It wasn’t that long ago that finding cheap meat-free dining options when you were on the road or super high meant subsisting on ordering sides or making endless substitutions. No more. With White Castle, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, Subway, Del Taco, and other joints opting to serve Beyond and Impossible faux meats over the past year, it’s easy to grab a veggie burger from a chain drive-thru instead of opting for a bun loaded with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions and a sad smattering of condiments. We’re living in a veritable Golden Era for vegetarians and like fast food.
Among the industry leaders, only Taco Bell has hesitated to hop aboard the Meat 2.0 train. The brand just doesn’t see any reason for it; they believe that they already have the best meat-free menu in the game. Fake beef only opens them to tweets about how their actual meat is already fake-tasting enough. (Yes, we see you fast food Twitter.)
I just don't think the "americans will never accept fake meat" argument can stand up to the observation that Taco Bell exists and is popular with americans
— Matthew Martin (@hyperplanes) October 8, 2019
As others were launching their meat alternatives this year, Taco Bell opted to introduce the first-ever dedicated in-store vegetarian menu board nationwide. Every item featured is certified by the American Vegetarian Association (AVA) — which Taco Bell has been teaming up with for years. They became the first AVA certified fast-food chain in 2015, and they remain the only company to bear that title. The bean burrito has been on the menu for 50 years and it’s still the brand’s second best-selling menu item, and the vegetarian beloved 7-layer burrito started as a limited-time offer in 1993 before vegetarian-leaning customer demand prompted the company to add it to the menu full-time. It’s remained a bestseller ever since.
“For us, vegetarian isn’t just a trend,” says Missy Schaaphok, RDN, Taco Bell’s Manager of Global Nutrition & Sustainability. “Vegetarian items were readily available to our fans long before other quick-service restaurants tried similar offerings.”
Alongside its classic mainstays, Taco Bell features 11 AVA-certified menu items and 36 AVA-certified ingredients (26 are vegan). The mix-and-match potential is astounding (Taco Bell cites the number at 8 million possible options). What the company seems to understand in ways their competitors still don’t is that people will eat fast-food regardless of whether or not it’s centered on an animal protein or, at the very least, pretends to be. And — whether you think Taco Bell is “real” Mexican food or more accurately titled “Mexican-inspired” — that should be the larger goal of moving to a more plant-based diet. Let go of the paradigm that demands to have beef at the center of the menu. Discover ways to enjoy refried beans or black beans. Hell, opt for fried potatoes if carbs aren’t an issue. It makes sense that a burger place would utilize a fake beef patty because their menus are built around them, but Taco Bell has spent decades crafting a menu that isn’t limited in that way, so there isn’t the same pressure to toss a crumbled meat analog into their tacos.
All of which begs the question: What are Taco Bell’s best meat-free options? We’ve listed them below, and — as with all things fast-food — we are unarguably, irrefutably right. That said, we don’t want to harp too heavily on the customization thing, but all of these can be adjusted to your tastes. One good short cut is to ask for things “fresco-style,” which means the cheese and sauces get replaced by fiesta salsa. It’s a quick way to lower the fat content of your items (or make them vegan).
Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme: Black Beans, Reduced-Fat Sour Cream, Nacho Cheese Sauce, Lettuce, Tomatoes
Savvy Taco Bell drive-thru denizens have been subbing beans on Crunchwraps since they were made part of the permanent menu in 2006. That doesn’t mean we aren’t happy that the restaurant decided to add a black bean version to the new vegetarian menu. It’s always nice to order without having to walk someone through substitutions.
This is a good starting point for people looking to try familiar items without the meat. But it’s also super satisfying for those already eschewing animal proteins and anyone who likes to eat beans. It’s the most popular vegetarian item on the menu currently.
Spicy Potato Soft Taco: Potatoes, Chipotle Sauce, Cheese, Lettuce
These are a bit of a surprise if you aren’t used to potato tacos. But the surprise is quickly replaced with delight. Taco Bell takes delicious fried potatoes and covers them in shredded lettuce (which we have a weird fondness for) and cheese before covering it all in a spicy chipotle sauce. Some of the employees get real amped about the sauce application and that can mean you bite into one end and have a blob of sauce come shooting out the back, so it’s best to opt for careful eating or ask them to chill on it a little.
These are also great with some added tomato for acidity that stands up against the creamy sauce.
Bean Burrito: Beans, Cheese, Red Sauce, Onions
People looking for low-cost, simple fast food have always loved the bean burrito. It’s been a mainstay for both omnivores and herbivores since Glen Bell founded Taco Bell. They may be a little high in fat at 11 grams per burrito, but they’re also a decent source of fiber (eight grams) and protein (15 grams). That’s really solid.
For vegans, ask that they hold the cheese and consider throwing in some potatoes. Fresco Style is also a good call in this case.
Triple Layer Nachos: Chips, Beans, Red Sauce, Nacho Cheese Sauce
Sometimes you need cheap, basic nachos, you just do. And these are the ideal way to fill that need. Though prices vary nationwide, you can often score them for a buck, which we freaking live for. They are just a pile of thin, salty corn tortilla chips smothered in refried beans, nacho cheese, and red sauce, but they are super satisfying. Plus, if you want to bulk them up, there are certainly options. We like a little pico de gallo and some jalapenos.
But then again, we also like licking all the cheese and beans out of the plastic container when the chips are gone, soooooo…
Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito: Beans, Creamy Jalapeno Sauce, Seasoned Rice, Nacho Cheese Sauce
We will always have big love for the classic bean burrito, but the Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito is beyond. Both the creamy jalapeno sauce and nacho cheese add spice and the rice adds some heft that the Bell’s soft (often molten) refried beans lack. Plus, without the addition of fresh veggies, these burritos can be easily reheated. Hell, we even like them cold at times (high times).
If you wanna really connect this bean burrito with its predecessor, add the red sauce and the onions back in.
Power Menu Bowl – Veggie: Black Beans, Guacamole, Reduced-Fat Sour Cream. Pico de Gallo, Cheese, Avocado Ranch Sauce, Seasoned Rice
The Power Menu is Taco Bell’s attempt at offering items that appeal to people looking for healthy options, and the veggie bowl is the healthiest of them all. Replacing the standard flour tortilla with a bowl is a good start, and filling it with a double serving of black beans, seasoned rice and a variety of toppings doesn’t hurt. We think that adding guacamole, sour cream, avocado ranch sauce, and pico is a bit much.
NOTE: Taco bell’s guacamole isn’t a favorite of ours. As guacamole goes, it’s not great. We suggest you leave it off and add in lettuce and jalapenos instead to up the overall veggie count.
Black Bean Quesarito: Black Beans, Reduced-Fat Sour Cream, Nacho Cheese, Chipotle Sauce, Cheese, Seasoned Rice
This is another of the items developed especially for the new vegetarian menu, and it’s perfect for sauce lovers. In fact, depending on who’s working the line, it can even be a little too saucy, so you might want to ask for less when you order. The black beans and seasoned rice are fairly mild and serve primarily to add nutritional value and as a vehicle for all the dairy. But once they are all together in what is essentially the yummy baby of a burrito and a quesadilla, it’s magic.
If you prefer your food to have a variety of textures, consider adding some lettuce, Fritos, or red strips of tortilla chip.
Cheesy Potato Griller: Nacho Cheese Sauce, Potatoes, Reduced-Fat Sour Cream
Now, a Cheesy Potato Griller is never going to cut it as a meal. They are pretty small as Taco Bell items go, but people are sleeping on what a great add-on they can be. The potatoes are fried crispy and though they lose a little of their crunch under the weight of the sour cream and the nacho cheese, some nice texture remains. The dairy elements make it all fatty and satisfying.
This for sure is not health food, but it is deeply pleasurable. The nacho cheese adds some spice, but the addition of jalapenos is awesome if you want a little more.
Breakfast Crunchwrap: Hash Brown, Cheese, Egg, Creamy Jalapeno Sauce
The breakfast menu at Taco Bell isn’t chock full of meat-free items. We suppose you could skate by with some Cinnabon Delights and a hash brown, but that’s not super satisfying or healthy, and the come down from all the sugar and carbs could hit you hard with a crash.
Our suggestion is to order the Breakfast Crunchwrap without any meat and throw in some pico and sour cream to make it really rich and flavorful. The cool additions also do double duty by dropping down the temperature of the wrap, allowing you to shovel it into your mouth immediately.