As I’m putting in a breakfast order at my local Manhattan Taco Bell, the pre-Chipotlean Tex-Mex chain that’s a staple of game day commercials, Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man, and highway rest stops everywhere, one of the staffers starts flipping the overhead menus to display the lunch offerings. Except it is not yet lunchtime.
“I’m still reading those,” I say. He flips them back to breakfast. A guy tugs at the restroom door behind me, which is locked for security. He waves at a cashier, who then buzzes him in. A gentleman at one of the tables then starts shouting about how he was a pre-original gangsta, an “O.O.G.,” he says. A staffer asks him and his crew to leave. They do not leave. Another guy asks permission to use the restroom. He’s buzzed in as well. There’s more formal entertainment too; a TV is showing a documentary about Oakley-wearing border guards who tear apart cars to seize marijuana.
None of this is the type of atmosphere in which hungry, bleary-eyed diners might choose to enjoy their morning meal, in this establishment that doesn’t smell any more like hot sausage than an H&M. My advice is to look past it all, because Taco Bell’s limited-time Quesalupa — which will allegedly only be available for the next 15 weeks is one of the country’s finest new breakfast sandwiches. In fact, I’ll go even further: The Quesalupa is arguably the finest new fast-food innovation since McDonald’s debuted the McGriddle in the early aughts.
U.S. Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants have a long history of slinging A.M. huevos, tortas, and caldos, but Taco Bell, around since the 1960s, only launched breakfast in 2014, in an effort to chip away at McDonald’s longstanding dominance of that meal. The menu offered classic breakfast burritos alongside innovative creations like egg-stuffed Crunchwraps and the famously derided (and discontinued) waffle tacos.
And perhaps even more eyebrow-raising were the omissions: pancakes, French toast, yogurt, granola, cereal, or fresh fruit.
"We make bold food you can’t get anywhere else," Taco Bell’s website reads, and indeed it’s hard to think of any other fast-food chain with culinary risk-taking so ingrained in its DNA. This is the restaurant group that, amid our era of organic everything, rode a wave of pop-culture relevancy by indulging in our nostalgia for junk food, coating taco shells in Dorito dust and making Cap’n Crunch-flavored doughnut holes. If Taco Bell were a New York restaurant, it would be Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar.
What's surprising, however, is that Taco Bell sticks to that mantra of pushing the envelope at breakfast, a time of day when Americans of all stripes aren’t concerned with the culinary “wow” factor as much as they want quick, familiar nourishment to fill them up for the work day. Even at the high-end, there really aren’t any chefs selling avant-garde tasting menus at 8 a.m.
But many ambitious restaurant groups — most notably the Major Food Group in New York — are in fact dipping their toes into the breakfast market more regularly, both as a way to shore up profits with lower food-cost items, and to see if their individual approaches to gastronomy will work as well as Eggs Benedict does in the morning. So whether Taco Bell succeeds in this nationwide experiment could very well inform how other chains and chefs approach breakfast going forward.
Keep in mind that Taco Bell hasn’t espoused the McDonald’s all-day breakfast ethos; many of these items are only available until 11 a.m., or even earlier, depending on your location. When I returned to my local Taco Bell, with that eager menu flipper, a few minutes earlier the following day, the menu had already been flipped to lunch. “There are only two of us here,” he explained, and indeed there were only two staffers during breakfast during all three of my visits, a heck of a staffing policy for a billion-dollar chain.
My take as a critic is that I hope Taco Bell’s breakfast service succeeds, because by fast-food standards, what it’s serving is pretty darn good. Here's my guide on what to get, and what to avoid.
Savory Breakfast Items
How does a national chain make an El Salvadorian pupusa — a corn tortilla stuffed with cheese — palatable to consumers who can’t find that country on a map? Easy, by turning it into a taco and parading it around on commercials as if it were a Tex-Mex riff on a stuffed crust pizza. And while the dinnertime Quesalupa with ground beef is a study in mediocrity, the breakfast analogue shines like few other American fast-food creations.
Taco Bell fills a flour tortilla with melty pepper jack, fries it, paints it with nacho cheese, and wraps it around a mess of soft scrambled eggs, (over-smoked) bacon bits, and extra-spicy potato nuggets. The creation works because the two fromages, one runny, the other melty, impart the Quesalupa with something rarely found at a fast-food chain — a distinctive aroma that recalls, in part at least, the stinky cheese section at Dean & DeLuca. It has character. It tastes like real food. If David Chang or Dominique Ansel sold this, there would be lines down the block. Verdict: BUY. Calories: 560. Fat: 34g. Sodium: 1160mg.
Breakfast Crunchwrap (Bacon)
Whole hash browns stuffed into a hexagonal quesadilla with eggs, cheese, and bacon: Here, Taco Bell is effectively appropriating a low-level breakfast sandwich hack — one does not simply drive an 18-wheeler with a BEC in one hand and hash browns in the other — and elevating it to the realm of cool on a more national stage. And it’s a damn good sandwich, with a distinct crunch from the tortilla grilling, and the caramelized, Maillard musk of the potatoes imparting everything with a lovely depth of flavor. Verdict: BUY. Calories: 670. Fat: 42g. Sodium: 1300mg.
Cheesy Burrito (Bacon)
Like a grilled breakfast burrito, but with twice as many eggs — which is a good thing unless you’re an alektorophobic, as the Taco Bell website suggests (and is the first time in the history of the world a fast-food chain has taught anyone a new word). The hefty creation evokes the McDonald’s breakfast burrito, but with smoky bacon instead of turd-shaped bites of Pine Sol sausage. Add hot sauce and there’s your party. Verdict: BUY. Calories: 490. Fat: 28g. Sodium: 1090mg.
Like the ones you get at McDonald’s, but consistently crunchier, and with more potato flavor. An investigative sleuth will surely tell me one day they’re the exact same hash browns, but there’s no comparison for this critic. These are simply better than the competition’s. Verdict: BUY. Calories: 160. Fat: 12g. Sodium: 270mg.
A.M. Grilled Taco
What a grilled breakfast burrito would taste like if you placed it on the Long Island Expressway and let a few cars run over it. Kinder souls would admit it’s closer to a quesadilla, a caveat the Taco Bell website makes, but why would anyone want to flatten soft, fluffy eggs, even if they are flavorless? Verdict: BUY. Calories: 230. Fat: 14g. Sodium: 590mg.
Biscuit Taco, Two Ways
Taco Bell stuffs eggs and bacon into a folded biscuit: Think of it as an effort to capitalize on the traditional Chinese steamed bun, made globally popular by the Momofuku folks. Alas, the Yum! Brands’ creation is an abject failure; the scattering of crumbly eggs, like pebbles on a beach, fall out of the biscuit too easily, while the bacon remains wedged at the crease of the sandwich, making it difficult to get a taste of everything in one bite. Verdict: SELL. Calories: 380. Fat: 23g. Sodium: 860mg.
The sausage and cheese version of the biscuit boasts more structural integrity. Too bad the meat tastes as if were injected with a Chernobyl’s supply of artificial sausage flavor. Verdict: SELL. Calories: 370. Fat: 23g. Sodium: 650mg.
Grande Scrambler Burrito
I could tell you precisely what’s in this, but allow me to go with a metaphor here. This is what you’d get if you emptied a can of Campbell’s Chunky Breakfast Soup, or whatever slop they’re serving at Rikers Island, and dumped it into a burrito. The beef, if can be called that, tastes like rehydrated jerky. The military calls this S.O.S.; Google that one, Generation Z. Verdict: SELL. Calories: 630. Fat: 30g. Sodium: 1460mg.
Hot little donut holes filled with warm icing, they’re about as tasty as the ones sold at too many New York restaurants for $12. Except these cost $1 for two bites. Think of them as Taco Bell’s little birdie flip to the culinary community; the fast-food chain is reclaiming this lowbrow street snack for the everyday diner. Pastry chefs of the world reading this: Don’t serve these at your restaurants anymore; they are the new chocolate lava cake. Verdict: BUY. Calories: 160. Fat: 9g. Sodium: 80mg.
Technically a dinner “dessert” that was available before 11 a.m., these are fried wheat flour and cornmeal twists dusted in cinnamon and sugar. Nostalgia alert: I used to order a large bag of these to snack on during drive-in movies with my dad. But even as a professional food critic, the texture is mesmerizing; the fragile crunch evokes a vegetarian pork rind pretending to be dessert. Why haven’t serious restaurants tried to duplicate this? Because serious restaurants know there’s no improving upon this flawless treat. Verdict: BUY. Calories: 170. Fat: 6g. Sodium: 21mg.
While McDonald’s pushes coffee as part of its breakfast meals, Taco Bell effectively pushes soda, a bold move amid our country’s War Against Sugar. Pick a Quesalupa combo and among the first online beverage suggestions is a 20-ounce Mountain Dew drink with 73 grams of sugar. The chain even sells a branded breakfast soda, modeled by a woman of apparent high school or college age, standing in front of a locker. So, there’s that.
Mountain Dew Baja Blask Freeze
Taco Bell’s Mountain Dew version of a movie theater Icee. How it tastes is a different story, as “Baja Blast” sounds like what happens when you do a shot of mescal and a line of blow in Tijuana. The flavor evokes a Starburst melted down into liquid form, which is to say, sugary, fruity (without there being actual fruit), and a touch creamy. I’m ashamed to say it’s your ideal pairing for a spicy, fatty Quesalupa. The beverage also contains the extract of yucca mohave, an ingredient Native Americans have traditionally used for rashes, rheumatism, and gonorrhea. So next time you have an STD, maybe give this guy a test drive. Verdict: BUY (forgive me, Deity of Dentists). Calories: 230. Sugar: 54g.
Mountain Dew Kickstart Orange Citrus
Think of it as orange juice, but with about five percent juice, or Fanta, but without as much orange flavor or carbonation. So what you have is sugar water spiked with caffeine — because it’s the morning — laced with 100 percent of USDA’s recommended vitamin C, so the soda company can shield itself from criticism. Verdict: SELL. Calories: 100. Sugar: 25g.
Tropicana Orange Juice
It’s the same terrible from-concentrate style used by McDonald’s. And unlike most other beverages, it’s a 50-cent supplement with a combo meal. So now you have both financial and gastronomic reasons to avoid real fruit juice at Taco Bell and drink soda instead. Well played, big soda. Well played. Verdict: SELL. Calories: 140. Sugar: 28g.
Premium Hot Coffee
Fast-food chains have been attempting to refine their coffee offerings to lure consumers who procure their morning brew (and breakfast) at Starbucks and elsewhere. But calling Taco Bell coffee “premium” is like calling a garbage bag “gourmet.” The “Rainforest coffee,” as it’s also known, is made fresh to order in a Keurig-style machine, and the product packs the dusty, cardboard-like musk of your grandpa’s attic. Is it worse than what McDonald’s is passing off as coffee these days? Marginally, but as these depths, you might as well just opt for a Mountain Dew drink. Verdict: SELL.