Taco Bell's Got a New Vegetarian Menu, and We Tasted it All
Taco Bell’s long been a bastion for vegetarians at the drive-in. In a fast-food landscape where vegetarians often settle for plain biscuits and wilted salads, Taco Bell really allows people to live, um, más. The menu is infinitely customizable, allowing people to sub beans or potatoes in for meat on pretty much everything. They’ve got a function on their app called “Make it Meatless” that makes all the meat options disappear as if a vegetarian version of Thanos snapped his finger. And they’ve got a “fresco” menu that’s basically vegan without using the word. In fact, there are 13 items on the menu that are certified by the American Vegetarian Association, with 38 certified vegan and vegetarian items in the mix.
So yeah, T-Bell is a friend of junk-food vegetarians. But it hasn't until now gone all-in on offering a straight-up vegetarian menu, instead forcing customers to customize their orders or -- gasp! -- read the ingredients. No more! This week, the chain launched a new vegetarian menu nationwide after testing it earlier this year in meat-horny Dallas. And we got a taste.
Waaaaaay back in April, Taco Bell hosted a panel at its HQ in Irvine, California, where nutritionists and food-innovation officials unveiled the menu, which puts a spotlight on an old favorite while introducing two new vegetarian options: the Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme and the Black Bean Quesarito. According to the T-Bell brass, this is just the next step in the chain’s efforts to cater to plant-based eaters and flexitarians alike. And while they were a bit evasive when asked whether they’d be following in the footsteps of major burger chains by implementing Impossible or Beyond meat-substitutes for Fourthmeal -- or whether cashew-based nacho cheese might be the next frontier -- they trumpeted the Tex-Mex chain’s changing dynamic from late-night stoner food to unlikely trailblazer in the vegetarian market.
Here’s a rundown of the Taco Bell vegetarian menu now available nationwide. For the record, it includes the Bean Burrito, but we didn't bother to write that one up, since, you know, it's just the Bean Burrito.
The 7-Layer BurritoOK, so this isn’t new. At all. It’s actually the second-best selling item on the menu, behind the hard taco. But this is the first time it’s been completely touted as a vegetarian item, likely in an effort to not freak out the folks in Iowa who have been eating them for years, but are resistant to the idea of vegetarianism. It’s exactly what you remember: seven-layer dip rolled up in a burrito. But one interesting revelation: If you take the cheese and sour cream out, it’s fully vegan. I don’t know why you’d want to do that unless you’re vegan, but it still tastes good if you do. Moving on.
Black Bean Crunchwrap SupremeThis is basically a loaded tostada folded up into a flour tortilla and held together with nacho cheese and black beans, which work as the protein substitute for the meat. And honestly, I could have eaten this without knowing it was vegetarian and been totally unaware that I wasn’t eating meat. The black beans, despite the textual tell, taste a hell of a lot like the traditional T-Bell beef, owing in large part to the seasoning, which here is front and center and mellowed by the overabundance of iceberg lettuce. This is a textural powerhouse, full of crunch and squish, while the hot cheese and cold cream work together in concert. If you were a hardcore carnivore and they accidentally gave you this instead of a ground-beef Crunchwrap, you’d be unlikely to notice.
Black Bean QuesaritoThe Quesarito is a glowing example of the ethos that being vegetarian doesn’t mean you’re not being super indulgent. The frankenfood is basically a burrito wrapped in a quesadilla, and holy shit is this thing decadent. And, to be frank, I don’t know that you even need meat. This is a cheese-forward behemoth, with cheddar and nacho cheese basically crammed into a tortilla toothpaste tube, and god bless it. The beans just add seasoning. The rice doesn’t even stand a chance. This is a gigantic tube of cheese, and it’s a BANGER. There’s also sour cream and chipotle sauce, which explodes out the back on first bite. This is absolutely an item to eat in wrapper, if only to safeguard your car’s upholstery. My meat-eating heart is pained to say it, but this is a superior version to the meat option, and belongs front and center on the menu. It might just be the best Taco Bell pivot since the Doritos Locos taco... a vegetarian coup that masks its vegetarianism in a cloak of neon orange bliss.
A quick aside about this menuThere’s a lot of joking about how Taco Bell is basically the Chainsmokers of fast food: It takes the same tried-and-true ingredients and remixes them. Sure, that holds a little weight. After all, what is a Crunchwrap if not a tostada drenched in nacho cheese and wrapped in a burrito-sized tortilla? But doing this right is tough. And Taco Bell seems to be doing it right… the innovation around plant-based fake meats and non-dairy cheeses of the last decade is staggering to say the least. But while so many companies have tasked themselves with taking soy-based products and making them taste like animal protein, Taco Bell has managed to innovate in a different way: Making vegetarian and vegan fare taste like, well, Taco Bell. Baby steps, friends. Baby steps.
Also, if you wanted a glimpse into how hard it is to remix these items, look no further than what I wrought when loosed on the Taco Bell vegetarian food-assembly line. It’s harder than it looks.