Taco Bell is like Real Estate, or Law and Order: SVU—a single formula subtly refined over several years, giving us the same great taste in new forms that feel just different enough from the one before. From the Bell came gorditas, chalupas, quesoritos, Crunchwraps supreme, all of it reconfigurations of the same essential ingredients: meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, shell. Maybe the shell was soft and a little fried; maybe the hard shell was inside the soft shell; maybe the soft shell was wrapped around the hard shell. The taste was basically the same, and the newness was enough to drive profit margins.
But a new America requires new innovation, and Taco Bell, like any other fast food restaurant, has not been ignorant to consumer needs. After experimenting with cross-branding by making Mountain Dew Baja Blast standard at all its restaurants—and unsellable elsewhere, though limited edition bottles were sold in stints over the years—the franchise struck shareholder gold when the Doritos Loco taco, a taco where the damn hard shell was made out of damn Doritos, sold millions and millions of units within the first few years.
This was something different enough, and it worked, prompting further experimentation. And as of this week, Taco Bell has shifted the paradigm entirely by introducing the Naked Chicken Chalupa™, an item pushing far past anything the franchise has done before. It’s a fried chicken taco where the shell is the fried chicken, and the meat is the shell … the traditional filling instead shaped around the ancillary ingredients of lettuce, tomato and cheese, cutting out those pesky carbs. Spiritually, it’s a cousin of the KFC Double Down, the sandwich where instead of buns, you had two pieces of fried chicken sandwiching a slice of cheese. It’s also not that far off from the ramen burger, a trendy food item from about a year or two ago where the burger buns were made out of fried ramen—the idea remaining consistent to use what could be a topping or primary ingredient as the delivery system.
Earlier today, I cut through the random construction of Midtown to find a Taco Bell with hopes of testing out this new product. Taco Bells, and fast food restaurants in general, aren’t exactly renowned for their decorum, but the scene appeared rough even by lowered standards. The twinning lines for ordering merged into chaos as you got closer and closer to the front of the restaurant, with an unorganized sprawl waiting for their food. Behind the counter, two well-dressed adults—man in cardigan, woman in business casual blouse—ran around trying to coordinate orders, which no longer correlated to the computer.
There are many reasons not to live in New York, but chief amongst them has to be the escalated price of foods and services available everywhere else in the world. The Naked Chicken Chalupa retailed for $4.99, the meal for $9.99, prices I know to be highly inflated given my extensive research experience at the Taco Bells of my home state Illinois. But a 20 percent markup is a small price to pay for culinary innovation, and so I went forward.
After a half hour, the Naked Chicken Chalupas™–I’d ordered two for research purposes–were delivered. The silvery bundles felt hotter in my hand than the average taco, attributable to the shifted concept. With a regular taco, the beef filling must remain piping hot inside of a warm enough tortilla; here, the warmed meat was also the food you had to hold with your bare fingers, necessitating a very specific temperature. Too cold, and you’d be eating lukewarm fried chicken; too hot, and the taco would remain uncontrollable.
Nevertheless, I gingerly handled the chalupa to see what was going on. The shell was appropriately golden brown, darker around the edges, and proportionally thick all around. It looked like a slightly bigger chicken patty folded in half, with the middle specifically designed not to break. The chicken, too, was familiar—slightly peppery, with the rubbery texture and warm crunch of a McChicken, or a Checkers Spicy Chicken Sandwich.
I’m a fan of McChickens and any other processed chicken patty likely to be served in a high school cafeteria, so I didn’t mind. More conceptually problematic were the default accoutrements, which didn’t really fit the flavor palette. Limp lettuce, wet tomato, and shredded cheddar are no proper companion to a chicken patty, and as the chicken shell lacked the tortilla’s capacity to wrap itself around the ingredients, plenty of errant pieces spilled out with each new bite. By the end, the wrapper in front of me held a good quarter of the filling, all of which was worthless after hitting the paper.
Though the chicken was hot to hold, and left plenty of greasy residue with each handling, there was upside to the heat. The average Taco Bell item has a half-life of three-and-a-half minutes; once it cools down, it’s basically inedible, and ordering Taco Bell takeout has always been a dicey proposition. But the Naked Chicken Chalupa™ stayed hot for almost a half hour after I took it back from the restaurant to the SPIN offices, so that the SPIN employees could gawk at its existence. It was still hot to the touch, salty and juicy with every bite.
There are caveats, of course; I learned not long thereafter that the consumption of these two chalupas accounted for 90 percent of my daily sodium, which seemed both incredibly high and surprisingly low. Plus the fact that the chicken is probably Z-grade, or that Taco Bell preys on the wallets of people who should probably know better (and so on and so on). But it was enjoyable, you know–it’s likely to remain limited on Taco Bell’s menu in the near future, but it was a new, exciting risk, and it worked. It was definitely better than the Cheetos Chicken Fries; proof that if Taco Bell ventured outside the usual ingredients, they might still succeed. Pray for the day when they manage to meld this thing with a Dorito.