Taco Bell is Mexican food in the way that P.F. Changs is Chinese food. As in, it’s not. But that doesn’t mean Taco Bell isn’t without its merits. It exists parallel to the foodway that inspired it, very much its own thing, and — within those constraints — can be quite tasty. Don’t act like you’re above a Mexican Pizza drizzled with nacho cheese.
Overseas, “The Bell” is spreading like wildfire — opening over 100 international stores in 2019 alone, expanding to new markets where the average customer may have never seen a crunchy taco. That means making some accommodations for differing tastes, something McDonald’s has been doing for decades. It also means (I know from following such things) that they’re probably test marketing innovations overseas.
To see what the chain had up their sleeves, I visited the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California for an exclusive taste-test of some of their most recent overseas hits. The four food items I tried (actually five, but one is under embargo — it was delicious) capture the best of Taco Bell. Though they were customized for certain markets, I honestly can’t imagine any of these not working stateside. Why else would Taco Bell invite American food writers to come taste them?
Lava Burst Hot Chips — Australia
Hailing from Down Under, the Lava Burst Hot Chips are essentially a spicier version of the Rattlesnake fries, which were a limited-time menu item from 2018 here in the States. They’re fries, as you can tell, with seasoned ground beef, melted nacho cheese sauce, sour cream, sliced jalapenōs and a new, spicier version of Taco Bell’s lava sauce.
Ths sauce is a serious step up, the heavy use of cayenne helps the flavor to cut through each ingredient — adding some additional excitement to each bite. It doesn’t feel like anything you can’t already get at your local Taco Bell, but I do want to take a second to talk about just how good Taco Bell’s french fries are. They’re crispy, covered in a light batter, and each bite reveals molten hot buttery potato.
They’re so good that if they were a menu mainstay here like they are everywhere else in the world, they’d require us to amend our french fry power ranking. Facts.
Okonomiyaki Carnitas Burrito — Japan
Okonomiyaki is a wheat-based Japanese pancake that is topped with a variety of savory ingredients, and a semi-sweet and complex umami-activating sauce that pulls it all together. When the Taco Bell team presented the Okonomiyaki Carnitas Burrito my only thought was, “but… how?” Getting too deep into the fusion aspect is a fool’s errand — this burrito isn’t trying to be Taco Bell’s version of Okonomiyaki, it just has similar flavor profiles and that sauce.
My burrito contained carnitas, shredded cabbage, cheddar cheese, OKONOMI sauce, and Japanese mayo and was an absolute flavor bomb of mouthwatering umami goodness. Literally, there were layers of flavor, and the cabbage and red strip tortilla blend soak it all up nicely — giving you a consistent experience from end to end. Taco Bell’s carnitas, are surprisingly tender and make for a better final product than if they had just gone with ground beef.
If you love Japanese flavors, you’ll be all about this. I can’t imagine it being too popular here in the United States — though Japanese food is booming — but it would surely find its fans.
Cyprus Halloumi Crunchwrap — Europe
Hailing out of Cyprus, the Halloumi Crunchwrap is an absolute game-changer. Taco Bell likes to brag about their vegetarian menu which is given almost equal real estate on their menu as their meat-based foods, but if they brought over the Halloumi Crunchwrap, they’d have the best vegetarian menu in all of fast food. Yes, it’s that good.
It has everything you’d expect from a Crunchwrap, guacamole, pico de Gallo, a crunchy tostada, spicy ranch, lettuce, wrapped in a flour tortilla plus a giant piece of panko-breaded Halloumi cheese. Halloumi is often made from goat or sheep’s milk and is a semi-hard, shapeable brined cheese that is salty like a mozzarella stick, but a whole lot more savory.
Because the cheese is shapeable, similar to the way tofu is, the Taco Bell chefs believe they can do a lot with it and I’d gladly be first in line to try. People looking to cut meat out of their diets but aren’t digging on plant-based meats, I have the answer for you — cheese.
Oatrageous Taco — Finland, Spain
This one is a bit controversial. Taco Bell has taken a stance — they’ve drawn a line in the sand in the midst of the fast-food war between Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. But where Arby’s has gone full-on apocalyptic, proudly proclaiming that they’ve “got the meats” when they know damn well the human race is probably consuming too much of the stuff, Taco Bell has taken the opposite approach. They’ve famously declined to jump on the plant-based meat bandwagon because they offer an extensive variety of vegetarian dishes — on this one issue, Taco Bell is being strangely and uncharacteristically authentic.
Which makes me suspicious, obviously they have to be hiding something. Because a Taco Bell plant-based taco would sell out like the Popeyes chicken sandwich. Turns out, they were hiding something. All this time, while Impossible and Beyond have been duking it out in the drive-thrus of America, Taco Bell has had an overseas operative, working the European markets, and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. That secret agent is the Oatrageous Taco.
The Oatrageous is a plant-based taco available in Finland and Spain — not only does Taco Bell have a plant-based taco, but it’s a permanent menu item. The Oatrageous has everything you’d expect to find in a typical Taco Bell Crunchy Taco — that famous shell, the lettuce, and the cheese — but in lieu of ground beef, it’s packed with a proprietary meat-substitute made from pulled oats. The flavors are all come together with Taco Bell’s Chipotle sauce, which is a nice compliment to the semi-dry oat texture and adds a nice kick of spice that is normally achieved through Taco Bell’s seasoned beef. It smells like a Taco Bell taco, it looks like a Taco Bell taco, and it tastes just as good, if maybe a little drier.
I’m not the biggest fan of Beyond tacos, they just don’t taste right to me and I feel the plant-based meat is just a little over-seasoned and I find the reddish color to be particularly unappetizing. I don’t get that sensation with the Oatrageous, in fact, I like it better than Taco Bell’s ground beef taco. Will the Oatrageous Taco end up completely changing the fast-food planet-based meat war? I think so. And I can’t — for the life of me — understand why they haven’t brought it stateside.