Taco Bell crunchy taco

"Yo quiero Taco Bell" isn’t just the memorable catchphrase of a certain adorable chihuahua. For many of us in the United States, it’s the mantra by which we live — and live mas, at that. Since the very first Taco Bell opened back in 1962, the fast food chain has led the charge for all things Mexican food-related, and introduced the world to such brilliant creations as the Crunchwrap Supreme, Nacho Fries, and fourth meal.

Yet for all that’s offered on the modern Taco Bell menu, one classic item consistently stands above the rest: the crunchy taco. Taco Bell’s crunchy taco has remained the restaurant’s signature item since its inception, which makes all the sense in the world. After all, it’s not "burrito" or "quesadilla" bell — it’s Taco Bell.

An utterly irresistible combination of perfectly seasoned beef, melted cheese, and fresh lettuce, the crunchy taco lives up to its reputation as the namesake of the restaurant every single time. Frankly, who doesn’t love the delectable clash of Mexican flavors that commingle within the crunchy taco?

But beyond the fact that just thinking about one makes your mouth salivate, how much do you truly know about this legendary product? The truth about Taco Bell’s crunchy taco may surprise even its most ardent fan. So with Taco Tuesday in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into Taco Bell’s titular item, and what’s led this iconic creation into the annals of American culinary fame.

It was one of the original Taco Bell menu items

Taco Bell Numero Uno

The crunchy taco’s status as the signature item on Taco Bell’s menu isn’t a recent occurrence. In fact, the crunchy taco has been at the heart of the restaurant’s menu since its founding, and was one of the original items sold when it first opened back in 1962, according to HuffPost.

Although the number of available menu items at Taco Bell may feel overwhelming at times — so much so that the chain eliminated more than two dozen menu items in 2020 (via Nation’s Restaurant News) — the original menu was almost comically limited in hindsight. There were only six total items at the original Downey, California location, some of which have stood the test of time, and still appear on the Taco Bell menu in 2022. Others, however, such as the chili burger, are no longer offered, having faded away as a historical anomaly.

Perhaps more astonishing than the small number of options was the listed prices, with everything costing 19 cents at the original restaurant. Considering a crunchy taco is eight times more expensive in 2022, costing you $1.59 (via Taco Bell), it’s difficult to imagine a time when a single quarter could get you a perfectly-shaped, freshly-created crunchy taco — with change to spare.

Customers didn’t initially know how to say "taco"

Blond girl shrugging in confusion

The ubiquity of tacos and Mexican food options in modern times is undeniable, with at least 19 different Mexican restaurant chains operating in the U.S. as of 2020 (via Restaurant Business). But before Taco Bell popularized the handheld food item through the fast-paced mass production of crunchy tortilla shells, tacos were as foreign to the American palate as eating insects — though, like very few foods, insects aren’t nearly as delightful as tacos.

Decades before countless Mexican restaurant chains, such as Chipotle or Del Taco, were in every American city, customers weren’t just learning what tacos were; they were learning how to pronounce the word in the first place. Unaware of the proper pronunciation, customers of the original Taco Bell often butchered the now-common word, calling tacos "tay-kohs" in a phonetic misinterpretation (via Taco Bell).

Of course, the incredible popularity of the original restaurant meant word spread fast about how to say "taco" correctly. And once people knew what tacos were, and how to say the word, there was no stopping the public’s insatiable appetite for all things Taco Bell.

Founder Glen Bell stole the concept from a nearby restaurant

crunchy taco bell taco

There’s no denying the hand Taco Bell founder, Glen Bell — aka the Bell in Taco Bell — had in introducing the crunchy taco to a wider audience. His ability to mass-produce deep-fried, crunchy taco shells was a monumental breakthrough, blazing a trail for Mexican cuisine to rival any other in the American cultural lexicon.

Yet despite Taco Bell’s claims that the founder "invented" the crunchy taco, the reality is a bit more complicated. In fact, some may even go so far as to accuse the late Bell of straight-up thievery, since he didn’t create the crunchy taco; he took the concept from a nearby restaurant, Mitla Cafe (via BBC).

Located across the street from Bell’s restaurant, the Mitla Cafe began selling crunchy tacos when it was first opened, in 1937, by Salvador and Lucia Rodriguez (via MEL) — more than a decade before Bell opened his first taco stand, Taco Tia. Noticing the long lines at Mitla Cafe, Bell became immensely intrigued by the popularity of the then-unknown food item, and learned the ins and outs of the crunchy taco from the neighboring restaurant.

After several attempts, and years of trial-and-error, Bell was able to crack the code for quick-frying large batches of taco shells. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The crunchy taco remains as popular as ever

Two tacos and nachos from Taco Bell

As the fourth best-selling fast food restaurant in America in 2020, according to QSR, Taco Bell is a beloved American institution. And while the menu has changed and grown substantially since the first restaurant opened, the most popular menu item has consistently remained the same: the crunchy taco.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be shocking, given the name and all, but nearly 60 years since the original Taco Bell was opened, the crunchy taco remains as popular as ever. The restaurant sells, quite literally, billions of tacos each year. The crunchy taco consistently ranks as the highest-selling menu item for the restaurant, largely because there’s never a doubt about its availability, or the quality of the product you’ll receive.

As recently as 2016, the crunchy taco was the fast food chain’s number one seller, besting both the soft taco, and the monumentally-popular Doritos Locos Taco (via Thrillist). Of course, the fact that crunchy tacos are included with every combo meal may boost the sales figures. But who’s complaining about an extra taco or two?

Taco Bell’s crunchy taco can be made in less than seven seconds

Stopwatch ticking down in hand

One of the defining aspects of a fast food restaurant is the speed with which you’re served — or, at least, it should be. Although the word "fast" is literally in the description of this category of restaurant, promptness hasn’t exactly defined our experience in recent years, with the average time spent in a restaurant drive-thru line increasing by 25 seconds in 2021 (via CNBC).

But not all fast food chains have become less efficient in modern times. Taco Bell, for one, has bucked this trend by decreasing its customer’s average drive-thru wait time in 2020, according to Restaurant Dive. While the restaurant’s embrace of innovation and technology has certainly helped its overall efficiency, nothing may be more responsible for Taco Bell’s swift service than the fact that a crunchy taco can be made in an astoundingly quick seven seconds (via Food Network).

The rapid assembly of the chain’s signature item is a sight to behold, and makes it possible for the crunchy taco to be a part of virtually every combo meal or box offered by the restaurant. It also makes putting together Taco Party packs, which are sold with 12 crunchy (or soft) tacos as of 2022, possible without bogging down the wait time.

The crunch is scientifically proven to entice customers

Scientists analyze data

Believe or not, the appeal of Taco Bell’s crunchy tacos isn’t limited to the phenomenally addictive taste — it’s also due to the texture of the taco shell itself. The way a food feels while we eat it plays a large hand in our perception of whether that food is good or bad.

"Texture seems to be the key sense in determining our food dislikes," according to Dr. Charles Spence (via Epicurious). This appears to be an evolutionarily-derived preference, as a general rule of thumb for our ancient ancestors, when it came to food, was that crisp and crunchy foods equaled fresh, healthy, and edible.

In short, the crunchy taco is biologically enticing to humans because, like potato chips, we tend to derive pleasure from both the sound and textural mouth-feel of crunchy foods. In fact, in his research, Dr. Spence discovered that we actually perceive louder-crunching foods as fresher and better-tasting than softer-crunching foods. While the precise reason for this remains unknown, there’s no denying that the crunchy taco’s popularity can be at least partially attributed to the item’s sound and feel. Science is real, after all.

Glen Bell sold crunchy tacos before Taco Bell

taco shells

Taco Bell may be the restaurant that helped Glen Bell launch the crunchy taco into the mainstream back in 1962. But, like the misconception surrounding his alleged invention of the crunchy taco, Taco Bell wasn’t the late restauranteur’s first attempt to use tacos as a springboard for success.

Before opening the original Taco Bell restaurant, Bell was the purveyor of several quick-service restaurants in the San Bernardino area of southern California. After running Bell’s Drive-in, where he served hamburgers and hot dogs, and recognizing the potential of the popular tacos sold at the nearby Mitla’s Cafe, he started the restaurant Taco Tia in 1954 (via Taco Bell).

As he continued to tinker with his production methods for the crunchy taco shell, Bell opened three Taco Tia locations, as well as several El Taco restaurants, during the 1950s (via The Downey Patriot). Eventually, once he was able to perfect his fast-paced production of crunchy taco shells, Bell consolidated his efforts, and opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, California in 1962.

Its signature status makes it key to Taco Bell’s promotions

Women pose with taco mascot

There’s no denying the massive — and enduring — presence of Taco Bell’s crunchy taco, even six decades after the original location opened. The crunchy taco’s continuous popularity has been a driving factor in the restaurant’s success, a crucial component to numerous promotional campaigns, and a huge piece of the restaurant’s marketing pie throughout its existence.

The annual "Steal a Base, Steal a Taco" promotion during the World Series has been offered since 2007, where the restaurant gives away free tacos if a player steals a base during the Fall Classic. More recently, in 2022, the chain offered the Taco Lover’s Pass — where a monthly subscription entitled customers to one taco per day for $10 a month — and a Taco Tuesday promotion (via Brand Eating).

And, despite tortilla chips being sold at the restaurant, the crunchy taco is so essential to Taco Bell’s identity that it’s become the de facto side dish in combo meals — a la french fries at a burger joint. The crunchy taco is even a side dish for the Nacho Fries box (via Taco Bell), inverting the common expectation of entree and side for fast food combo meals.

It’s healthier than similar offerings at other fast food chains

McDonald's cheeseburger and fries

Though it’s commonly added to Taco Bell combo meals as a side, the crunchy taco is more akin to a cheeseburger from other fast food chains. And while very few people would describe the crunchy taco as healthy (unlike the many, actually healthy Taco Bell offerings), the bottom line is it’s far less nutritionally-damaging than the corresponding menu items from similar restaurants.

For instance, according to Taco Bell, the crunchy taco has 170 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 300 mg of sodium. By comparison, a McDonald’s cheeseburger contains a whopping 300 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 720 mg of sodium, and a Wendy’s Jr. cheeseburger contains 290 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 610 mg of sodium.

Additionally, Taco Bell’s crunchy taco is far less detrimental to your health than its combo meal equivalent, french fries. The crunchy taco is better across the board than french fries, with less calories, fat, and sodium than a small fry at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger King.

The crunchy taco reached a new level of popularity with the Doritos Locos version

Trio of Doritos Locos Tacos

It’s well-established that the crunchy taco is Taco Bell’s signature menu item; an item so close to perfect that even considering a change is worrisome. There’s no doubt that some efforts to improve on greatness have spectacularly backfired throughout history (hello, New Coke), but others have succeeded with flying colors — like the introduction of the Doritos Locos version of the classic crunchy taco.

Frankly, the Doritos Locos Taco is the sort of creation that makes one marvel in appreciation. It’s such a simple culinary mash-up, yet so utterly inspired. Taking Taco Bell’s classic tortilla shell, and combining it with the always-popular Doritos — which was the #1 selling tortilla chip brand in the U.S. in 2017 (via Bakery and Snacks) — wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan marketing gimmick. In fact, since debuting in 2012, the Doritos Locos Taco has become a staple of the restaurant’s menu.

The Doritos Locos Taco was an instant success, helping to grow the chain’s sales by an incredible 13% after its initial introduction (via Fast Company). This was the restaurant’s most successful product launch of all time — or, at least, it was, until Nacho Fries usurped that title in 2018 (via CNBC).

It is crucial to the creation of other popular menu items

Fresh cooked Cheesy Gordita Crunch

Taco Bell is well known for its innovative approach to Mexican fast food. And with the crunchy taco existing as a sort of baseline for the rest of the restaurant’s menu, it makes sense that it’s been repurposed through the years to create some truly beloved items.

The glorious, heaven-in-your-mouth Cheesy Gordita Crunch, which is often ranked as one of the best-tasting Taco Bell menu items (via Eat This, Not That!), would’ve never seen the light of day without the classic crunchy taco. Similarly, the aforementioned, hugely-popular Doritos Locos Tacos wouldn’t exist without the crunchy taco, denying the world of numerous varieties through the years — including a Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch-flavored option in 2022 (via Food & Wine).

Not only has the crunchy taco spurred some of the most innovative and popular menu items at Taco Bell, but it’s been utilized in some very non-traditional ways, as well. The restaurant even released a recipe for a crunchy taco-filled shepherd’s pie in 2021, in honor of Friendsgiving celebrations (via Taco Bell).

The Mir Space Station crash nearly resulted in free crunchy tacos

Mir Space Station above Earth

The widely popular "Steal a Base, Steal a Taco" promotion has existed since 2007 (via Major League Baseball), but it wasn’t the first time Taco Bell offered every American a chance for a free taco based on a cultural event. This type of promotion has been a standard part of Taco Bell’s advertising campaigns since at least 2001, when the restaurant used the impending crash of the Mir Space Station to promote its brand.

Hoping to capitalize off the nation’s interest in the deorbiting space station, Taco Bell placed a 40-by-40 foot target in the Pacific Ocean, with the promise of a free taco, for every American, if the falling station landed on the target (via LA Times). Emblazoned with the words, "Free Taco Here," the odds of the space station actually hitting the target were extraordinarily low — though that didn’t stop the company from taking out an enormous insurance policy in case the impossible occurred.

The Mir Space Station taco promotion didn’t result in anyone receiving free crunchy tacos. But without this original promotion promising free tacos as a result of an unlikely event, we may never have been lucky enough to earn free tacos during the World Series, for seven straight seasons, as of 2021.