheese. The next bite was the crucial one, in which the layers would need to fall into harmony. And they did. They really did. This was the 7 Layer I remembered — right down to the tangy guac, the gummy tortilla that stuck to my teeth, and the gratuitous lettuce that tasted like it probably should’ve been thrown out a day or two ago.
Santiaguinos might deride me as a huevón or weón for wasting one of my last meals in Chile on a 7 Layer Burrito. And I do wish I had eaten more of Santiago’s insanely fresh seafood, starting with relatively cheap delicacies like sea urchin and oysters. Or even the foie gras — soon to be unattainable in New York — at local hot-spot Baco. Plenty of places would’ve had better onda (atmosphere) than a Taco Bell plastered wall to wall with cheesy surf imagery. For ’90s vibes, I could’ve spent more time at La Picá de Clinton, the downtown lunch counter President Clinton ducked into during a visit to Santiago where his Diet Coke bottle is now encased behind the bar. (Fittingly, it is next to a sex shop.) But somehow, in its two-year absence, the 7 Layer had become just as exotic as locos, the abalone-like mollusk harvested by deep-sea divers and served with mayonnaise at discerning restaurants around town.
As it turns out, Chile isn’t the only country where the 7 Layer lives on. As of February, Taco Bell was on track to have more than 1,000 restaurants outside of the U.S. (all of them owned by franchises), and while the 7 Layer Burrito isn’t available in major markets like Spain and Australia, it’s still listed on menus in Kuwait, Brazil (as the Veggie Burrito), Canada (where the refried beans can be substituted for beef, steak, or chicken), and the U.K. (where the menu description compares the 7 Layer to “that 7-floor city apartment you see in a US sitcom … Seasoned Rice is an elderly woman that lives on the second floor and has a lovely patio garden”).
It’s comforting to know that I’ll be able to experience those seven bites of requited love next time I travel. Will it be a little messed up when I land in Rio and head for a Taco Bell instead of the nearest queijo coalho cart? Sure. It’ll be “so gringo,” as a Colombian living in Argentina used to say when I complained that import regulations affecting Chilean salmon were driving up the price of my morning bagel with lox. What can I say? The saudade is real.