Road Bites: Taco Bell’s Crunchy Taco

Life might not have been simpler in the 1970s, but the menu at Taco Bell certainly was. Perhaps six or seven items populated the Mexican-inspired fast food chain’s list of offerings then, and of those, very few can be found on the contemporary menu, stuffed as it is with Doritos-this and Extreme Baja-that, all festooned with “crunchy red strips” of uncertain provenance.

Back then, you ordered a taco. You got a taco. No need to specify “crunchy” or soft, no need to ask for it to be glued to another shell with refried beans or smothered in odd sauces. It was a taco: spiced beef mixture, lettuce, and cheddar cheese inside a hard corn tortilla shell. Perhaps not a taco in the sense anyone versed in Mexican cuisine would recognize, but the taco of my and many Americans’ youth.

Upon a recent visit to a Taco Bell in Frederick, Maryland, I ordered a meal composed of items you would have found way back when: crunchy taco, bean burrito, and pintos and cheese (frijoles, once upon a time).

Crunchy Taco and Pintos and Cheese from Taco Bell

For all the changes, the taco brought back memories of those originals from the ’70s. The timeless construction of spiced meat at the bottom, then shredded lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese at top, comforted me for some reason. Unlike my sandwich rule of proper ingredient distribution, a good fast-food taco needs variety—a bit of lettuce and cheese (with hot sauce added) this time, a bit of meat and lettuce next, with the cracking shell adding texture to each bite. Sure, the cheddar was industrially shredded three hundred miles (and who knows how many weeks) away, and the shell was hardly just-fried, but the experience was simple, filling, and just a bit nostalgic.

I tend to eat better (or at least more proper) tacos now, filled with al pastor and barbacoa, but you’re not always going to find a taco truck or taqueria on the road. My Taco Bell stop proved to be an inexpensive, interesting, and well-prepared meal, enough to get me back on the road to my destination, like a good road bite should.

And if Taco Bell would ever bring back the classic enchirito and tostado, well, I’d be stopping by quite a bit more often.