The taxonomy of various foods has long been a topic of mostly good-natured debate: whether a hot dog is a sandwich, for example, is a question for the ages (or at least a ton of millennials on social media) and one that no less an authority than the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has weighed in on.
Taco Bell, it seems, is leaning into this collective cultural confusion with its long-awaited entry into the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars that have pitted fast food chains into a nationwide arms (wings?) race, with each concocting a fried-bird-and-bun combo in an attempt to outdo the rest. Behold Taco Bell’s Spicy Crispy Sandwich Taco, a craggy chicken tender wrapped in flatbread (does the bread make it a sandwich?) in the form of a taco (or is this its defining quality?).
The chain that urges its customers to run for the border was at a strategic disadvantage in this conflict. Its existing menu contained no sandwiches, and so it had nothing to tweak or retool to join the flock of competitors. Its answer to the challenge was both predictable and fresh, using its titular format to parry with its rivals’ familiar bun-patty-pickles offerings.
Taco Bell is playing up the question of whether its new menu item is, in fact, primarily a taco or a sandwich, engaging two college debate teams to tackle the conundrum in a showdown it will air in commercials this weekend. This seems like a smart marketing move at a time when the country is divided on so many topics that when presented with a subject, we reflexively pick a side and put up our dukes to defend it.
Personally, I am #TeamTaco on this question, but please don’t @me because after all this (gestures wildly at everything), I’m not looking for a hill to die on. Putting aside its classification, this new chicken on the block is solid. I particularly like two things about it: For starters, it’s a refreshingly new take in the category, which is packed with more buns than spring break at Miami Beach.
I welcome the alternate format, especially the pillowy bread, which reminds me of a pleasantly chewy pita or lightly toasted bao. The briny pickled jalapeños that distinguish the spicy version (trust me, you’ll want the spicy version) from the regular are a novel change-up from the standard pickle slices that have become practically mandatory on fast food chicken sandwiches.
I also appreciate the sandwich taco’s relatively petite size – it’s a four- or five-biter – which means it can serve as a snack or a meal that won’t demand a nap 20 minutes later. It has other points in its favor, including the juicy chicken itself encased in a nicely crisp crust that Taco Bell’s media materials describe as a tortilla-chip coating.
I can’t discern the promised “Mexican spices” in the mix, but the accompanying smoke-tinged chipotle sauce lends a gentle heat, and its creamy texture helps hold the concoction together. Whenever a new chicken item hits the market, it practically demands comparison, particularly to the Popeye’s spicy chicken sandwich, the Ur-sando that became a viral sensation and still sits atop the Iron Throne of the drive-through chicken realm.
I’d say this new entrant couldn’t touch the roost rulers – namely Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A, which came up on top in an epic sandwich-tasting my colleagues and I did this year. But this sandwich taco (can’t we just hyphenate it, like so many actress-director-producers, and call it a day?) at least has novelty on its side, and that’s something in a genre so overrun with uniformity that we might have to redub the still-raging conflict the Clone Wars.
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