I have never eaten at Taco Bell without apologizing to myself afterward, and yet there are times when I feel drawn to the Mexicanish chain like the proverbial moth to a Flaming Hot Dorito Locos. It’s a relationship both complex and sentimental. I was born the same year as Taco Bell, a long-ago time when people thought they were pronounced tay-cohs, and eating Mexican food prepared by actual Mexicans was not customary. The years since have seen umpteen attempts at rebranding and renewal, along with repeated accusations of tackiness and inauthenticity, and now I’ve forgotten whether I’m talking about Taco Bell or me.
In any case, I’m not alone in my ambivalence. While a much-discussed informal recent poll purported that Burger King was America’s most hated fast-food chain, New Yorkers posted the most gripes on Twitter about T-Bell, a harsh verdict somewhat belied by its 40-plus locations on the Island, as well as the impossibility of finding Nacho Fries at any of them, or at least the first two I visited the other afternoon. At both, SORRY NO NACHO FRIES signs had been hastily taped above the self-order kiosks.
"In a year as difficult and uncertain as this one was," wrote Taco Bell in a December statement announcing the return of Nacho Fries, "we know that consumers crave the comforts they love most." The chain was no doubt craving profits too, having lost some to the pandemic and the ill-advised discontinuation of say-what-now foodstuffs like Bacon Club Chalupas, Fiesta Potatoes, Quesaritos, and other time-tested remedies for the drunchies. None of these jolted the zeitgeist like Nacho Fries, however. A runaway success from the moment Taco Bell introduced them in 2018, the limited-time item caused a social media frenzy eclipsed only by Popeye’s chicken sandwich the following year.
It’s not easy to imagine a $1.39 order of seasoned fries being an antidote to any difficult and uncertain year, much less 2020, but their popularity is certainly understandable. Crunchy, chip-like exteriors give way to soft insides, the sticks kicking up a chili powder-and-paprika Saharan dust cloud of orangeness. I will never cop to the accompanying cheese sauce, which tastes like stomach acid and provokes same, but a lengthy Reddit thread begs to differ, and there’s just no arguing with people who boast about eating five Beefy 5-Layer Burritos in 10 minutes. Also new are the Nacho Fries BellGrande ($3.49), which contain all of the above plus taco meat, tomatoes, sour cream and a stern warning to buckle up for turbulence.
Taco Bell itself might need to buckle up. These days, the future of ersatz Mexican fare is by no means certain, not with the genuine article calling at us from every strip mall and food truck. Indeed, it isn’t hard to envision a time when the Bell tolls for no one, its countless faux-Spanish Colonial garrisons reduced to great piles of obsolescent orange dust. On the other hand, now that the burden of culinary legitimacy lies elsewhere, the chain is free to be its own crazy self, answering midlife’s anxieties with Loaded Grillers, Crunchwrap Supremes and other bold experiments in crossbreeding. As with other 50-somethings, risking foolishness might be the only path to survival.
Nacho Fries and Nacho Fries BellGrande are available at all Island Taco Bells for a limited time, when you can find them. tacobell.com