Taco Bell after dark

A Saturday at one of Tempe's most notorious spots

It’s 2 a.m. on Saint Patrick’s Day Saturday. Many in Tempe are already deep in slumber, snoozing off potential hangovers from nights of Baileys Irish Cream, green-tinted cocktails and regret chased with a tall glass of euphoria.  

But Taco Bell on Apache Boulevard in Tempe is anything but asleep. No, there is a line dozens long amorphously zigzagging nearly out the door, each patron more rambunctious than the next. You can barely establish where one conversation starts and another ends as the level of vocal noise is only equaled by the howl of modern rock guitar. 

Anyone who has ever lived around Tempe probably knows the scenario. Maybe a friend’s dinner of Bud Light and Doritos just wasn’t cutting it, the munchies are starting to kick in, or you just have a yearning to drown your sorrow in refried beans and three-cheese blend. No matter the context, someone always seems to mentions it.

“Who wants to get Taco Bell?”

And once it is said, that is that; everyone’s on their way to get cheap Tex-Mex, with so little debate it seems declining the venture is the social equivalent of wearing Crocs to a funeral.   

I first become acquainted with this Taco Bell location sophomore year, when I lived in the nearby District on Apache. Given that it was so close and offered a plethora of vegetarian options, I rarely went more than a few days without treating myself to a bean burrito or two. 

However, I quickly began to notice something about the place on weekends. It was just different.

Dozens of young people screaming obscenities, sauce packet hurling, open alcohol consumption, and most importantly, never a dull moment. This place was crazier than anything I had ever seen in suburbia. And I loved it. 

On Saint Patrick’s Day 2018, I skipped a night out with friends to see what the average Taco Bell Saturday night was like. Though arriving at 10:30 p.m, the pace of excitement did not intensify until a bit after midnight.

I suddenly gazed up to prompt welcoming by a sea of green in nearly every crevice of the restaurant. Green shirts, green necklaces, bunny ears adorned by four-leaf clovers, and various other Saint Patrick’s Day related accessories on full display. One man wears a modified Irish flag on his back changed to include a four-leaf clover.

Other than the green, I quickly notice two things. First off, there was a slew of people in this relatively small restaurant, almost all of whom appear to be ASU students. 

Second, virtually everyone showed signs of intoxication. Strange swaying back and forth while walking, loud, often screechy, vocalizing. One woman nearly falls as she attempts to get up from her barstool. In a sea of people with different majors, experiences and livelihoods, alcohol remains a fairly omnipresent subject.

“Don’t get the tequila again. It’s fucking nasty,” one woman says to her friend.

“She’s soooo drunk,” another woman says about her friend. 

“I wish I was less sober,” her friend replies.

I spoke to several ASU students about their opinions on and experience at their neighborhood Taco Bell. Most of all, I tried to figure out what it was that kept this Taco Bell perpetually thriving during the late hours of the weekend. Because many were visibly intoxicated and/or referenced potentially illegal use of alcohol and drugs, they have been identified by their first names and majors only.

Many students mentioned the locations easy access being a selling point; indeed, it is one of few restaurants in Tempe that literally never closes, being open 24/7. 

“Most 24 hour places get slammed around Saturday, Sunday, Friday, usually when people are out partying,” says Connor, a business communication major. “I think it comes down to availability. It’s like Taco Bell and a pizza place, and some Greek place that is open till 4. Those are your options.” 

Many also attributed Taco Bell's success to its proximity to several off-campus housing spots. Indeed, The District on Apache, The Villas, 922 Place, Vista del Sol are all only about a five minute or less walk away.

“After the parties and stuff, this is like the spot to kick it,” says William, a business law student. 

“It’s the afterparty for everyone pretty much,” says Mary, a business communication major. 

While most said it was the close location that kept them coming back, many said the location’s thrilling atmosphere helped it acquire a devoted following within their friend groups, complete with nicknames such as “the lit Taco Bell” and “T-Bells.” 

“I often come here to enjoy the atmosphere that is created by the people who come here in the evenings,” says Will, a digital culture major. “It’s just a good way to end a good night “ 

Nabil, a biochemistry major, says he and his friends journey there nearly every weekend. 

“It gives a lot of vibe to the city, and it’s a hot spot destination for everyone involved,” Nabil says. “Everyone knows to come here between midnight and 4 o’clock. There’s going to be a lot of drunk people.”

Silas, a sales and marketing/international business major, described a late-night weekend outing at Taco Bell as “part of the eclectic ASU experience.” He went out of his way to praise the location’s employees for dealing with their unique situation well. 

“The workers are pretty chill because they also know,” Silas says. “They have a sense of humor.” 

At one point, a visibly intoxicated patron yells "fuck Taco Bell!" toward the front desk to scattered laughs from the crowd, but no response from workers. 

The Taco Bell on Apache may seem like one in thousands of scenes of socialization in the Phoenix metro area. But it’s more than that. It’s an experience that all ASU students can enjoy equally, no matter what major, social cliche or class standing.  

Many ASU students are saddled with heavy workloads during the week. In addition to a substantial course load, they often take on multiple internships, jobs and extracurricular activities to keep up with both the modern expectations of a new LinkedIn generation, where experience is the ultimate virtue and failure to “live up” brings immense feelings of inadequacy.  

But none of that matters here at Taco Bell. You can relax, munch on cheap food, make vulgar jokes with your friends, and attempt to forget about your responsibilities for just one brief yet necessary moment.  

“I feel like they don’t judge you here. You can just go here, get food, and they don’t give a shit,” says Emerson, a business law student. “We’re all poor college kids and we all want to eat food late at night.”

Editor's Note: This story is an extended version of the original article published in the print version of State Press Magazine on April 4, 2018.


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