REVIEW: Taco Bell Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa

Taco Bell Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa Whole

“Vegetarians rejoice: now you too can join your meat-eating brethren by stuffing your gullet with Taco Bellian deliciousness!” feels like the kind of thing Taco Bell’s marketing department might want me to write with the release of its “new” vegetarian-friendly menu item, the Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa.

I won’t do it, though.

Why?

Because, despite what the taco chain wants you to believe, non-meat eaters have always been able to clog their arteries right along with everyone else. Its refried beans, in fact, are vegan. Its black beans have been around for years and, in this modern era of customization, can be subbed for just about any other protein on its menu.

Furthermore, the toasted cheddar chalupa shell isn’t a “new” item, either. When it was first introduced in September of 2019, Taco Bell proclaimed it “the biggest food innovation of the year,” which, sure, why not. I can’t disprove this statement, nor am I sure why I’d want to.

So, here we are a year later, and Taco Bell is cramming the aforementioned black beans into the reintroduced cheesy chalupa shell. Perhaps it’s hoping it’ll placate vegetarians enough to not riot over the fact that it recently did away with one of the other things they could eat: the fried potatoes.

And so, does it work? Maybe!

As one might expect, the chalupa shell (which Taco Bell suggests is ensconced in cheddar that has been aged for six months) does the heavy lifting. This was my first experience with the Toasted Cheddar Chalupa — with any kind of filling — and I was very pleased. Texturally, the cheese adds a nice crunch that then yields to the pillowed, buttery chew of the traditional chalupa shell. Could I tell the cheese had been aged six months? No. Was it a little like when shredded cheese falls out of the omelet you’re making, and it gets all crispy in the pan, and you eat it and think, “now this is allllll right”? Yes.

I could happily eat eight of these shells with nothing else in them and call it a day.

I didn’t, however, because that would make for a bizarre review. Also, the one I ordered was filled with black beans, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and sour cream.

Taco Bell Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa Shell

You might be wondering how the shredded cheese plays with the toasted cheese on the shell, and the short answer is…indistinguishably? The longer, more ridiculous answer is that they harmoniously — though indifferently — coexist, like an old cat and old dog who live together but mostly just stay out of each other’s way. In other words, if they forgot to add your shredded cheese, it probably wouldn’t detract from the experience.

Which leaves the seasoned beans. And the verdict? I mean, they’re black beans, and by default, not very jazzy in nature. They are also a bit soupier than say, Chipotle’s black beans, but they have about the same amount of flavor. (It is also very possible the sour cream adds to this soupiness; that said, it provides a much needed tang to the proceedings, and I’d be hesitant to leave it off.)

While the Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa probably won’t convince anyone to give up their meat-eating ways, it does provide existing vegetarians with a nice alternative to the regular bean burrito or whatever that thing is with pinto beans and cheese in a cup. At least until this heavenly shell is once again banished to fast food purgatory. Then it’s back to subbing in black beans to a normal chalupa like a common street rat.

Purchased Price: $3.39
Size: N/A
Rating: 7 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: 470 calories, 29 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 20 milligrams of cholesterol, 450 milligrams of sodium, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 6 gram of dietary fiber, 3 grams of sugar, and 15 grams of protein.

REVIEW: Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp

Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp Closeup

What are Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp and Smoky Garlic Tartar Sauce

According to the webs, this takes the Cajun chicken chain’s shrimp (seasoned with a blend of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, and bay leaf) and jazzes things up by marinating the little buggers in sriracha. You know, for the promised wickedness. These caustic crustaceans are paired with a new Smoky Garlic Tartar Sauce, which is, well, smokier and more garlicky than any tartar sauce that came before it.

How is it?

NOT HOT. If you’re an avid capsaicinophile hoping that this new offering will set your mouth on fire, you’ll likely be let down. I can handle (and enjoy) a decent amount of heat, but perhaps more importantly to this review, I am sensitive to spice, and I can tell you, without fear of killing the weakest among you, that you will be able to eat this shrimp comfortably.

I was disappointed with the lack of heat, but not with the shrimp itself. The pieces were large, the seasoning familiar in its Popeyesicity (not sure I can detect the bay leaf buried deep in there, though), and the breading added the perfect amount of crunch.

Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp Sauce

The real revelation was the Smoky Garlic Tartar sauce, which, oddly enough, seemed to pack a heat the shrimp did not. The dip was nuanced —- a light sweetness contrasted with a heavy dill-ness, imbued with the aforementioned punch that was… maybe the smokiness? I’m not sure. But in short, it provided a nice compliment to the straight-forward, not-that-wicked shrimp.

Anything else you need to know?

As you can see in the picture above, my sauce didn’t come in one of the pre-packaged sauce containers as shown in promo pics, and the first time I went, they didn’t have the sauce at all. So, I guess what I’m saying is: if you live far away from a Popeyes and you’re interested in this, maybe call ahead. Because, while the shrimp is decent, it’s the sauce that really completes the experience.

Conclusion:

If you’re an avid Popeye’s connoisseur, check it out. If you don’t get to Popeye’s all that often, get the chicken sandwich instead. Or the chicken. But seriously, the sandwich. Have you had that thing? Like Uncle Jesse always said, “have mercy.”

Purchased Price: $6.30
Size: N/A
Rating: 7 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: Unavailable on Popeyes’ website

REVIEW: Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn

Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn Bag

What is Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn

From the pre-popped popcorn giant Smartfood comes Snickerdoodle, a “limited holiday flavor” meant to capture the magical, Home Ec essence of buttery cinnamon-sugar cookies. It is not Smartfood’s only sweet popcorn offering. Its regular lineup includes kettle corn and a caramel/cheddar combo. But it ties with this year’s earlier offerings of Caramel & Cinnamon Apple Mix and Cap’n Crunch Berries Popcorn Mix in terms of ambitiousness.

How is it?

Perfectly mediocre, I’m afraid. While the concept is a wonderful one — soft, warm, cinnamon blasted cookies in popcorn form! — the execution is lackluster. There is no uniformity, really, with about every tenth piece achieving a perfect nirvana of true Snickerdoodle bliss.

Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn Seasoning

The pieces that escape the cinnamon-sugar bath are bland and unseasoned, small, chewy bits of lightly salted styrofoam. Also disappointing is the lack of a discernible butter profile, a key component of the cookie experience.

Anything else you need to know?

Smartfood White Cheddar is wonderful, so I had high hopes for this. Alas, my heart was broken. Additionally, I had no idea that the brand also has Hot Buffalo and Sour Cream & Onion versions. Are these any good? I guess that’s more of a “anything else *I* need to know.”

Conclusion:

Lots of moderately sized cities seem to have “gourmet” popcorn shops these days, and, in my experience, most of these have some riff on the “cinnamon toast” popcorn variety. So do yourself a favor and get a bag of that, instead. Chances are, you’ll be much happier.

If you don’t have a gourmet popcorn shop, you should open one. And if you don’t want to do that, maybe go with a bag of Pop Secret and hit it with some of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cinnadust we recently reviewed. I feel like that would still beat this.

Purchased Price: $3.99
Size: 6.25 oz bag
Purchased at: Hy-Vee
Rating: 5 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: (2.5 cups) 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 grams of saturated fat, 0 gram of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 140 milligrams of sodium, 17 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.

REVIEW: Sonic Espresso Shake

Sonic Espresso Shake Cup

I consider myself a late adopter of “hot, caffeinated beverages.” I didn’t become a regular coffee drinker until my early 30s, and never had an espresso until a couple of years later.

This is probably why I’m not generally one to opt for coffee, mocha, or espresso-flavored inclusions to my other foods or beverages. Mocha turkey sandwich? Pass. Coffee-rubbed pepperoni on my pizza? No thank you.

One exception to the “dear coffee, please do not mate with my other food” rule are sweets. Coffee — and its coffee-adjacent friends — lend themselves quite naturally to things like cakes, pies, and ice creams. And because a milkshake is but ice cream and milk, it only makes sense that one might infuse it with a caffeinated beverage.

Sonic Espresso Shake Top

Enter Sonic’s new Espresso Shake. According to Sonic’s website, its shake blends vanilla ice cream with “original cold brew iced coffee,” which, okay, I know I’ve established I’m a novice when it comes to hot go-go juice, but aren’t “coffee” and “espresso” two different things? I mean, espresso is coffee, but it’s generally made in a different way and is a far more concentrated substance. But I guess like me, maybe Sonic doesn’t have an espresso machine, and so here we are.

Sonic Espresso Shake Straw

Sonic’s shakes, for the uninitiated, are usually pretty consistent with their viscosity. They’re somewhere between “sucking this hard on the straw hurts my cheeks” and “this is a bit too runny to warrant a spoon.” In other words, optimal milkshake consistency. What is also consistently good is Sonic’s ice cream, which is perfectly creamy and perfectly sweet.

Now that brings us to the flavoring. If Sonic has an issue with frozen drink construction, this is it. With my first taste, my thought was, “Oh, hey, I like this.” The espresso flavor was much milder than I’d been anticipating, though certainly present. (And after reading on the website how they make it, I guess maybe now I know why it was so muted.) My second and third sips were fairly similar, but the fourth left me wondering, “Wait, what happened to the slight coffee taste?” It had disappeared, and I was left with nothing more than a creamy vanilla milkshake.

This went on for a few more sips from the straw, and then, boom, another coffee pocket. Now, I understand that I might not get a blob of banana in every drink of a banana shake, but how Sonic can make a liquid add-in so hit or miss is perplexing. It would have been almost impressive, really, had it not been so disappointing. I wanted more coffee taste, not less.

Perhaps making the milkshake with coffee ice cream would have upped the wow factor. (Or, for that matter, given it a wow factor.) Maybe I should have gone with the Oreo Espresso Shake because don’t Oreo pieces make most things more palatable? As it stands, I’m not sure I’d order the Espresso Shake again — not with so many other Sonic shake options at my disposal.

Purchased Price: $3.19
Size: Small
Rating: 5 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: Unavailable on Sonic’s website

Click here for our previous fast food reviews.

REVIEW: Church’s Chicken Sandwich

Church s Chicken Sandwich Wrapper

Sometimes, I forget that Church’s Chicken exists.

And I do not mean this as a slight to what is arguably one of the more popular fast food fried chicken restaurants in the United States. (In 2018, there were 1,000+ Church’s locations, which put it behind places like KFC and Popeyes, but ahead of shops like Zaxby’s, Bojangles, and Raising Cane’s.)

It sometimes takes me driving past a Church’s to remember that Church’s is a place. And then I go, “Do they have these everywhere?” And then I think about Kendrick Lamar saying, “Park it in front of Lueders, next to that Church’s Chicken” in “Backseat Freestyle,” and I go, “Well, they have them in Compton and in Kansas City, so, yeah, probably everywhere.”

All this to say, I’m usually well past the Church’s by the time I consider stopping. And that’s a shame because, if you didn’t know, Church’s has the absolute best biscuit in fast food fried chicken. The secret, you see, is that they slather them with honey butter right when they come out of the oven. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could happily eat seven or eight of them in one sitting. (And then feel very terrible about myself, sure, so I won’t. But it’s a fun thought.)

And it is this very same honey butter that Church’s hopes will set it apart from the competition as it joins the Great Fast Food Chicken Sandwich War that Popeyes started in 2019.

But does it work? Let’s discuss.

Church s Chicken Sandwich Pickle

Aside from the honey-butter brushed brioche bun, the rest of the setup is pretty standard chicken sandwich fare — dill pickle slices, a slathering of mayo, and a chicken breast filet. As with most competitors, Church’s offers an original and a “spicy” variety. The latter includes, you guessed it, spicy mayo, and in an interesting twist, a pickled jalapeño pepper that Church’s suggests “squeezing” over the filet, “San Antonio-style.” (I’m serious. The steps are all right there on the website.) Anyway, for the sake of this review, I went with the regular one.

Church s Chicken Sandwich Split

The filet itself was a little bit bigger than Chick-fil-A’s, but a bit smaller than Popeyes. It had more of a crunch than either, which was nice. That said, it didn’t have as much flavor, either. It is a relatively muted chicken, with little discernible seasoning beyond salt and garlic powder. It was very juicy, though, which definitely scored it points.

The pickles were boring fast food pickles. They provided a nice acidity, but they were floppy and chewy, almost entirely void of crunch. Similarly, there was too little mayo on the sandwich for me to notice what kind of impact it may or may not have had.

Which leaves us with the bun.

Church s Chicken Sandwich Top

This soft, sweet pillow of delight is what sets this chicken sandwich apart from the pack. Think King’s Hawaiian wedded with a nice stick of butter, and you’re on your way to imagining this taste. The bun could have used a bit more toasting — it was chewy around some edges — but overall, it was an A+.

So, while the chicken itself was only moderately above average, and the other two inclusions were boring and lacking, the bun elevated the entire experience to new heights, giving fast food fans a welcome new chicken sandwich option.

Purchased Price: $3.99
Size: N/A
Rating: 8 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: 651 calories, 34.5 grams of fat, 7.18 grams of saturated fat, 63.7 milligrams of cholesterol, 1,770 milligrams of sodium, 53.4 grams of carbohydrates, 3.36 grams of fiber, 8.49 grams of sugar, and 31.79 grams of protein.

Click here for our previous fast food reviews.

REVIEW: Subway Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Chicken

Subway Frank s Red Hot Buffalo Chicken

To fully understand Subway’s plight, first, think of the worst thing that has been written about you in the press over the past few years. I’ll give it a second… okay, good.

Next, compare that to the sandwich maven. Earlier this month, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that Subway’s bread has too much sugar to be considered bread. A 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation that found its chicken contains less than 50% actual chicken DNA. And then there was that uh, one guy. You know, the one who lost a bunch of weight and then his freedom.

But there is a lot to be said for convenience (think of all the Subways squished into gas stations on desolate stretches of endless American interstates) and the general laziness of people too tired to make their own sandwiches.

And speaking of laziness, allow me to introduce you to the sub-sandwich mega-chain’s newest offering, Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Chicken sandwich. Subway says, “this sub includes our tender chicken strips and new Buffalo sauce, made exclusively with Frank’s Red Hot sauce, toasted on your favorite bread and topped with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and ranch dressing.” For the sake of standardization, I ordered mine exactly as they suggest. The bread on the app defaulted to “Italian,” but I ended up with whatever the plainest, whitest, most unimaginative bread offered is.

Subway Frank s Red Hot Buffalo Chicken Innards 1

If you’ve ever had a Buffalo chicken sandwich from any other purveyor of food, you’ve already had this thing, only better. That said, it wasn’t 100% garbage. First, I’ll tell you what I liked: the bread was big and soft and would have made a very cozy sweater. Again, it didn’t taste like much, but it was pleasant to touch. The veggies were very fresh, which, I’ll admit, surprised me some. The lettuce was crisp and the cucumbers added a nice crunch. The tomatoes were small and inoffensive. If things would have stopped there, this sandwich would have been a 7. (And also, very unfulfilling.)

But they didn’t stop there.

Subway Frank s Red Hot Buffalo Chicken Innards 2

Subway suggests that its “new buffalo sauce” is made with Frank’s Red Hot sauce, but to be honest, it just tasted like they mixed up some of Frank’s Buffalo Sauce with a dash of Frank’s Hot Sauce. Though the goopy result added a nice kick, there wasn’t enough of it to give you a real “buffalo wing” experience. Similarly, the ranch added very little. It was there, but quickly lost its footing around the hot sauce, muting the heat and failing to provide any nuance.

And then, the chicken.

Subway’s bird-meat is unnaturally soft, weirdly slippery, and tastes like what an extraterrestrial might guess chicken tastes like just from looking at a chicken alone. There is almost no flavor to it, and it is unsettling how it almost disintegrates in your mouth. Were it not for the occasional bit of gristle, I might have wondered if I hadn’t been tricked by tofu.

And really, tofu would have been much preferred. This sandwich made me uncomfortable, and that’s generally the last quality I look for when grabbing lunch.

Purchased Price: $8.49
Size: 12-inch
Rating: 3 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: (12-inch sub) 710 calories, 24 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, 110 milligrams of cholesterol, 2720 milligrams of sodium, 79 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fiber, 11 grams of sugar, and 47 grams of protein.