For vegetarians looking for a good healthy meal in the fast food universe, few menus offer more options than Taco Bell’s. Whether you want to crush a burrito, indulge in some decadent snacks, or feel like tackling a black bean-based Crunchwrap Supreme, the Bell sports over 15 vegetarian options for you to choose from on its bloated menu (and yet for some reason they ditched the Mexican Pizza). If one of those doesn’t strike your fancy, with a few menu hacks you can turn almost any item into a vegetarian or vegan-friendly dish.
Despite all that variety, the chain inexplicably doesn’t have a plant-based taco on its menu. Crazy considering making a plant-based taco should be right in Taco Bell’s wheelhouse (god knows they’ve already dealt with “fake meat” accusations). But over the past half-decade, the Irvine-based company has seemed like they’d rather spend their time inventing whatever the hell the Mountain Dew Baja Blast is.
Thankfully, that approach seems to be shifting. Earlier this year Taco Bell introduced a plant-based version of their famous ground beef taco dubbed the Cravetarian in a small test market. We, unfortunately, haven’t tried that taco, but the Bell seems to be feeling pretty confident because they’re strutting their stuff and testing the waters with yet another new plant-based menu item. This time, Taco Bell is playing off of this month’s earlier new item, the Naked Chicken Chalupa — which we tasted a few years ago and was briefly “a thing” — by testing the Naked Chalupa with a Crispy Plant-based Shell. Yes, you read that right, you’re not high out of your mind, that’s its actual name. Taco Bell spent time figuring out how to turn chicken into a tortilla substitute, and then made a fake version of that chicken but didn’t spend any time figuring out what to call it. Priorities, Taco Bell!
The *deep breath* Naked Chicken Chalupa with a Crispy Plant-Based Shell is being offered for a limited time at a single Taco Bell location in Irvine California from now until June 27th. So, considering most of the world is going to have to wait to try this thing (if they get to try it at all), we trekked out to Taco Bell HQ to eat both Chalupas to see how the fake one compares to the real. Is Taco Bell nailing plant-based meat (shaped like tortillas, which are already plant-based)?
Let’s find out, starting with the Naked Chicken Chalupa.
Naked Chicken Chalupa
What’s In It?
Chicken, lettuce, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, avocado ranch
What Does It Taste Like
Prior to arriving at Taco Bell HQ, all I knew was that Taco Bell introduced a new chicken-based taco to their menu (for the second or third time, for those keeping track at home). I wasn’t quite ready for the shock that I was essentially eating a salad wrapped up in taco shell-shaped piece of fried chicken. The “Naked” refers to the fact that aside from the chicken shell, there is no meat in this taco, just lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, and a generous squirt of avocado ranch, which I have to admit, is kind unexpectedly tame.
Taco Bell could’ve totally doubled down on the meat and put their ground beef in this chicken shell and they probably would’ve gone viral (again) on shock value alone. But they didn’t and they’re probably better for it.
The Naked Chicken Chalupa is actually pretty damn good. If you can get past the fact that they had to heavily process some chicken meat and flatten it out until they could fold it, fry it, and shove a bunch of other stuff in it, it provides a good mouthful of flavors. The crispy chicken shell is thick enough to be satisfying and coupled with the cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and avocado ranch, the experience is akin to eating a heavy chicken salad with one hand.
The chicken shell has a pepper-forward savory flavor that pairs nicely with the avocado ranch, but I think an avocado-based salsa would’ve really elevated the experience by adding a nice spicy sensation to the whole thing. So you’re going to want to definitely hit this thing with your favorite Taco Bell sauce to take it to the next level.
The Bottom Line
If you don’t already frequent Taco Bell is this worth hitting the drive-thru over? Not quite. But if Taco Bell makes a regular appearance in your fast food diet, the Naked Chicken Chalupa is definitely worth indulging your curiosity for. It looks like Frankenstein food made for social media, but it offers more flavor than you’d expect.
Naked Chalupa with a Crispy Plant Based Shell
What’s In It?
Plant-based chicken shell, lettuce, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, avocado ranch
I still can’t get over this mouthful of a name. The Naked Chalupa with a Crispy Plant-based Shell is almost completely identical to its chicken-ed counterpart, the only main visual difference is the plant-based shell is slightly thinner and less craggy, but that’s something only a side-by-side comparison would show.
The plant-based shell is made from a proprietary pea-protein blend that’s breaded and shaped into Taco Bell’s distinct Chalupa form factor, biting into the thing reveals a substance that looks almost identical to white meat chicken.
Texture-wise, the plant-based shell has much more chew to it, it takes a bit more effort to finish chewing the food down when compared to its chicken counterpart, which I had to admit, I don’t love. Flavor-wise, the plant-based version is a lot more neutral, the avocado ranch does most of the heavy lifting in the flavor department, so the (here we go again) Naked Chalupa with a Crisply Plant-based Shell is much more in need of sauce or another flavor to really elevate the experience.
Long story, short, you’re going to want to dip this in something.
While I enjoyed Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chalupa because of its salad-on-the-go form factor, I almost think the plant-based chicken meat would be better if it was cut up and thrown on top of an actual salad, or simply as a crispy plant-based option to go in one of Taco Bell’s burritos.
The Bottom Line
It’s interesting. The pea-protein plant-based chicken recipe is good and passable as chicken, but this feels like the wrong form factor for it. Slices of avocado or the inclusion of potatoes would do a lot to make this meatless Chalupa work, but as it is, I think Taco Bell has better vegetarian options on the menu that’ll leave you more satisfied. Don’t order this as a meal, order it as a side to your meal. For your money, it’s better to grab the Naked Chicken Chalupa, which is good news, because that one is available nationwide while this one isn’t.
You can try the Naked Chalupa with a Crispy Plant-Based Shell at the Taco Bell location at 2222 Barranca Pkwy, Irvine, California.