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REVIEW: Taco Bell “Naked Chicken Chalupa”

Once you learn you CAN do something, you still have to ask WHY it should be done.

When you’re as deeply entrenched in the fast food business as we are, when you’ve been slaying the drive-thru game since at LEAST 1978, it’s hard to continue to work up excitement over the latest offering from the fast food overlords. Sure, we’ve thrilled to the emergence of increasingly spicier sauces getting added to familiar favorites, or the jaw-dropping, mind-boggling creativity of wrapping a taco in a giant Dorito shell.

But one thing that never seems to move the excitement needle for us is this: Fast food establishments trying to whip up buzz by doing weird shit with chicken.

It didn’t work when KFC tried it with the infamous “Double Down,” the sandwich that substituted two pieces of fried chicken for bread. And you know what? We NEVER WENT AND GOT ONE. Now, here we are, with the masterminds in the Taco Bell Test Kitchen choosing to forgo the taco shell altogether, and wrap an entire taco in the breaded chicken itself. From the website:

“DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.” At least that’s what traditional wisdom tell (sic) us. But let’s be honest here, some things are just plain obvious at face value. Take for instance the invention of the wheel. Sure, back then there may have been a few skeptical cave dwellers laughing at this unexpected innovation, but most everyone else could see it for what it was: a game changer. Much like when Taco Bell created a Chalupa shell made of crispy, marinated all–white meat chicken and filled it with crisp lettuce, diced tomatoes, cheese and avocado ranch sauce to form the all new Naked Chicken Chalupa – the fried chicken game was changed forever. So bring on the skeptics and their judgements! Bring on the traditionalists questioning these methods – because one taste of this boldly seasoned cultural advancement will leave them asking why they even judged this book, er shell, in the first place.

First of all, Jesus Taco Bell, let’s chill out on the super-cool web copy. We know you’re happy with how things are going. We know you’ve got some of the healthiest fast food on the market. And we know you’ve got plenty of twee 120 pound hipsters Instagramming their every meal. But do you have to let them loose on your website? We want to know what ungodly thing you’re cramming into a frankenstein fried chicken shell, not read some failed science fiction novelist’s rambling chalupa prose.

The “Naked Chicken Chalupa” combines chopped lettuce, diced tomato, shredded cheddar, and an “Avocado Ranch” sauce, piled into (that’s right) an all white-meat pressed and molded fried chicken chalupa shell. Available nationwide at $2.99, the Naked Chicken Chalupa is also being included in a $5 Big Box combo, which includes a Naked Chicken Chalupa, Doritos Locos Taco, Crunchy Taco, and Medium Drink. It’s a hell of a lot of food, and a great value.

The Naked Chicken Chalupa comes packaged in its own cardboard handling sleeve, allowing you to slide the chalupa out a bite at a time. And it’s a good thing; when you’re eating a taco with a fried chicken shell, you have to expect that oily fingers are going to be a bit of an issue.

We were struck by a few things, regarding the effectiveness of molded chicken product as taco shell. First, it was much thinner than we expected it to be. While the chicken is still the dominant flavor in this product, it is thin enough that some other ingredients in the middle would still be appropriate. Second, the chicken is much spicier than we expected. It’s not going to ruin your day, certainly, but there is a fair amount of fleeting heat in the Naked Chicken Chalupa. Finally, it’s surprising how quickly you can burn out on the novelty of a fried chicken taco shell. But more on that later.

There’s not much going on with the fillings, here. The lauded “Avocado Ranch” wasn’t a factor in the overall flavor of the chalupa, and absorbed quickly into the chicken. Otherwise, the lettuce, tomato, and cheddar are noticeable, but hardly featured players in this macabre dance.

Overall, what’s interesting here is not the Naked Chicken Chalupa itself, but the product’s successful debut as a proving ground for future chalupas to come. Now that we all know this kind of food science is possible, it’s not hard to imagine Taco Bell branching out with stronger, bolder seasonings for the chicken itself, or filling the poultry shell with additional ingredients, like ground beef, or nacho cheese, or crispy tortilla strips, or refried beans, or their beloved reduced fat sour cream. Now that we’ve seen that that chicken shell works, the possibilities are limitless, and we look forward to seeing what weird new roads this technology will lead us down.

Unfortunately, it all begs the question: Why? Taco Bell is doing just fine with their Doritos Locos and breakfast menus. Did we need to eat an inside-out chicken taco salad? Can you possibly imagine eating more than one at a sitting? Was the Naked Chicken Chalupa more delicious, or more fun to eat, than a regular chalupa, with the chicken on the inside? Once the novelty wears off (about 1/3 of the way through), the answer is, sadly, “not really.”

Written by Malcolm Bedell

Malcolm is the author of “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road,” as well as a frequent contributor to Serious Eats, Down East Magazine, The L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and more. When not poisoning his body with garbage and then posting sardonic commentary about it on the Internet, he also owns and operates the ‘Wich, Please food truck, named Eater.com’s “Hottest Restaurant in Maine” for 2015.

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