Birria has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my dad would take the family to eat at different spots in the Mexican neighborhoods of Chicago. Each place we popped in, someone would call out, “Que pasa, Aguila?” acknowledging my old man by the nickname he earned playing soccer in leagues around the city. He would always order for us and prefaced each dish with inside knowledge of the particular restaurant’s birria. Several factors played into how the birria might taste that day: Was the chef hungover? Was the restaurant too heavy-handed with a certain spice? Hell, the server could be a terrible goalie, and for my dad, that would affect the taste of the food.
Though I initially learned about birria from this not-so-objective source, the more I ate, the more the bold flavors spoke to me without bias. As I got older and revisited these birrierias (birria shops) on my own, I became intimately familiar with the rich flavors packed into each bite. Naturally, I started trying my hand at making birria at home. After nailing the recipe, I started having more fun with it, making quesabirria, adding it to ramen, filling my homemade dumplings with it, and adding it to anything else that called for beef as an ingredient. Eventually, I felt I had seen and done everything I could with birria. I was one with birria.
So I welcomed the news of a birria-inspired creation from Taco Bell in the most mature way possible: with a very audible scoff and a dramatic eye roll.
Here’s how Taco Bell describes its newest menu item:
The Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco features slow-braised shredded beef – a brand new protein offering from Taco Bell – with a three-cheese blend melted on the inside and grilled on the outside of a freshly fried daily white corn shell. The taco comes with warm nacho cheese sauce and a savory red sauce for dipping into before every glorious bite.
I walked into my local Taco Bell after work on the day of the taco’s release, completely ready to dislike whatever I was about to be fed. The slick, high-contrast promo photos flooding my socials, hard to ignore, had given me some idea of what to expect. I ordered two Grilled Cheese Dipping Tacos, laughing to myself at the comically obvious name that gives customers explicit instructions for what to do with the sauces on the side.
As he handed off my bag, I overheard the cashier complaining about how he “hates making these tacos.” I asked if the store had sold a lot of Dipping Tacos that day. He informed me that he personally doesn’t like them.
I sat down in the empty dining room raring to go—but the freshly fried corn shell was smashed, which made the dipping part of the equation difficult, if not impossible. The “grilled cheese” was an unfulfilled promise, as the cheese was a good 30 degrees from being melty. An avalanche of white sauce covered an insignificant portion of the shredded beef.
The tacos come with two sauces on the side: science lab nacho cheese and a thin red sauce that tastes like a microwaved packet of Taco Bell’s mild sauce. Birria has deep flavors and nuances that come from the variety of spices and chiles used to make the braising liquid for the beef. The consomme—or, in Taco Bell’s words, “dipping sauce”—is made from the fat and juices of what should be nothing short of divine shredded beef. This taco sorely missed the mark on all points. I felt personally attacked.
I slept on it, and the following day I woke up heated. These Grilled Cheese Dipping Tacos couldn’t be any further from an authentic birria taco if they tried. What the hell was Taco Bell thinking? I planned a second trip, this time for lunch at a different location, to give Taco Bell one more chance to prove itself.
The second Taco Bell seemed to have a good flow. The folks making the food were on double duty, taking care of the line of cars wrapped around the building while also tending to dine-in customers. This time around, the taco shell wasn’t crushed, and the cheese was indeed grilled—almost caramelized!
These tacos had an adequate portion of the braised beef, and while it might not have the nuances and depth that a more “authentic” birria recipe does, it was still savory and delicious. Plus, the drizzle of the creamy jalapeno sauce really brightened up the rich meat and added another layer of flavor. The red dipping sauce was better this time around because it was actually served warm. The pro move is to combine the red sauce with the nacho cheese sauce and dunk away.
The Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco is surely Taco Bell’s response to the fact that quesabirria has been on fire the last few years. It would have been poor business if Taco Bell hadn’t gotten in while the getting was good, especially since its competitors already have. This taco adequately serves various purposes: For Taco Bell, the slow-braised shredded beef is a new protein offering that will likely become a solid revenue stream (assuming customers will tolerate its higher price point). For customers, it’s a creative new menu option that I have to admit is pretty damn delicious—I would enjoy this again as a chaser for a couple of beer-and-shot combos.
One thing Taco Bell will never get accused of is making authentic Mexican food. My abuelita Maria isn’t in the Taco Bell kitchen whipping up Mexican Pizzas; it’s more likely to be some kid named Tyler who’s working part time to save up money for a car but keeps splurging on weed and a bong. If you’re going for authentic flavors, save yourself a trip and head out to the nearest taqueria. If you’re down for a deliciously crafted treat, though, the Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco is what T-Bell’s menu has needed for a long time.