When Taco Bell first announced and rolled out its new “Naked Chicken Chalupa,” I received the usual bombardment of friends and colleagues sending links in my direction, asking when there would be an Eating Badly post on the subject. My response was more or less a shrug: The product is a trifling little novelty, and clearly one designed to compete in the “zany novelty food item” category, but in a post-KFC Double Down world we can hardly call it unique or eye-catching. Taco Bell designed it in such a way as to ensure a Double Down comparison in literally every news post or snarky review written about it, but one doesn’t create a buzzy sensation by copying what’s already been done. And so, I was prepared to just let this one pass me by.
But then, an interesting thing happened. I started thinking about the composition of this product, wondering what X-factor it’s missing, and I hit upon the problem: We’re meant to see it as a “crazy novelty taco,” but the thing simply isn’t a taco. And the reason why isn’t “because it’s a chalupa,” either.
Let’s clear that whole business up first. Taco Bell’s name for this product is the “Naked Chicken Chalupa,” but we all need to affirm that these words are utterly meaningless before moving on. A “chalupa” from Taco Bell bears no resemblance of any kind to the actual definition of a chalupa in Mexico—and yes, I’m talking about the food and not the “small boat” hilariously referenced by a young Keegan-Michael Key on Mad TV. In Taco Bell parlance, “chalupa” simply means “taco with slightly thicker shell.” This point is inarguable.
This leads into the crux of my argument for why this would-be taco isn’t a taco. It’s not the chicken shell that is the problem, it’s the fillings. When you order it, the minimal fillings consist of the following: Lettuce, a few tomato cubes, a sprinkling of shredded cheese and some ranch sauce. And these, in and of themselves, do not a taco make.
Thus, we need to formally define “a taco.” Initially, I was going to argue that in order to be a complete taco, the Naked Chicken Chalupa would need an additional protein as a filling—be it Taco Bell’s ground beef, or additional grilled chicken, or even beans. All of those would be perfectly acceptable, but then I was reminded of the existence of grilled veggie tacos. And that’s when the TRUE definition of “a taco” presented itself to me. Thesis:
A taco consists of a shell exterior (made of any composition), and fillings that include at least one cooked implement.
Lettuce, cheese, raw tomato? Those are garnishes, the same as sauce, cilantro leaves or a sprinkling of queso fresco. Only when it has something COOKED in it, be it beans, meat, or grilled vegetables (grilled peppers, eggplant, squash, whatever), does it complete the basic requirements to become a taco. This is also a handy argument for why “raw tacos” are clearly bullshit. Come at me, raw folks.
Therefore, the Naked Chicken Chalupa succeeds in the “has a shell” requirement, but not in the “has a cooked filling” requirement. It doesn’t matter that the shell is itself a protein, because Taco Bell’s marketing is trying to present this thing as “a taco that has fried chicken as a shell,” and it fails before it reaches the “is a taco” requirement. To be a taco, it would need to be a complete thought without the shell being out of the ordinary. Honestly, one wonders why they wouldn’t have designed the product this way, with an additional meat (at least some boring old Taco Bell ground beef) on the interior, as this would likely have resulted in even more media coverage and internet attention. When you’re shooting for “zany,” why stop short and do things halfway? Taco Bell had the beginnings of a properly headline grabbing novelty product, but then developed cold feet before bringing it to its logical conclusion.
And FYI, yes I went and ate one. I always do, for I am no charlatan:
All they had to do was tuck some ground beef underneath that lettuce. Would it have been good? I don’t know. But would it have qualified as a taco? Yes.
I won’t bother with a “review,” because fast food reviews are pointless. Instead, here’s a helpful reminder list of things that a thin strip of crispy fried chicken is not supposed to be able to do:
1. Bend 360 degrees without any hint of breakage
2. Strip you of your human dignity
And yet somehow, this piece of chicken manages to accomplish both. Which is more impressive, I can’t decide. But I do know that it’s definitely not a taco. OR a chalupa, for that matter.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident bad fast food laureate. You can follow him on Twitter.