‘Spicy’ Fast Food Just Isn’t That Spicy

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‘Spicy’ Fast Food Just Isn’t That Spicy

Imagine a volcano coursing with the Earth’s white-hot blood, primed to melt just about anything that touches it.

Now imagine a food named after this scorching natural phenomenon. It’s gotta be pretty dang hot, right? At least enough to make you break into a sweat and reach for the nearest cold beverage in the hopes of quelling the heat?

Not so when it comes to fast food—at least not here in the States. For most chains, “spicy” on a menu tends to mean tepid on the palate at best, with salt taking center stage and boosting minuscule levels of capsaicin to produce hollow heat. While subpar spice isn’t an issue exclusive to Taco Bell, the chain’s new Volcano Menu refreshed my disappointment in the fast food industry. 

That’s not to say The Bell’s latest menu additions are bad, it’s just to say that they’re not all that spicy. The menu, which consists of three items, revives something I hope remains on the menu for a long time: the spicy taco shell. Similar to the restaurant’s Doritos Locos Taco shell, it’s dusted in neon-red powder. Other than the shell, the Volcano Menu’s taco is largely standard Taco Bell fare. Beef, lettuce and cheese in that order make for a tasty snack as the beef’s juices slowly erode the bottom of the shell. The only other notable difference is the Lava Sauce. I didn’t notice any sauce on my taco, but I ordered an extra side just to give everything a fair shake.

The sauce, which is effectively a hot nacho sauce, is reminiscent of a less-spicy version of Qdoba’s queso diablo. It has a noticeable kick to it, though isn’t going to blow anyone’s head off. That said, it’s delicious—after all, it is spicy cheese; what’s not to love?

The burrito runs along the same path as the taco. It’s more typical Taco Bell fare with rice, beef, cheese, sour cream, Lava Sauce and tortilla strips for texture wrapped in a slightly gummy flour tortilla. It’s great. It’s also not very spicy.

I do acknowledge that my barometer for spice isn’t the most well-calibrated. One of my surefire cures for a bad day is a scorchingly hot Bloody Mary and the spiciest chips I can find at a nearby convenience store. Given the chance, I order most things very spicy. And I know that my spice tolerance can’t always be trusted because I’ve put my partner (who does not like spicy food) in some sticky situations because I’ve misjudged how spicy something is.

That said, I felt this way about fast food even before I became the spice gremlin I am today. It’s as rare for me to find myself overwhelmed by “spicy” fast food as it was ten years ago. I’m a total sucker for buzzy viral marketing and have been for a while. I’ve noshed on spicy nuggets from Wendy’s and McDonald’s, other hot items from Taco Bell, ordered jalapeños on my Butterburgers from Culver’s and even put hot sauce on my fries because I can’t stand ketchup.

All that said, there’s one notable spicy standout in the world of fast food. Popeye’s is far and away my favorite national chain for a myriad of reasons. It’s relatively cheap, it has a great rewards system on the app, the food is pretty good and spicy actually means spicy. That’s not to say I’m sweating bullets and blowing steam out of my ears when I chow down on a spicy sandwich or tender combo, but the spicy food at Popeye’s feels full-bodied and relatively complex. There’s no secret ingredient or dubiously named spicy sauce either. It’s just Louisiana Hot Sauce. While Louisiana isn’t particularly spicy, it’s the base spice level and flavor that I expect from something spicy. It’s designed not only to have spice but also palpable flavor. In letting it breathe in a chicken dredge, the spice doesn’t get completely drowned out by salt or brine.

McDonald’s, a restaurant that I usually find to be one of the worst offenders in this conversation, also had a breakthrough not long ago. Back in 2021, the burger chain introduced the BTS Meal. While none of the Golden Arches’ menu items were changed, the meal did come with a tasty sweet chili sauce that nailed the right balance of depth of flavor and spice without catering exclusively to weirdos such as myself.

The spicy fast food conversation is complicated. As restaurants that do their best to cater to as many different palates as possible, I get why stuff isn’t usually spicy enough for me; because it’s not for me. It’s for the average consumer without callused taste buds. The bigger disappointment is that most spicy fast food doesn’t provide any incentive to eat something spicy. Nine times out of ten, spicy fast food items offer either low spice with no flavor, low spice that’s eclipsed by saltiness, or spice that’s muddled by cheese or another dairy product. As much as I love spicy nacho cheese or spicy mayo, I’d love to see restaurants branch out more by either offering more fully-flavored spicy options or actually spicy options.

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