Article by Tim King
Something monumental happened in Beijing on November 12th, 1987, something that would change China forever: the Mainland’s first KFC opened. It was the largest KFC in the world at the time, and the first western restaurant chain to come to China. People lined up for blocks, with some reports saying that the line stretched in to Tiananmen Square. By the end of the first day, more than 2,200 buckets of the Colonel’s 11-herb-and-spice secret recipe were sold, and the store made a cool $80,000 USD ($173,000 today). Three decades later, there are now more than 5000 stores in 1,100 cities; the Chinese market is the largest for KFC and, almost exclusively through that brand, parent company Yum! makes about half of its annual revenue here.
My first trip to a KFC in China was not quite what I expected. I generally didn’t eat at KFC in my ancestral homeland of the United States, and was surprised to find a more typical fast-food chain. You see, these days KFC (née “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” at one point audacious enough to claim that its chicken was “kitchen fresh”) is more known across the US as a horrific laboratory of the absurd, one whose mad scientists have unleashed culinary crimes against humanity. These crimes include, but are not limited to: the Double Down, a cheese and bacon sandwich that eschews bread for two fried chicken patties (which I actually tried and had trouble breathing for a whole afternoon); the BBQ Bacon Boxmaster, a deep-fried chicken fillet, bacon, BBQ sauce and a hash brown, all wrapped in a tortilla that fits its contents like my jeans fit after I gained the Freshman Fifteen in college; and the Pizza Twister, which is unfortunately exactly what it sounds like.
Back in China, my trips to KFC were great for those times when I wanted to just say “screw it” and eat some French fries and a chicken sandwich, but did nothing to cure my homesickness. Without that hearty helping of insanity, that willful disregard for common decency that makes American KFC what it is, it felt wrong—just a hollow imitation. However, that missing twelfth spice was coming to Chinese KFC sooner than I’d thought. About five years ago, sales began to decline at Chinese KFC stores—and achingly bad service combined with back-to-back food scandals didn’t help. After fixing the scandals and trying to improve their service routine, KFC needed to give Chinese consumers a reason to come back in. They revamped their menu, offering even more options that catered to local tastes like rice dishes. And they also let some of the crazy in.
Sharp observers may remember the “Chizza” from several months ago (helpfully spelled out for customers as “chicken + pizza” in advertising), but I was too horrified at the idea to even think about trying one. I had a similar reaction to the new “Chicken Taco,” but then my girlfriend expressed a desire to try it. Like every time I decide to eat at KFC, I said “Screw it” and prepared for a drive to the devil’s house with my beloved.
Before we go any further, we need to talk about what a “Chicken Taco” is. Its clear precursor is the Double Down Dog, in that it’s a folded slab of fried chicken (of that particular size and shape that only a fast food joint can achieve) filled with something else. In this case, it’s filled with corn, tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole and a spicy sauce. The picture even makes it look appetizing.
When I arrived at my local KFC, they were kind of confused at my order. Not one, but two Chicken Tacos? The cojones on this guy! the cashier’s face seemed to say. She yelled the order to the line, just to make sure this insanity was properly communicated to those preparing my meal. After several minutes, the two tacos were boxed and ready. Lastly, they slipped in a note, written in Chinese that basically said “eat this as fast as possible.” Whether that was because the guacamole wouldn’t keep, or a straight-up warning, was unclear. Back home with the missus, there was much anticipation as we unboxed our bounty. We found…about what you’d expect: a messy, dull-colored heap of almost food that was the same as the picture insofar as the picture and the reality were both theoretically comprised of the same things. The guacamole was surprisingly good, however.
I would’ve been upset, but as that last greasy bite slid down my gullet, I realized something. That combination of heaviness, malaise, confusion and disappointment that I felt was something I’d not felt in a long time. Not since that time I tried the Double Down. I put on a pair of elastic gym shorts and leaned back in satisfaction—not from my meal, but from the knowledge that the devil-may-care insanity of a home I left so many years ago had finally found its way back to me.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and lives in a world of constant gastro-intestinal disappointment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org