I worked at Taco Bell for many years (1978-1986) in the Phoenix area. The description made by Bazel above is almost an exact example of what my experiences were. I started with Taco Bell as a shy 16 year old who was on my own and had to support myself. I finished as the manager of the busiest store in the state (in the 1980’s anyway). The experiences that I gained in those years are both fond and frustrating for many different reasons, but I learned excellent work ethics and pride in a job well done that has carried me throughout my various careers. I worked for a very large franchise that really cared about how their business was presented. The owners were on hand daily to inspect in detail every process of the operation, and the district managers were never too good to pick up a broom or cook a pan of beans. I forget how many stores they had but there were quite a few. I was very proud to have worked for this particular franchise for a long time. Unfortunately, in the end I moved on to a different franchise because of a very young, favored and brand new district manager that was “sowing his oats” shall we say? The new franchise was vastly different and their attention to detail left a bit to be desired. Things were better in the old days and I outgrew my fast food job and moved on to a more modern career.
As far as the shells go, I personally have fried many, many thousands of shells in my Taco Bell career. Perhaps it was a franchise or regional thing as to whether they were fried on site or not. Our “fryers” as we called the kids that did that, worked generally in the mornings or late at night. The different types of shells all had metal molds that gave them their perfect appearance. The heat was kept very consistent and the shells were fried for a very specific time. If they weren’t perfect they went to the trash, period. The batches were fried generally every other day and the shells were kept in a warming oven at a very low temperature that helped to make sure that they were never, ever stale.
With regards to the meat, we cooked it exactly as Bazel described. I think that the meat was an 80/20 blend that had pretty high water content. Anyway, it could be somewhat greasy if it wasn’t drained properly. The owners taught us never, ever to mash the meat in any way, neither while cooking nor draining. They wanted the meat to be fluffy with no mushy texture. Once the meat was set in the drainer the thermometer was placed in it and it was not touched again until it reached 150 this way the liquid would have more spaces to drain and would remain moist and fluffy. It was placed in a metal pan, covered and placed in the steam cabinet until the pans in the tables were empty.
These days I do not eat at Taco Bell. The food is not the quality I remember it and I can make pretty much everything myself at home. I make the meat myself but I use a 90/10 blend. The meat must be completely thawed, not in a microwave where it can partially cook. I use whatever brand of taco seasoning I have; they all pretty much taste the same. I generally buy the large containers from Sam’s Club and mix it myself. I think it can taste different from what the old Taco Bell meat tasted because it is not drained the same. What you get at home is the meat cooked, drained and then a dry mix added and then water added to that. Consequently what you wind up with is cooked ground beef with a sauce. The texture and the flavor, while tasty, is not the same as the old Taco Bell meat. What I tried was pre mixing the sauce, it should be liquid when you add it to the meat, and usually the measurements are ¼ cup mix to 2/3 cup water. Add it to the UNCOOKED meat. Cook until it is at least 165 degrees or however you like it to be (well done, etc…). Pour all of it into a colander with smaller holes, fluff it and let it drain, again you can fluff it but do not mash it. It should be moist but not too greasy. If it cools too much, put it in a bowl and heat it a little in the microwave just before serving, warm meat heats very quickly in the micro, be sure not to overdo it. I’d love to find out if I was helpful in your quest, and what you think of the meat. Good Luck.