Tex-Mex food is increasingly popular in the United States for a number of very good reasons: It caters to our changing demographics, it advances our national agenda of all getting as fat as possible, and it’s relatively simple to execute on a large scale. In fact, it’s so hard to truly ruin a burrito that Chipotle had to employ fecal bacteria to turn the trick; tacos are so uniformly B-plus in taste that aspiring pedants have to fake passionate feelings about hard shells versus soft; and chili is easy enough to make that Wendy’s pulls it off as a value-menu afterthought.
There is, however, one glaring exception. As much as everyone loves to front about how awesome nachos are, the more discerning lard-asses among us know that they’re bad at least as often as they’re good. Nachos are deceptively tricky to assemble, which is why they tend to be low-end Tex-Mex cuisine’s greasiest fount of disappointment. This makes Taco Bell’s recent introduction of the Boss Nachos entrée a bolder gambit than it may appear.
This isn’t Taco Bell’s first shot at nachos—they’ve been slinging Grande and Supreme versions for years—but it is their most ambitious. The base price for an order of Boss Nachos is $5.99! You could put a chalupa through college for that kind of dough.
I hit the food court to see if they’re any good, with “good” generously defined as “better than 7-Eleven nachos.” Let’s smack it on down.
You can get Bossed three different ways: Steak is the default, but you can opt for “seasoned beef” or chicken instead. (The chicken can come “shredded” or in some other unspecified non-shredded form. Are these bad motherfuckers putting a whole chicken on a tray of nachos?! Or maybe it’s cubes. Yeah, cubes, I bet.) I went with the seasoned beef because it seemed more likely to resemble the stuff that splorts out of 7-Eleven’s self-serve meat machine, and I wanted to keep this survey as scientific as possible. Plus the non-steak beef’s a buck cheaper, at $4.99, and a Deadspin fast-food expense account only goes so far (it goes exactly nowhere).
I went to a mall-based Taco Bell on the Saturday before Christmas, which was both stupid and for the best. I eat too much of my fast food in an unnaturally leisurely state, which probably compromises the integrity of the reviews. This is food for the harried, not the rested and contemplative.
Let me praise the Taco Bell crew at the Cambridge Side Galleria in Cambridge, Mass. They hustle, and I was lucky to have a vantage point that allowed me to watch my order’s preparation. The good woman overseeing my Boss Nachos extruded a generous crucifix of liquid cheese on the corn chips before adding a more abstract blast of beef, some refried beans, and one dollop each of pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. My Boss Nachos were delivered in a giant plastic bag with handles, which was simultaneously depressing and uplifting. (Man, the holidays!)
Let’s take a moment to talk about nacho assembly. The most common problem afflicting half-assed nachos is a too-tall pile of chips; the higher the mound, the less likely there is to be adequate distribution of toppings throughout. Even if things look good on the peak, what lies beneath is too often just a heap of dry, naked tortilla shards. The solution? You can either assemble your nachos layer by layer, lasagna-style, and make sure to get as many ingredients as possible into every crevice. Or you can spread the chips out in a wide, shallow arrangement that allows for maximum surface area. Taco Bell takes the latter approach, using an 11.5-by-7-inch tray that necessitates a big, sad bag that protects the integrity of your dinner while also reminding you that you are about to eat way too much, and alone.
The toppings were a bit on the sparse side, but the golf-ball-sized allotments of pico, guac, and sour cream were easily accessible. The chips were thin and pale and slightly oily, but they had a surprisingly corny taste and an almost airy texture that exceeded my modest expectations. They were were topped by two varieties of cheese: the wet yellow kind, and the shredded white kind. There weren’t enough shreds to make an impression either way, and the wet yellow was as anticipated.
The pico de gallo was worthless, because the tomato chunks were as dull as they always are at this end of the food chain, and the onions were unaccountably weak. The guacamole was very limey and egregiously grainy. No reasonable person is looking for a ton of fresh avocado flavor from fast-food guacamole, but these places usually have access to enough gums and polymers to at least get the texture right. This shit scrapes across your tongue like homemade hippie hummus studded with flaxseeds and energy crystals and whatnot.
Same deal with the bean goop, minus the lime distraction. The toppings got off to a tough start! But I must concede that the beef was downright good, despite bearing no particular resemblance to anything having to do with a cow. Pretend it’s those soy crumble things, though, and you can get plenty of pleasure from the bouncy, nicely seasoned bits of brown protein scattered about.
I have a confession: I may have rigged the game in 7-Eleven’s favor. The quality of their self-assembly nacho bars varies wildly from store to store, and I intentionally passed over my usual grimy location in favor of the fancy-ass one on the bright side of town. I did this because I thought I deserved a bit of a holiday treat, and also because it’s perfectly fair to expect any foodstuff advertised on national television to be as good as any 7-Eleven version of itself, you dig?
The best thing about eating at 7-Eleven is the agency you have in your meal’s preparation. It can be intimidating at first, but in time you learn that the Spicy Chicken Breast sandwich truly shines when microwaved for exactly 19 seconds, and that mustard’s better than you might think on the Beef, Bean, and Green Chili Burrito. And if I had to pick the worst thing about eating at 7-Eleven, I’d have to say it’s the part where you’re having dinner standing up in a goddamn convenience store. But never mind all that, let’s make ourselves some nachos!
There are two sizes to choose from: $2.99 will get you a 3.75-ounce bag of round, yellow chips to dress, or you could wimp out with 2 ounces for $1.99. I got a big bag, paid the man, and then retired to back of the store to assemble my meal in the black plastic tray provided.
The chips were thicker than the Taco Bell version and they weren’t as flavorful, but they were more than good enough: Nachos sink or swim based on the toppings. I kicked that party off at the dual-purpose cheese-and-chili machine. Things started strong, as I had no problem cheese-drawing the traditional 8-pointed star, but when it was time to spell my name in chili, I realized the limitations of the self-service model. The machine ran out of meat-stuff midway through my attempt to spell “William,” which left me to choose between settling for a lopsided beef load or telling the counter guy and dealing with whatever wrath or remedy that might bring. I chose the former, and sought to make my nachos whole by adding another couple sulky squirts of cheese.
Things picked back up when I hit the full condiment station. Again, I have to stress that this was a high-end 7-Eleven complete with an automatic sliding glass door and nary a pube stuck to the Hot Pocket display case. Your results may vary. But I was able to choose from diced tomatoes, salsa, onion chunks, pico de gallo, and fresh jalapeño (ketchup, mustard, pickles, and some sauerkraut-looking stuff were also available for the true bon vivants). And would you believe the jalapeños were actually hot!? I was shocked and delighted. It was the best $3 meal I’ve ever eaten while hunched over the lotto kiosk at a convenience store.
Taco Bell Boss Nachos are better than I expected, thoughtfully conceived and competently executed, but they don’t have a single standout quality or ingredient to justify the price. The 7-Eleven nachos are only a bit cheaper when serving size is accounted for, but they are objectively superior. Even if you end up at a grungier location with fewer detailing options, you’ll have full control of your nacho destiny, and that alone is enough to elevate them above the Boss.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.