Krish Jagirdar, an Indian American tech entrepreneur, never thought he could be partially responsible for the relaunch of Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza — his favorite dish on the menu and a cult favorite in the South Asian community.
He said he felt helpless when he heard that his favorite dish was being discontinued during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
“How could I go on without it? Imagine never eating your favorite food again,” he told NBC News. “I went through the stages of grief, but then, within an hour, I started a petition because what else can you do?”
Jagirdar, who is from the suburbs in New Jersey, was not alone in his disapproval of Taco Bell’s decision. Like Jagirdar, the Mexican-inspired restaurant played an important role in the childhood and assimilation of South Asians into American culture.
And for those growing up in the suburbs with a dearth of vegetarian options, Taco Bell was a place multigenerational families with different diets could come together and eat.
The petition, which Jagirdar said was being circulated in WhatsApp groups, garnered over 170,000 signatures, largely by the South Asian diaspora at first. “This petition felt like it was by South Asians, like, for South Asians,” he said.
“A lot of South Asians, especially first-generation South Asians, grew up vegetarian. We couldn’t go to McDonald’s, we couldn’t go to Burger King, and we couldn’t go to Wendy’s.”
Krish Jagirdar Change.org petitioner
Jagirdar, 33, who grew up in the early 1990s and 2000s, believes the momentum behind the petition happened because of what the dish symbolized.
“This menu item represents South Asian American identity in a really funky way,” he said about the Mexican pizza, which is a dish made of beef and refried beans between two Mexican pizza shells with sauce, shredded cheese and tomatoes. Although, many South Asians would choose to omit the meat.
Taco Bell eventually reintroduced the Mexican pizza last year after the petition and reached out to Jagirdar in the promotional content for the dish’s reemergence. Taco Bell responded to the petition thanking everyone who signed.
“Wow. You did it. All 171,735 of you. You saved Mexican Pizza,” the company wrote. “Thank you to Krish Jagirdar for never giving up on Mexican Pizza and starting this petition.”
“A lot of South Asians, especially first-generation South Asians, grew up vegetarian,” Jagirdar, who also grew up vegetarian, said. “We couldn’t go to McDonald’s, we couldn’t go to Burger King, and we couldn’t go to Wendy’s because we couldn’t have chicken nuggets or burgers — we couldn’t have any of these things.”
Religion also plays a large role in diet for South Asians. In India, 81% of adults follow some restrictions on meat in their diet, which they attribute to religious traditions, according to a Pew Research Center analysis published in 2021.
“I think we have large immigrant populations within the South Asian community that come from those spaces that tend vegetarian,” said Anita Mannur, a professor of English at Miami University and author of “Intimate Eating: Racialized Spaces and Radical Futures.”
When most fast-food chains in the U.S. only offered fries or salads as vegetarian options, Taco Bell was a blessing for families with diverse dietary restrictions.
“Our parents would take us to Taco Bell. That was the ‘fun’ food. Taco Bell was the place that we were allowed to go to because everything on the menu can be substituted to make a vegetarian option,” Jagirdar said.
Fast-food restaurants have been slow to introduce vegetarian entrees that aren’t salads or morning-only breakfast items.
Burger King debuted its first veggie burger in 2002, one of the first brands to introduce a plant-based burger nationally, a spokesperson said. In 2019, the company debuted its plant-based burger, the Impossible Whopper, according to Impossible Foods, who partnered with Burger King for the item.
Wendy’s has only salads as vegetarian full-meal options aside from breakfast items, which are limited to their morning menu, a spokesperson said. Chick-fil-A offers items such as desserts, breakfast items, biscuits, fries, and salads or wraps without chicken, according to its website. McDonald’s, which doesn’t have a nationwide vegetarian option, doesn’t have plans to include one, CNBC reported.
Fatima Sajjad, a practicing Muslim, said her family opted to order vegetarian items at restaurants since the only meat they ate was halal, which means it must adhere to Islamic law.
If you want to hang out with your kids and do things that feel American, eating fast food is a part of that. Taco Bell has allowed people to eat what feels like a full meal if you’re a vegetarian.
Anita mannur Miami University
“If we don’t see anything halal on the menu, then vegetarian is the next best option,” she said.
Growing up in the early 2000s, Sajjad, 24, said her lifestyle limited her choice of restaurants.
“My mom really wanted to implement eating halal-only foods. So, oftentimes, I felt bad that I couldn’t eat a lot of the items on the menu because we had to get the vegetarian option,” she said, which often only included one or two items.
She said the options at Taco Bell had been a relief for her parents. “Vegetarian options are often really rare, so I just saw them be more at ease when they go out for fast-food options,” she said.
Sajjad, who moved from New York City to Cleveland when she was a child, said Taco Bell became a staple in her family’s weekend activities, where everyone could order something different.
“I feel like you could pretty much pick anything you wanted, you’d just have to take out the beef,” she said.
Mannur said this experience is common for the South Asian diaspora — especially as families find ways to assimilate. She believes Taco Bell gave South Asians a way to eat something familiar and filling but still uniquely American.
“If you want to hang out with your kids and do things that feel American, eating fast food is a part of that. Taco Bell has allowed people to eat what feels like a full meal if you’re a vegetarian,” she said.
Saad Metla, who is from Westchester County, New York, was the only vegetarian in his family growing up. Going out to dinner often meant eating at a local Indian restaurant, but like many children, Metla, now 27, preferred fast food.
“I would always ask to get some Taco Bell on the way back from those dinners,” he said, recalling his childhood in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
If his friends or family decided to go to McDonald’s or Wendy’s, Metla said his options were extremely limited. “It would really just be fries and desserts,” he said.
For Metla, Taco Bell was the only place he could choose from more than one item on the menu. After Saturday school at his local mosque, he would get lunch with his family and was grateful when it was Taco Bell. “I always got a Cheesy Gordita Crunch with beans,” he said.