When the Life section was handing out assignments, yours truly somehow got stuck with ranking the (ever-changing) Taco Bell menu. Maybe it’s because I have taco-judging experience, I don’t know. I’m not sure that my expertise was any real asset here. In any case, I mention this to say that I’m pretty well-versed in Mexican food, on both sides of the border. That being said, I’m not going to get into a whole thing bashing Taco Bell for not being “real Mexican food.” It’s not 1974, I think we’re all well aware of that by now.
Sometimes you want Mexican food, other times you want Taco Bell. Chipotle is the same.
Neither am I advocating that you go out and eat fast food every day. Even putting aside the potential health effects, I’d much rather everyone support their locals rather than the big chains — if only to maintain diversity in the foodservice ecosystem. We don’t want the world turning into Demolition Man, where the only restaurant left is Taco Bell. (You sort of have to give the company credit for allowing themselves to get clowned in a Sylvester Stallone movie though, don’t you? That was a pretty cool move, for a corporation).
Bottom line, there’s probably going to come a time in your life — be it on a road trip or drunk at 3 am — when Taco Bell is the best of the options available. For those times, allow me to be your zesty beef Sherpa, guiding you on a magical journey through the Taco Bell menu in the hopes of helping you make your best ordering decision.
A Note On Methodology
Every Taco Bell locaish has a slightly different menu, so I just ordered from the closest one to my house. People talk about “McDonald’s” or “In-N-Out” as if they’re monoliths, but they all vary from location to location, even shift to shift. I frequently choose certain In-N-Out locations over others because I’m convinced one has crispier fries, better-seasoned beef, or whatever. Automated as it is, it does still come down to humans preparing, or at least assembling, your food. I don’t know how you account for that in a ranking, so I didn’t attempt to. I also skipped the sides and the meat variations — no chicken or steak.
Taco Bell seems to have drastically cut down on those anyway.
I tried to order roughly one of everything, save sides. I did tacos on the first day, burritos and special items (nachos, crunch wraps) on the second day, and breakfast on the third (I had to go to a different location for that one, and, to be honest, I think it was a lot worse than the first). It cost approximately $63 in total. Most items I only took a few bites of, because I’m not trying to eat 18 menu items in three sittings. I mean sure, I’ll willingly give myself diarrhea for you people but I still have my limits.
After three days of this, I did start to experience a little of what Morgan Spurlock described in Supersize Me. I’d overeat, then feel bad afterward, and oddly empty after that. By the third day, I’d developed a mild but palpable dependency, where I could sense my body asking me expectantly, “Hey, so are we having Taco Bell today?” like my dog sitting by the door when he wants a walk.
PART I — The Sauces
It’s fine. Doesn’t really add enough heat or flavor, in my opinion. It’s just kind of there.
I like the heat, but they overdo it on the smokey chipotle flavor a bit, for me. It’s a bit much, but great if you need to drown out the flavor of something else.
Hot, tangy, slightly sweet, but not overpowering in terms of either flavor or heat. The only sauce you need, really.
PART II — The Menu
18. AM Crunch Wrap
First thing I notice here is the size and shape. This crunch wrap fits in the palm of my hand. I have above average palm size but still… something seems off here.
Biting into it, and… nah.
This is strange for me to say, because this would’ve been my choice as number 1 menu item if I hadn’t actually ordered and tasted everything else. In fact, I named it my favorite new fast food item of the year back in 2016.
I think this particular one just might be a dud. It’s all full of bacon and sauce, and the bacon part is weird because I didn’t order it like that, it just came that way, which may be a quirk of the online ordering system I used. I definitely don’t need this much bacon in a fast-food breakfast item. Fast food is already a sodium bomb, bacon just fouls the proportions.
Anyway, the hashbrowns — at least 85% of the reason I liked this item — are smooshed flat inside, which ruins both the interior texture and the exterior crunch. I took two bites of this just to be thorough and then put it back in the bag. Then after it sat for a minute or two I snuck another bite. This is a weird effect fast food has, where you feel strangely compelled to take a new bite in order to cleanse yourself of the previous bite. It’s a vicious circle.
17. Hash Brown Toasted Breakfast Burrito
This is… very dry. Are the hashbrowns in this even hashbrowns? I’m pretty sure these are some kind of seasoned steak fries. I don’t see steak fries anywhere on the menu but I’m fairly certain of it. The potato is simultaneously overseasoned, not crunchy, and mealy-dry in the middle. It also apparently comes with sausage, even though, again, the online menu didn’t say it had sausage. The sausage is… okay, I guess. Kind of the most flavorful part in fact, but the eggs look like those crappy powdered eggs. I’m speculating here, but they have that light yellow, overly homogenous look to them.
This is still edible, but basically useless without fire sauce. With fire sauce, it is minimally passable. It offers the basic semblance of a breakfast burrito.
16. Doritos Locos Taco
I like that this one comes in a little taco holder to keep my fingers from getting too cheesy. I’ve always said, Cheetos should have one of those plastic gloves Subway sandwich artists use built into the bag.
First bite, no sauce: too much flavor. It’s not terrible, it’s just… too many things happening. It’s like eating overseasoned french fries. The fire sauce can’t really save this one either because it has too many flavors to begin with so adding another doesn’t really solve anything.
Update: I actually inhaled a crispy nacho cheese fragment that lodged in my windpipe while I was typing this. I don’t recommend that. It’s even worse than a regular tortilla fragment (and I admit that I accidentally inhale food shards probably more than is normal). Oh God, I am in agony.
15. Bean Burrito
True story, my wife (MAH WAHFE) loves these. I like, in theory, that there’s a lot of sauce and onions, but… honestly, this doesn’t do much for me. The sauce tastes too processed in some ineffable way, like a TV dinner. I think enjoying these might be a force-of-habit kind of thing. She also likes that Aunt Jemima stuff better than real maple syrup, but we still love each other.
One bed, separate syrups.
14. Soft Taco Supreme
No sauce: Meh. Fine. Kinda cheesy-nothing flavor. Not unpleasant but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.
With Fire sauce: Definitely a huge improvement.
With Diablo sauce: Same, but much smokier. Diablo sauce is still a bit overpowering for me. It’s good but it also kind of tastes like heartburn.
Anyway, overall it takes too long to get to the sour cream in one of these, and not enough tomatoes.
13. Beefy 5-Layer Burrito
(I think? A few of the burritos were so similar that I might have confused them for each other)
I don’t hate this, but I feel like it has too many elements for a Taco Bell item. Overall, Taco Bell items seem better when they stick to the basics — tortilla, lettuce, beef, cheese, and to a lesser extent, beans. More than that and there’s too much variation. Diminishing returns.
I don’t even know what all this has in it but I know that there’s too much of it.
It’s… fine. It’s like a mix between a quesadilla and bean burrito (duh). Dull but inoffensive. I know I’m probably alone on this but I think there is a point at which you can have too much cheese.
11. Nachos Bellgrande
This was my go-to back in high school when I actually used to eat at Taco Bell on the reg. In my hometown, there was so little to do that we once got drunk in all the fast-food joint bathrooms. At Taco Bell we stole a metal chair and tied it to the back of my car and used it to take out mailboxes like a weed whacker. Somehow we managed to not get arrested. I digress.
The pros are that Nachos Bell Grande has everything you want from Taco Bell, plus extra crunch and nacho cheese in every bite (well, almost, depending on the cheese distribution). The downside is that as an adult I don’t have many opportunities to have a sit-down dinner at Taco Bell. Nachos are not a great thing to try to eat while you’re driving. Additionally, I’m not sure that having all the ingredients of a Taco Bell taco or burrito just laid out in front of you is the best way to appreciate Taco Bell, visually. I tend to think their taco fillings are best when they’re partially hidden inside a taco or burrito.
10. Crunchy Taco Supreme
I learned my lesson on the soft taco supreme and made sure to get sour cream in my first bite this time. I picked it up and looked to see which end had the most visible sour cream and bit that end first. That’s a veteran move right there. Tasting this now though, I actually think the sour cream and tomatoes dilute the nice flavor combination that the plain crunchy taco has.
A “be careful what you wish for”-situation. It’s fine though. …I guess it’s great if you really like sour cream.
9. Burrito Supreme
This feels like a slightly better version of the Taco Supreme. The sour cream works better here, for whatever reason. I do miss the crunch of the crunchy taco though.
8. Cheesy Gordita Crunch
This is a fun one. The stock version comes with some kind of zesty white sauce pre-applied. It’s an interesting change-up, and the gordita wrapping has its merits. But again, I think the extra sponge of the gordita detracts from the nice crunch of the plain taco. The added bread deadens the crunch and added cheese mutes the flavors a bit.
The white sauce is a lateral move at best.
7. Grande Toasted Breakfast Burrito
I don’t know why, but the hashbrowns in this one seem completely different than in the hashbrown toasted breakfast burrito. These are much more hashbrowny, which is to say that I’m fairly certain that these are actual hashbrowns and the other ones weren’t. Which is great. It also has bacon (which again, I didn’t see on the online menu when I ordered but… okay). There isn’t much bacon in there, which is great, actually. Just a hint of bacon flavor is kind of what I wanted here. I don’t know that I’d ever seek out Taco Bell over other breakfast burrito options, but this is a perfectly cromulent breakfast burrito. It has eggs, cheese, hashbrowns, and they grilled the tortilla.
Throw some Fire sauce on that bad boy and you got yourself a snacc.
6. Chalupa Supreme
The chalupa doesn’t quite have the crunch of the plain crunchy taco, but I really like the flavor of the chalupa shell. It’s definitely bringing something that the gordita isn’t. The sponge of the gordita is nice but it’s really the parts where it hits the grill/oil that make it work — that contrast between the sponge and crisp. We love fried dough, don’t we folks? Tremendous.
Tough to choose between this and the plain crunchy taco — the chalupa is a lot more bread. It feels heavier.
5. Black Bean Crunch Wrap
Honestly… pretty solid. A weirdly nice combination of things. I can’t tell what all is inside there, but I like the crunchy corn shell/grilled flour wrapping combination a lot. And then there’s a nice creamy mix of sauce/beans/stuff on the inside, with some shredded lettuce to add a little freshness. And thanks to the lack of meat product, it isn’t too salty like a lot of these menu items.
I dunno, I was pretty skeptical, but I like it.
4. Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa
This shell — a chalupa with crispy cheese grilled/baked into the shell, is shockingly successful. It’s kind of hitting on all cylinders for me. The cheddar chalupa shell feels basically like the Doritos Locos Taco version 2.0. The Doritos Locos shell was like a stunt, this feels like they worked out the bugs — they kept the crunchy-cheese part that was good and did away with all the extra seasonings that clashed with the taco filling. I’m a sucker for grilled crispy cheese.
Beans as a taco filling feels slightly dull, but as far as vegetarian options at fast food joints go, you could do a lot worse than this.
3. Toasted Cheddar Chalupa
I’m… honestly slightly ashamed at how much I enjoyed this one. They really amped up the crunch of the regular chalupa and added that umami crunchy cheese factor. Nicely done. I could’ve done with less sour cream, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it did in other items. The sour cream tends to soften the other flavors, but the cheddar chalupa shell compensates for it better.
I’d order light or no sour cream if I had it to do over again.
2. Crunch Wrap Supreme
I have to hand it to the Taco Bell food lab, they really did get the best of the crunchy taco and burrito into a single item with this one. The proportions are spot on. I generally enjoy gorditas, but the grilled flour tortilla-crunchy corn tortilla combination works better than the gordita-corn shell combo, I think. This was slightly less filled than the Black Bean version, and it’s hard to say which one I like better. They’re both very good. Also, it should be noted, this crunch wrap does not fit in the palm of my hand like the breakfast one (it also came from a different Taco Bell location).
1. Crunchy Taco
Yes, believe it or not, the bone stock crunchy taco was my favorite. I’m honestly not trying to be a purist or a contrarian here, there’s just something to be said for the simplicity of this one. There’s something magical that happens when you combine the crunchy shell, the fresh lettuce, the meat, and the cheese that ends up being more than the sum of its parts. It’s more about the proportions than any one element. There are two different kinds of crunch — the shell and the lettuce — a sprinkling of cheese in an amount that adds to rather than detracts from the other elements, and a restrained amount of seasoned beef. I’m definitely going to drown it in fire sauce, but pretty solid all around.
I also have a vivid memory of eating crunchy tacos the first time I ever got really stoned in San Louis Obispo, when I could separate and enjoy all the different flavors in my mouth. That sense memory may contribute to my enjoyment of this one.