If there is a taco salad that comes in a tostada bowl, I will order it. I do not care how suburban the act is or how déclassé you may consider it: I love taco salads. I’ve had many good incarnations and many sad, useless, wasteful versions and was recently alerted that America’s most beloved not-Mexican food establishment has their own take on the classic: Taco Bell has a taco salad.
They don’t just have one salad either: they have four. You can get the base salad with beef, chicken, or steak and can even get an express version that is salad on a plate with chips instead of the tostada bowl. Upon learning this information, a tasting session was arranged by accident thanks to a free lunch of Taco Bell in my office. I requested the chicken version of the Taco Salad and released any expectations to the sky as I refused to read exactly what comes in the salad. The description started with “A crispy tortilla bowl…” and I let my imagination run wild.
The salad comes in a gigantic plastic bell jar of containment, reminding you that Taco Bell has the most bizarre packaging and most unfortunate sized food items. The bowl is very pale, shallow, and thin: tostada bowls are usually golden, provide a deep reservoir for content, and are swollen from frying. This is not that. The contents of the are very underwhelming and appear to be shredded taco lettuce with tortilla strips and chopped chicken, topped with some cheese and sour cream. Any assertions of quality have been given up at the hands of Taco Bell efficiency.
It’s smartly undressed though and accompanied with a deep container of salsa. This is an important note: nothing is worse than a taco salad that is dressed with a non-natural dressing. I’ve had taco salads that come with an uncomfortable vinaigrette, cream, or popular dressing like ranch or mandarin. I’m a firm believer that taco salad dressing should be salsa or guacamole: it needs to be a sensical sauce and Taco Bell knows this.
Yet, the taste is still shockingly “Taco Bell.” You know that taste: it’s that orange mouth coating grease that you find both intoxicating and repulsive when you bite into one of their tacos. That flavor is Taco Bell. It is their most defining character and the reason why they are to be feared: unnatural taco flavor will certainly be the death of us all. This is confusing since there is no taco meat in this salad. Huh. Yet another yet: the salad doesn’t have that grease mouthfeel that every other Taco Bell item has. Huh. Huh.
The shell doesn’t taste old either, a typical down mark of taco salads. It doesn’t taste fried either. Is it fried? I cannot tell.
Right when I start to think that this salad is OK tortilla wrapping Taco Bell flavor, something happens: the boredom is broken by pockets of other ingredients like beans and rice and tomato. These little flavor excursions aren’t anything more than surprises hidden in the salad mess but they do show that there is some reverence to the core idea of a taco salad: it’s actually a deconstructed burrito that we only call “taco salad” because of the obnoxious bowl. Eating it reminds of going on a culinary scavenger hunt, trying to find normal taco salad features in this Taco Bell incarnation.
After five minutes, it’s done too. The salad doesn’t over stay its welcome, doesn’t overfill, and doesn’t make you feel like you ate Taco Bell. It’s a weird exception to normal fast food rules. Somehow, the salad is less than 750 calories too. How is all this not talked about? I don’t recommend this salad—but I kind of do. For a taco salad, a food item that is an absolute abomination to Mexican food and insulting to serving sizes, this fast food creation does everything correctly. You don’t have a Taco Bell hangover after consuming and you don’t want to kill yourself either.
What a surprise: Taco Bell taco salads are not awful. I hope to never eat one again.