Taco Bell’s business model is easily summed up: Take a few basic elements of Mexican cuisine as adapted by immigrants in the United States, reduce each element to its bare minimum, and then endlessly recombine these building blocks to create a changing kaleidoscope of fast food. Thus flour tortillas, seasoned ground beef, and cheese sauce might be assorted over the years into dozens of offerings — some predictable, some seemingly absurdist — on a menu that never remains static.
This model necessitates a constant stream of new offerings, hyped the minute they appear. The latest is “nacho fries.” As usual, the elements are simple, limited to a cheese dipping sauce and french fries. The sauce is called “nacho cheese,” and we’ve seen it before in the tortilla chips with a small cup of molten yellow sauce called “chips and nacho cheese sauce.” And we’ve seen it on endless iterations of nachos, and in burritos and quesaritos — a cunning mash-up of the quesadilla and the burrito. Watching Taco Bell’s products proliferate is dizzying.
I had a chance to try nacho fries in two contexts, as soon as they appeared: First at a theater on the Bowery in New York City, where Taco Bell hosted an event to launch the new product, complete with cocktails, screenings of TV commercials, and waiter service in a lounge atmosphere. The next day — the first of the product’s availability in retail establishments — I visited a mall in New Jersey to try them in their natural element.
Why did this particular product merit so much attention? Well, it’s the first time Taco Bell has offered french fries nationwide, invading the turf of hamburger-based chains.
First, the cheese sauce. Seemingly inspired by Texas chili con queso sans the canned chiles, the sauce is barely viscous. It forms a skin, but the skin proves unscoopable and will slide right off the fry when the sauce is warm, leaving the fry barely moistened. When I tried the sauce at the shopping mall location, it was thicker, but not by much.
The sauce seems more chemical than culinary, and has little discernible taste. Its primary appeal for me lies in its surreal yellowness. Consulting the Taco Bell website, the ingredients turn out to be, in decreasing order of importance: “nonfat milk, cheese whey, canola oil, modified food starch, cheddar cheese (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), maltodextrin, natural flavors, contains less than 1% of: sea salt, jalapeno puree, potassium phosphate, vinegar, autolyzed yeast extract, lactic acid, potassium citrate, sodium caseinate, citric acid, color added (Including yellow #6), sodium stearoyl lactylate, cellulose gum.” Not bad, really, but it didn’t quite register as food.
Now the fries. At the promotional event, the woman wrangling the guests announced that the fries “are coated with Mexican spices.” These Mexican spices are present as dark red dots on the surface of the fries, unevenly distributed.
Licking the fries, one would never identify the spice coating as Mexican. There was no flavor of cumin, nor any of oregano. There was zero chile burn. The fries themselves were a little thicker than the standard set by McDonald’s. The outside was fairly crisp, while the inside was more like instant mashed potatoes — not objectionable, but not galvanizing to the taste buds, either.
At the shopping mall, the nacho fries were on the dollar menu, which is a bargain, I guess. Another option was available, and that was the seasoned fries treated as actual nachos. I’ve seen this dish called “Irish nachos” in bars. The toppings included juicy ground meat, nacho cheese sauce, sour cream, and chopped tomatoes, with guacamole an extra charge. As with the nacho fries, you must add your own heat via a series of squeeze packets designated mild, hot, “fire,” and “diablo.” I liked the ground beef and the guacamole, and the extra ingredients definitely made the fries more palatable.
Will either product be a hit? My guess is no, though maybe the purpose is to frighten the hamburger chains. In which case, what’s next? Perhaps the nacho burgerito.
Robert Sietsema is Eater NY’s senior critic.