Taco Bell is one of the few old-style American fast-food chains still thriving in a reshaped marketplace that increasingly rewards freshness, quality, and nutrition—or at least the perceptions thereof—rather than simply the thrift, speed, and suspect beef upon which the industry was built. The faux-Mexican monolith’s sales were up 9 percent in the second quarter of 2015, even as their traditional rivals were struggling to appease an uppity new generation of fast-foodies who demand finer things such as lean protein, mixed greens, and fighting chances at 60th birthdays.
Most other industry mainstays are struggling, and resorting to desperate measures, from trying to McMuffin their way out of a tailspin with all-day breakfast menus to reintroducing creepy mascots who’ll bully us into Whopper binges to finally disassociating themselves from beloved spokes-perverts. Wendy’s is still running strong, but they’ve had to turn accommodationist to do so, selling legacy-defiling heresies such as brioche, green tea, and a wide variety of ethnic, berried, and nutted salads.
Only Taco Bell is managing to succeed without compromising its core principles. In 2012, while the competition was busy futzing around with Tuscan-style this and artisanal that, an empire based on bouncy beef, orange cheese, and exxxtremity for its own sake hit upon the billion-dollar idea of powder-coating taco shells with Dorito dust. Taco Bell’s flavor engineers seem to have taken the Dorito Loco’s success as bulletproof validation of their vision, for their product launches have been getting steadily more bombastic ever since.
Although none of these recent offerings have inspired anything like the fervor our sloppy hearts, minds, and blogs lavished upon the Dorito gambit, there have been some minor hits as well as some noble misses. Fast-food innovation too often relies on simply repackaging the same old shit in a different shape, or tossing two strips of bacon and a $1.50 surcharge on an old trick, so I applaud Taco Bell for being bold and gross enough to try legitimately new things. Their waffle tacos weren’t any good, but it was a novel concept. And I don’t know what a Cap’n Crunch Delight is, nor do I care to find out, but I respect the hustle.
While their peers are arbitrarily conferring zestiness upon a preexisting condiment, splorting it onto a breaded disk of gray meat, and throwing themselves a parade, these Taco Bell motherfuckers are quietly behind the scenes inventing new flavors of Mountain Dew! Their commitment to originality is impressive, it really is. But alas, the vast majority of Taco Bell food sucks.
I rarely eat there outside of my professional obligations, for the sad and simple reason that the closest one to me is in a mall, and I am almost never drunk at the mall. But then again, fuck me, you know? I’m an old married guy with a kitchen, and geographical chance dictates that my drunken junk-food binges tend to go down at 7-Eleven these days. But Taco Bell excels at knowing their market, and if you happen to fit into their scheme, you may be interested in their new line of Dare Devil Loaded Grillers.
A Loaded Griller is a smallish burrito of roughly the same dimensions as a cable-TV remote control (Xfinity model XR5 v4-R, specifically). Previous incarnations of Griller have been loaded with all sorts of things, including hunks of potato. The loads in question today consist of ground beef, nacho cheese, red tortilla strips, and one of three hot sauces: Mild Chipotle, Hot Habanero, or Fiery Ghost Pepper.
Fast food—even the varieties purportedly modeled on traditionally spicy cuisines—is notoriously heat-deficient. This is partly because everyone has a different tolerance for spice; one of the most frustrating parts of working in a certain kind of restaurant is being asked how hot the wings are, because that’s a matter for an individual mouth to work out on its own. It’s hard to communicate this sort of thing, and it’s easier to add heat after the fact than it is to subtract it, so fair enough if a lot of fast-food leans bland.
But I suspect there’s also a more nefarious reason for withholding the heat. The fast-food business model depends on us consumers cramming our fat faces as fast as possible, so to get us the hell out of the store ASAP after paying and, crucially, to trick us into eating twice as much as we really need to before we realize we were full 800 calories and three dollars ago. There’s no incentive to add any kind of challenging flavor that might slow things down.
So I was skeptical about just how much heat these new Loadeds were going to bear, but I ordered one of each anyway. The first thing I noticed is how damn cheap they are: A Dare Devil Loaded Griller costs a dollar. (Note in the receipt below that a small drink costs almost twice as much as one of these things.) That’s quite some deal for 380 to 420 calories worth of food—as for why the calories jump from 380 to 400 to 420 for Habanero to Ghost Pepper to Chipotle, respectively, when the only thing that changes is the hot sauce, eh, let’s not think about that).
That was a strong start—price matters so damn much in this category of dining—but the second thing I noticed threatened to submarine the entire operation. All three DD Loadeds look identical and come swaddled in the same paper. That meant this review’s viability depended on them tasting appreciably different. Yikes.
But they did! The Chipotle one was mild, as advertised; the Hot Habanero was more assertive; and I’ll be damned if the Fiery Ghost Pepper wasn’t a legitimately spicy foodstuff. I can’t tell you how hot, exactly, due to the aforementioned impossibility of syncing my tongue with yours, but I can say that it will be too hot for a small subset of reasonable people. It’s not going to appease stunt-eaters and thrill-seekers, but it’s plenty strong enough for the Sriracha-on-eggs crowd.
They taste varying levels of decent, too. The ground beef doesn’t taste particularly cow-like; chicken would be too expensive, but I might rather Taco Bell replaced the beef with beans to save us a couple dollops of cholesterol (or whatever) per serving. There’s simply not enough meat to stand out amid the nacho cheese and the hot sauce. The red tortilla strips struck me as kinda stupid at first, but they provide a nice textural contrast in what would otherwise be a very limp affair. The cheese, in addition to being bountiful, tastes like it’s supposed to, which is to say it is very salty and comes from a caulking gun. It’ll do.
The sauce is the thing here, though, and all three were distinctly different. The suitably horrifying nutrition section of the TB website indicates that each one does indeed use its namesake ingredient, though one assumes in microscopic quantities just to appease snoops like me who bother to look it up.
Now about those distinctions. The Mild Chipotle resembles the barbecue sauce from Burger King’s Rodeo Burger. There’s no hint of heat, but just enough smokiness to trick your mind down that path. The Hot Habanero has some real kick, along with a sweetness that brings to mind the goo from a can of fruit salad mixed with the orange sauce from a food-court version of General Whoever’s Chicken. The Fiery Ghost Pepper certainly doesn’t live up to its name, but it exceeds reasonable expectations for a $1 mini-burrito at a fast-food joint, with persistent heat that manages to rise above the nacho cheese to take over the show.
The Habanero is the best of the bunch due to the extra flavor dimensions of fruit and heat; the Chipotle’s fine, because what isn’t for a dollar, but it’s just another Loaded Griller; the Ghost Pepper is the hottest fast-food item I’ve ever tasted, which doesn’t mean it’s particularly awesome, but it still qualifies as a notable achievement. As long as we’re being fair about what “it” is, we can confidently assert that Taco Bell has done it again.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Lead image by Sam Woolley; photos by the author.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage.
Follow us on Twitter.