Restaurant News & Reviews

Review: Taco Bell’s new chicken-shell creation has potential

Taco Bell started selling the Naked Chicken Chalupa in late January.
Taco Bell started selling the Naked Chicken Chalupa in late January. The Wichita Eagle

Taco Bell made hundreds of millions of dollars by transforming the Dorito from a small triangle into a large taco receptacle.

The genius was its efficiency: the shell had always been flavorless and brittle, something to crush on the way to the greasy goodness inside. The shell had been an inconvenience, which protected your hands from the mess, just not always that well.

The Dorito shell is dry and brittle, which preserves the essence of a hard taco, but adds its own distinctive, salty, “natural flavor,” that gives it drug-like addictiveness.

But the question remained: was there something special about the Dorito? Or could the taco shell be transformed by other ingredients into other multi-billion-dollar food franchises?

Enter processed fast-food chicken. The shape has always been arbitrary: McDonald’s Chicken McNugget comes in four shapes, a bell, a ball, a boot and a bow tie. Processed chicken is typically pressed into a patty, like a hamburger, or sometimes stretched into strips.

KFC was the first to realize its boundary-breaking potential when it created the Double Down, a burger that replaced the crumbly bun with two chicken patties.

But the Double Down was flawed: Instead of soaking in the cheese and sauce, like a good hamburger bun, it caused the cheese and sauce to squirt out the sides. It was like eating two patties of chicken with a soup of cheese and sauce to decorate the tray. Fried chicken would never be able to play the soaking function of a good bun.

So the potential for the Naked Chicken Chalupa, which Taco Bell started selling nationwide last week, was obvious: Instead of a flat, leaky bun, the chicken curled upward and formed a pocket. The taco stuffing could sit, contently, pressed up against the two sides.

The Naked Chicken is largely a success at holding its ingredients. Although it’s no CrunchWrap Supreme, it lost only about 10 percent out the sides, the kind of spillage you would see from most brittle tacos.

And it’s hot. It’s spicier than expected. But also warmer: The chicken shell kept its heat to the point that I instinctively had to shift a couple bites around my mouth to redistribute the heat. I also had to wait a couple of minutes longer for my meal to cook than my less-adventurous friend. The breaded exterior formed a kind of insulation, because it wasn’t too hot to clutch.

The texture of the chicken shell was crispy, chewy and substantial, everything one wants from meat that came from inside a chicken.

But the ingredients need to be rethought. The avocado ranch was a good way to cool the palate down from the spicy breading. But the ranch tasted like salad dressing when tossed with lettuce, tomato and shredded cheese.

The center of any good taco is meat or at least beans, something substantial. Taco salad is a salad, not a taco.

The Doritos Locos taco made the journey just as enjoyable as the destination. The Naked Chicken tastes great at first but doesn’t go anywhere: It’s lost its taco soul. (Or chalupa soul, as it’s technically called.)

The Taco Bell website says the ingredients can be customized. It may be that any further experiment will inevitably fail, a victim to a chicken shell that is just too tasty for anything inside to measure up.

Taco Bell may have been worried about making the stuffing too substantial. Right now the Naked Chicken Chalupa is 440 calories. That’s not egg whites and lettuce. But that’s 100 calories less than a Big Mac and perhaps 100 calories away from a new food category that could find its way onto the permanent menu.

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Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison