We know this about Taco Bell: They try stuff. The brand has a very active R&D team, a smart marketing crew, and they’re able to rush products to market in a way that feels urgent. This is partly because the company’s chefs mostly riff on a few core ingredients, but also because they keenly understand how to make chain food work these days. Invent something weird, hope it catches on, benefit from free media coverage (which reminds people “Oh yeah, let’s go to Taco Bell”), scrub the failures, build off the successes, rinse and repeat.
Add a little stunt PR now and again and you have a pretty solid recipe for success. It’s a great model but not a difficult one to figure out. It’s actually pretty shocking that other brands haven’t solved this little non-riddle. By contrast, fellow YUM Brands chain KFC is notoriously slow to innovation and seemed to let the fried chicken sandwich moment that dominated fast food in 2016 mostly pass them by when they should have crushed it.
Yesterday, I went to Taco Bell’s Test Kitchen in Irvine CA to taste a few dishes that the chain is testing across the country. There were some embargoed items that I can’t talk about yet (they’re experimenting with more non-tortilla shells), but here’s what I thought about the dishes I can write about:
Doritos Quesalupa Crunch — Testing in Cincinnati, OH
This is a quesadilla wrapped around a Doritos Locos taco, glued together with cheese. Taco Bell’s R&D team said when presenting it, “You’ll note that there’s a lot of cheese in the product.” Truer words have never been spoken.
So how does this one taste? Well, duh. It tastes amazing. It’s cheese and a taco and more cheese and Doritos dust. This isn’t rocket science (though the number of employees in lab coats told a different story). When another food writer saw that I’d finished it, rather than taking a bite and jotting notes, she scoffed “rookie,” which made me want to throw a chalupa at her. You’re tasting tacos, lady, not judging Top Chef — truthfully, I could have put away a few more of these.
If I had to complain, I’d say the breading ratio is a little off. Can we spray the Doritos dust straight on the inside of the flour tortilla and then use the extra space to add more meat? There was already plenty of crunch. Still, with a slight tweak (or even without), this is an obvious win because it combines a bunch of stuff Taco Bell fans already love.
Chicken Enchilada Burrito — Testing in Flint, MI
From a food-writer perspective, this was almost unarguably the best dish of the day. It feels weird and inventive and ought to be a success. It’s basically an enchilada plate wrapped up in a burrito. Taco Bell is very away that you hate having to use a fork and this is their remedy.
Here, the corn crunch that comes from the two taquitos is vital and makes the dish stronger. I rarely eat chicken at Taco Bell, but I would order this way before I’d order a chicken burrito.
A writer repping our friends at Foodbeast kept comparing this to a local Orange County burrito joint and it was a fair point. This is a total bro-y SoCal surf shack dish. It feels like un-fast food — a little scruffier around the edges. I like to imagine some kids from San Clemente High School breaking into the test kitchen, making this burrito, and then scrawling on a napkin: “Ya, we just put taquitos right in the burrito, lololol.”
NOTE: I hope people in Flint appreciate this thing, because it would smash in SoCal. The only problem is that they’re doing it with enchilada sauce or nacho cheese inside. No one wants that choice — we need both. Clearly. With cheese, enchilada sauce, and a little sprinkle of lettuce, this would become part of my regular order.
Chicken Caesar Crunchwrap — Testing in Nashville TN
This product obviously has a lot of nice people who care about it very much, but I just don’t see it going anywhere. The logic is, “It’s like a salad in a tortilla!” but with how much dressing they use it can’t be very healthy. Isn’t health still the main reason salads are ordered?
It’s cool to see a new set of flavors — chicken with caesar dressing, romaine lettuce, and a surprisingly flavorful parmesan crisp — I just don’t know who would order it. Who likes caesar dressing that much? More than nacho cheese? Tell me more about these people arriving at Taco Bell to get their caesar salad cravings met, I want to study them.
I like the romaine and I like that they’re experimenting with tipping the lettuce to meat ratio in favor of lettuce, I just think they should make a taco salad crunchwrap instead. Does that already exist? If so, please send me one. If it doesn’t, it should. Then the dressing could be the exact same mix of enchilada sauce and nacho cheese that I recommended above. It would be on brand and tastes lightyears better than the crunchwrap I tested. But who knows, let’s see what Nashville thinks.