Taco Bell in the time of COVID-19


These are grim times. You know that. They’re grim times for artists and grim times for doctors and grim times for teachers and students and builders and lawyers and farmers and soldiers and IT professionals, because people are getting sick and dying at terrifying rates and the best way — the only way — to combat it involves the near-complete suspension of community and enterprise and normalcy and everything else we typically turn to for help handling hardships. It sucks.

And these are, undoubtedly, grim times for the restaurant industry — especially in New York City, where exorbitant rents require restaurateurs to operate on impossibly slim margins in a landscape already blighted with empty storefronts.

If you are getting takeout and have the opportunity to support a small business, you should do it. But after you do that, or, perhaps, when you have few other options, you may find yourself at a Taco Bell. I know, because it happened to me over the weekend, and because my former roommate Bill texted me not two hours ago to note that the same thing happened to him yesterday. Taco Bell is delicious and inexpensive and comforting, and while it appears far better positioned than most to survive this pandemic, these presumably aren’t great times for area Taco Bell franchisees, either.

Here are four tips for enjoying Taco Bell in the time of COVID-19:

1) Be cool: If you thought this nation’s only truly horrendous people were the ones running it, think again! A Business Insider post surveying fast-food workers notes, “some customers were treating employees poorly in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Multiple workers shared stories of customers coughing on them, either by accident or as a ‘joke.’ Others said customers had yelled at them due to restricted hours or longer wait times.”

For fuck’s sake. I find few things more off-putting than people who mistreat food-service workers. (Once, when I got confused about the terms of a coupon at the lobster farm, the customer actually said, “that’s why I go to Cornell and you work at a lobster farm.” No joke.) It’s just a lousy thing to do, but also, I don’t think problem customers realize that people really do spit in their food sometimes. I never did it myself, but I’ve seen it happen enough times to know better than to take out my frustrations on someone handling my food, even on my worst day.

Yes, you’re scared about the ‘rona. Yes, your Taco Bell might take longer than it normally does because of the extra crowds and precautions that come along with the virus. But for heaven’s sake, be cool. Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s stressed. That person taking your order is literally putting her life on the line to provide you Taco Bell. It’s downright noble! And you’re working from home anyway! No one can see if you spent an extra ten minutes away from your desk getting lunch.

2) Use the Taco Bell app: Have you used the Taco Bell app? It’s phenomenal. And — I want to point out — it is awfully similar to a concept I outlined in this space in 2011. You can trick out any Taco Bell thing you can think of in practically any way. I like adding jalapenos to stuff just because I can. Sometimes I swap out Spicy Ranch sauce for Avocado Ranch sauce, not because I can necessarily tell the difference so much as because I am drunk with power. Extra meat? You can do that. Multiple meats? Absolutely. They don’t really let you mess with the various incarnations of tortilla that deliver your Taco Bell stuff, but everything inside is fair game.

Why it matters now is that you pay via the app, so you don’t have to use cash and you don’t force the Taco Bell employee to handle your grimy credit card and pass your germs along to the next person in line.

3) Skip the Crunchy Tacos: We all need to make sacrifices in this time And the particulars of eating Taco Bell during the coronavirus shutdown mean that you are likely either eating Taco Bell in your car or taking it away to eat somewhere besides the Taco Bell dining room. Crunchy Tacos are a great many things, but they are not particularly portable, nor are they really built to withstand more than a few minutes’ worth of travel time. If you want something that crunches, go with plain old nachos, or something that utilizes the superlative Crunchy Red Strips, or opt for the ever-popular Cheesy G.

4) For cryin’ out loud, try a Beefy Nacho Griller: If it didn’t already seem like End Times, we might be spending more time considering that Taco Bell has only now, finally, come out with something called the “Taco Burrito,” and that somehow the Taco Burrito — based on my recent experience — just isn’t all that good. It’s fine, obviously, but it’s basically just a soft taco with slightly more tortilla (albeit with infinitely more Crunchy Red Strips).

I feel like a broken record: The best new Taco Bell menu item of the last 10 years, and possibly the very best Taco Bell menu item of all, is the relatively unheralded Beefy Nacho Griller. It’s just seasoned beef, nacho cheese, and Crunchy Red Strips in a burrito, which is to say that it’s all the Taco Bell things you want with no superfluous lettuce. Then, to make it extra good, they press it in their magical Taco Bell grill thing.

Good luck out there.

The Volcano Taco is dead. Long live the Volcano Taco!

Someone told me the Volcano Taco no longer exists, so I hiked to my nearest Taco Bell to investigate. I’ve been trying to eat healthier of late, but I figured the two-mile walk would more than mitigate the damage done by a single taco.

volcanotacoMy nearest Taco Bell pumps classic rock music all the time, which always seems out of place in the middle of East Harlem. Tom Petty’s “Running Down the Dream” was cranking when I walked in. Speaking of which:

“Do you still make Volcano Tacos?” I asked nonchalantly, as if it were a casual curiosity and not a pointed inquiry. I try to play it cool at Taco Bell and act as if I’m not in the 99.999th percentile of human beings in terms of Taco Bell knowledge. I don’t really know why. I guess I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of the Taco Bell employees.

“We don’t,” said the woman at the register. She stepped back and pointed toward a sign advertising the new Fiery Doritos Locos Taco. “If you’re looking for something similar, I could-”

I cut her off. I’m certainly interested in knowing how the new Doritos Locos Taco tastes, but I don’t particularly want one. Healthier eating means a far smaller monthly quota for Taco Bell items, and I’ve been so underwhelmed by both the Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos that I don’t want to waste any of my very limited Taco Bell intake on more Doritos Locos Tacos.

“Nah,” I said, shaking my head. “Could you–”

“You could get a regular taco with the same sauce,” she said.

“With the Lava Sauce, yeah,” I said, accidentally exposing that I’m aware it’s called Lava Sauce, prompting a fleeting moment of embarrassment before I remembered that I’m not at all ashamed to know that.

“So a regular Crunchy Taco plus Lava Sauce,” she repeated, pounding away at the register. There are buttons for that. We’re in the clear.

A few minutes later, I ate what tasted exactly like a Volcano Taco, containing all the same ingredients. The red taco shell is no longer available, but that was just a novelty anyway, gone the way of the Black Jack Taco shell because Taco Bell’s current gimmicky shell thing is making them out of Doritos, not giving them different colors.

As to that: Whatever. They’re not my thing, but clearly they’re popular, and anything that helps keep Taco Bell flourishing is fine by me. Plus, the burgeoning relationship between Taco Bell and Frito-Lay seems like a step toward global Taco Bell dominance, winning the Restaurant Wars and all that.

Plus, at some point, Taco Bell’s going to start making taco shells out of other snack chips, which should get interesting. How about a pretzel taco? I could get down with that.

As for the Volcano Taco, it joins the pantheon of great retired Taco Bell items like the Bacon Cheeseburger Burrito. It will exist forever in our memories, a reminder of the transitional era in which Taco Bell first started toying with taco shells but before they started covering them with Dorito stuff. And the Taco Bell lifehackers among us will know that we can taste the Volcano Taco whenever we want by adding Lava Sauce to a Crunchy Taco, even if that adds an element of entropy that makes the Taco Bell significantly more likely to screw up your order than if you could just ask for a Volcano Taco.

I walked out to the boring thump of “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago, a band inspired by the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” to fuse rock music with a horn section, and one that enjoyed great commercial success while making largely terrible music. Sometimes good ideas pay off even when poorly executed. Taco Bell powers forward.

My Taco Bell expertise finally legitimized

Yesterday, the Internet heralded the coming of the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco as if it’s a newly verified thing even though this site and many others have been all over that news for nearly half a year. Longtime friend of the program Gina Pace at the New York Daily News took time off from her diligent work on the Tom Brady moat beat to report and clarify the Taco Bell news, citing the research of one well-coiffed “sports writer and Taco Bell aficionado.”

Taco Bell’s new Beefy Nacho Griller, briefly

I hope to have a more thorough review of Taco Bell’s new line of Grillers upon my return from vacation later this month. But last night I had the opportunity to enjoy a Beefy Nacho Griller at the World’s Weirdest Taco Bell — in the back of Liberty Cafe on 3rd Ave. in Manhattan — and, in lieu of a qualified defense of Rex Ryan’s decision to flee prying questions about Tim Tebow’s future for Bahamian beaches, I figured I’d provide a quick write-up now.

pdp_griller_beefy_nacho_1The Beefy Nacho Griller contains nothing new or unfamiliar to longtime fans of Taco Bell. It’s a burrito shell, wrapped and grilled around seasoned beef, nacho cheese and — this is important — crunchy f-ing red strips.

Reconfiguring longstanding Taco Bell ingredients into new Taco Bell menu items is right in Taco Bell’s wheelhouse, and Taco Bell knocks this one out of the park. It’s not large — the Griller series is marketed to snackers, and the Beefy Nacho Griller contains roughly the meatlode of a MexiMelt or Crunchy Taco.

But it’s delicious. The seasoned beef and nacho cheese combine to create a comforting, salty, peppery Taco Bell flavor. It’s not unlike the MexiMelt, actually, only the distinction in cheese styles renders the Beefy Nacho Griller more creamy than melty, and it comes without the frustrating need to specify no tomatoes.

Also, the tightly wrapped and grilled tortilla aptly contains the Taco Bell on par with the most portable prior products, producing a great treat for the drive-thru set or, in urban settings like this one, those who prefer to eat their Taco Bell while walking. And those red strips, by far the most underrated Taco Bell ingredient, continue to defy the ubiquitous orange Taco Bell grease, maintaining their crunchiness and creating a pleasant diversity of textures.

My one small gripe with the Beefy Nacho Griller is its somewhat high ratio of tortilla to filling, which seems unavoidable fallout from repurposing the burrito shell for a snack-sized product.

The Beefy Nacho Griller hardly launched to the type of hype that came with the Doritos Locos Tacos or the Cantina Bell menu, but Taco Bell traditionalists will find it far better than all those things.

Taco Bell Tuesday: Slow Taco Bell day

I’ve got a podcast to record in a minute and most of this week’s Taco Bell news involves murder and death, so I’m avoiding it. Here are some less-terrifying Taco Bell items of note:

Two from Nation’s Restaurant News: In an unveiling about as predictable as Justin Verlander’s 2011 Cy Young Award, multiple Taco Bell offerings were named to the Nation’s Restaurant News’ list of “top menu rollouts” for 2012. More than 200 million Doritos Locos Tacos have been served to date, and Cool Ranch and Flamas versions are on their way once Taco Bell gets Frito Lay to make enough taco shells to catch up with demand.

Also from NRN: Taco Bell’s First Meal commercial is the site’s top played video. Of course it is. This is restaurant news, people. Taco Bell is an unstoppable force.

Plot to steal tacos thwarted by tempting ATMAt least that’s how I assume it went down. Thieves in Dededo, Guam broke into a Taco Bell at 5 a.m. (Chamorro Standard Time)  and stole an ATM, probably once they realized the blaring alarm would distract them from the late-night taco artistry they hoped to endeavor. The big news here is that Guam has a Taco Bell, and apparently Taco Bells in Guam have ATMs in them. Or at least, they used to.

Also, did you know that Guam is in the midst of a movement to change its name to “Guahan,” its name in the native Chamorro language? It is. That’s one thing I didn’t know about Guam. Also: Most other things. I bet it’s beautiful. I can’t figure out from this site’s metrics if anyone in Guam ever visits TedQuarters, so if anyone from Guam is out there, do say hello. The Internet’s crazy like that. Yesterday I got a visit from Laos though. Hello, Laos! I will see you soon!

Taco Bell Tuesday

And a very important Taco Bell Tuesday indeed. First and foremost:

Free Doritos Locos Tacos on the East Coast: Perhaps the least-heralded and certainly the least-important impact of Superstorm Sandy was the way it thwarted so many plans to eat the free tacos Angel Pagan got for all of us by stealing a base in the World Series. Taco Bell, bastion of benevolence, will make that right today by offering free Doritos Locos Tacos at participating locations in areas affected by the storm. The full list is included in the link. All three of my hometown Taco Bells on Long Island will provide free tacos from 2-6 p.m. this afternoon. My dad’s day just got a bit brighter.

Here's what a Doritos Locos Taco Supreme sort of looks like.

Heretofore unknown Taco Bell product detailed: Because Taco Bell consumers in India are apparently not familiar with the peculiarities of Mexican-inspired American fast food, Taco Bells in India serve something called a “kotito.” Per Niren Chaudhary of Yum Brands:

[I]t is a fusion product. It has a combination of the Indian bread on the outside called koti [ph] and on the inside, it has the good old international burrito fillings.

So koti and burrito is kotito, a very outstanding product and one for which I would highly recommend that you make a trip to Bangalore. And if you take kotito on the way to Bangalore, I think the flight won’t seem that long.

That sounds outstanding. Someone more familiar with Indian food should chime in here, but I’m assuming “koti” is another translation for kati, which you can find in New York at, among other places, the Biryani Cart in Midtown right near my office. It’s good: Thicker than a burrito but thinner than a pita, chewy and moist. Seems like a fine delivery method for burrito stuff.

Incidentally, this site’s traffic metrics show that it gets a few hits a day from India. So if anyone reading this now is in India or going to India soon, please visit your local Taco Bell to photograph and eat a kotito. It turns out the Google Image returns for “kotito” are mostly scantily clad photos of a Japanese woman. This may surprise you, but the Internet already has lots and lots of scantily clad photos of women. But it has none that I can find of Mexican-inspired Indian fast food. With your help, I’d like to change that.

Guy who peed on Nachos claims that’s not what happened: For whatever reason, a Fort Wayne, Ind. reporter caught up with Cameron Jankowski, the former Taco Bell employee fired for photographing himself urinating on Nachos BellGrande. Jankowski claims that what we all thought was urine was actually a watered-down solution of Mountain Dew and water squirted from a bottle, which seems like a lot of effort to defile some nachos when you could just, you know, pee on them or something. But Jankowski claims he passed a lie-detector test, which is amazing for so many reasons. I like to imagine the police pulling a good-cop bad-cop routine, with the bad cop all up in this kid’s face like, “You peed on those nachos, you disgusting bastard! ADMIT IT!”

The article also says that, “Jankowski is currently a student at IPFW and is ironically studying business management.” To his credit, business management is the perfect thing to study ironically, and no one will ever accuse Cameron Jankowski of half-assing his jokes.

So what’s up with the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco?: It turns out that factories producing Doritos taco shells couldn’t catch up with demand, so plans to unveil Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos were held up while Taco Bell commissioned PepsiCo to “build two new lines to increase its capacity for taco shell production.” So there’s that.

The article also notes that there are 123 different flavors of Doritos worldwide, which is stunning. The web site Taquitos.net lists nearly 100 of them, including Peking Duck Doritos Gold, Gourmet Sausage Doritos, Ketchup Doritos, Pepper Bacon Doritos, and Wasabi Doritos.

Taco Bell Tuesday

We act like the Winter Meetings are the only thing happening when meanwhile there are Taco Bell things happening.

New York City fast-food workers move to unionize: I’ll continue avoiding politics as best as I can, but I thought you should be aware of why some workers at local fast food restaurants — including Taco Bells — have been walking off the job. This site supports Taco Bell employees’ efforts to earn a living wage through whatever measures necessary, and would be willing to pay a bit more for tacos to know that the people making them were happier and healthier.

Journalist gets to drive $2.5 million car, takes it to Taco Bell drive-thru: Why wouldn’t he? If a blind man behind the wheel for the first time in years thanks to Google’s self-driving car would immediately go to Taco Bell, I don’t see why anyone driving a $2.5 million Bugati wouldn’t. It’s just the logical first place to go when you’re in any car.

Fast food dessert category heating up: Joe Satran of the Huffington Post investigates why and how fast food restaurants are adding desserts to their menus, highlighted by Taco Bell’s newly improved dessert selection. He quotes a Taco Bell senior director who describes market research suggesting customers are interested in “clockless eating.”

Clockless eating. I hope that phrase catches on. Stop pigeonholing me into your oppressive three-meal regime, society. I demand clockless eating!

The article suggests that Taco Bell will soon consider adding a larger dessert option, which brings me to an important point: Bring back the Choco Taco. Seriously, with the success of the cross-promotional Doritos Locos Taco, why not work something out with Klondike to ensure the sale of Choco Tacos in all Taco Bell stores? It’s a taco, but it’s choco — the perfect Taco Bell dessert. It’s f—ing Mexican, can’t you see?


Also of note: A Chipotle spokesman quoted in the article says Chipotle has no designs on dessert, which is odd to me because Chipotle makes me crave dessert 100-percent of the time I eat it. I think it’s partly due to the salt content, and mostly for Pavlovian reasons. When I was at NYU, one semester I had two evening classes with a 40-minute break in between. It was exactly the right amount of time to get myself to the Chipotle on 8th St., enjoy a burrito, then get a cookie across the street at Au Bon Pain. So I would heartily recommend Chipotle start carrying cookies.

Mountain Goats endorse Taco Bell: Unfortunately it’s not actual mountain goats, as that would be hilarious. It’s John Darnielle, lead singer and songwriter for the band The Mountain Goats, which I have heard of but never really pursued. Are they good? I’m open to the possibility, because Darnielle could be totally snarky and condescending about his affinity for Taco Bell — and is even baited to do so by the interviewer — but resists, calling Taco Bell “a lifesaver” for touring vegetarian musicians.

Taco Bell Tuesday

No research, straight to the monkey.

Taco Bell letting customers drive ideas: OK, remember my vaguely paranoid post from July outlining my suspicion that someone in Taco Bell’s marketing department reads this blog? Remember how I pointed out that the dude whose story was featured in one of the first Doritos Locos Tacos commercials was a friend of loyal reader/commenter Catsmeat’s, and that the first “significant discovery event” on his video’s YouTube page was being embedded on TedQuarters? Check out this quote from Taco Bell Chief Marketing Officer Brian Niccol:

The way we thought about launching it was, What’s the story? We wouldn’t have sold 100 million Doritos Locos Tacos in ten weeks if all we did was say, It’s a new product and you’re going to love it because it’s now made with Doritos. We really listened in a different way for this program, to what people were tweeting and saying on Facebook. And that’s how we got our launch execution. We found out this kid drove 900 miles to Ohio get a hold of a DLT during the market testing, and it became inspiration for the commercial….

With the DLT we’ve proven to ourselves that if you can let go of some of the control, then good things can happen. And that’s changed things here at the office. Since the the DLT success, we’ve knocked down three conference rooms and created a new social-mobile listening room, where we’ve got the largest TV screens I’ve ever seen keeping track of what people are saying about our brand every day and everywhere.

Taco Bell has “the largest TV screens [Taco Bell CMO Brian Niccol has] ever seen keeping track of what people are saying” about Taco Bell online. Which means…. HELLO, PEOPLE OF TACO BELL! THANK YOU FOR READING TEDQUARTERS ON YOUR GIANT SCREEN! PLEASE INCORPORATE CRUNCHY RED STRIPS INTO MORE THINGS!

So, you know, my suspicions grow. I will be pretty miffed if Taco Bell rolls out the interactive design-your-own-menu-item interface I’ve been pitching since 2009 (and outlined again during my campaign for the job eventually given to Niccol) without at least giving me face-time in the commercials. I have experience!

Seriously, Taco Bell: It’s love. It’s all love. If you’re out there reading, know that I am a reasonably smart guy who spends a lot of time thinking about Taco Bell. We can make this work for both of us, I’m certain.

Denver-area Taco Bell apparently popular among hookers: There’s plenty to enjoy in Jenn Wohletz’s experiential column on trying the new Taco Bell menu items at a Taco Bell on East Colfax Ave. in Denver, but nothing quite jumps off the page to a Denver outsider like her note that at 7 p.m. the Taco Bell in question “was ringed with a circus of homeless people, hustlers and a couple of angry-looking hookers.”

I followed up with a Denver native and asked, “What do you know about the area around E. Colfax Ave. in Denver?” He replied, “Full of hookers.” So it seems to make sense that some of the more sensible hookers would find their way to the Taco Bell, since obviously hookers need to eat, too.

In my experience, there is little to no correlation between seediness and quality in Taco Bells. Some of the best and worst Taco Bells I’ve ever been to have been in the sketchiest places, and some of the best and worst have been in the nicest areas. Case by case thing.

Taco Bell makes glorious return to Sedalia, Mo.: I hate to profile here, but Sedalia Democrat columnist Travis McMullen looks like the type of dude who thinks critically about Taco Bell (and it takes one to know one). So when he expounds upon why the local Taco Bell developed a much more dedicated and vocal following than competing fast food locations in the area, I suggest we listen.

Taco Bell Tuesday

Are all the songs about Tuesdays sad? “Ruby Tuesday,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Tuesday Heartbreak.” No one writes a “Tuesday I’m in Love.”

First and foremost: Our man @Ceetar, who has come out of Internet anonymity and revealed himself to be Michael Donato, sampled the churrs at his local Taco Bell last week. He even snapped some photos for the people:

That’s a bold claim — quite literally — from the self-aware wrapper: “the tastiest experience of your day.” So how is it?

“Soft, chewy and crisp, warm and delicious,” Donato reports. “It was pretty much a perfect churro and the curvy nature of it is much more visually appealing than the typically straight one that looks like a pipe fitting or something.”

Alarming story: One time at Splish Splash out on Long Island, I got a churro and bit into it to find a metal rod inside. It seemed like it was probably the metal rod upon which the churro had been heated in the spinning churro-machine thing, which somehow came off with the churro when they served it to me.

‘Upscale’ Taco Bell planned in Philadelphia: Details appear few and far between. Is this another of the new, glowing Taco Bell prototypes we’ve discussed before, or something greater? Another salvo in the Franchise Wars? The first U.S. installment of the defunct Chinese full-service Taco Bell Grande experiment? Obviously TedQuarters will stay on top of this story as it unfolds.

Book review calls Taco Bell “the largest restaurant franchise in the world:” It’s in the Wall Street Journal, a fairly reputable source, so if you want to go ahead and cite that as fact I won’t stop you. The only problem is I’m pretty sure it’s not true. The article cites Taco Bell’s 5,800 outposts as evidence of its dominance, but as recently as 2011, the Journal reported that both Subway and McDonald’s franchises numbered in the 30,000s. Plus, much of the book review revolves around the utterly fruitless pursuit of cultural authenticity in food. Everything we eat everywhere is the byproduct of some earlier cultural exchange.

The Red Sox’ efforts to defeat the Empire with fried chicken were far less successful

A true dog of the people, the Chihuahua has tirelessly devoted his life to one thing – the pursuit of tacos. This kind of dedication has allowed him to heighten his natural skills of navigation, negotiation and general deviousness. Now he is putting his considerable talents to work fighting the ultimate evil in the universe. Because, he rationalizes, when the universe is free, the tacos are free. In the meantime, he’s confident he’ll get that Jedi mind trick to work eventually.


Catsmeat passed along this link to the promotional website the Yum! Foods restaurants used in a promotion coinciding with the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 back in 1999, via The Onion, via the ol’ Wayback Machine. It’s way too good to sit on until Tuesday. I mean: