Chalupa, like the millennium, offers false promise

Well, the year is drawing to a close. As is the decade. As is the century. As is the millennium. That’s a lot of closure. And, as we all prepare for the ball to drop, struggling through the last of our papers and exams, we look to the world for exciting, inspiring events. Something impressive to end this year with a bang and set the tone for the millennium to come. It is in this context that Taco Bell introduces the “Chalupa.”

The Chalupa, in case you’ve escaped the ad blitz by living in the purple bubble, is Taco Bell’s new creation. Following in the footsteps of the Gordita, the Chalupa promises to be the next great revolution in Mexican fast food. And this is a promise made by a talking Chihuahua, so you know it’s going to be true. Lots of money has gone into convincing us that the Chalupa is an amazing new delicacy that must be tried. Well, for such a multi-million dollar ad campaign they’ve clearly put lots of effort into, I figured I could drop a buck and try it myself.

The verdict: Mediocrity. The Chalupa isn’t bad (one of my friends referred to it as “eating fried fat”), but is unimpressive. It’s sorta like those crusts on the taco salad: a fried crumbly thing that holds your food together but doesn’t have much taste.

There are some people who will like it, but, for the most part, people I’ve asked are not impressed. You’ve got the same stuff inside as your regular taco, and the shell, instead of being a thin tortilla that snaps like a chip, is a thicker, pock-marked gloppish substance. For my money, the Gordita flatbreads are better.

Not that either of them are amazing; it’s the same stuff inside, after all. No matter how often the Chihuahua comes out in favor of food revolutions, the food seems to stay pretty much the same. But let’s face it; it’s hard to be innovative in the fast food arena. If you’ve got a fancy restaurant, you can add new dishes, new meats, new ingredients, add duck flambé or Chinese chop suey to your menu.

In a fast food restaurant, not much is going to change. You have your little slop trays of ingredients, and there are a finite number of ways you can combine them. Taco Bell has soft shells, hard shells and all the foodmush (beef, cheese, etc.) that’s going to end up inside of it.

Innovations occasionally have new shells (We’ve fried it! Now it’s flat!) but often are just rearrangements of the same old ingredients (Ooh look, we put one kind of shell inside the other, it’s a Double Decker Taco! Hey, try our new Cheese on the Bottom Burrito! New Extra Lettuce Menu!).

Not as if other fast food restaurants are doing any better. Burger joints stack more patties and buns atop each other, create onion burgers, whatever. And when Pizza Hut invented Stuffed Crust pizza and put more cheese in the bread instead of on top, America was astounded. We loved it. This was the true pinnacle of fast food innovation.

And yet it wasn’t innovation at all. It’s the same ingredients, same food, just slapped together in a different manner. We have these high expectations for change, believe that some fantastic newness will improve our lives, but it’s the same thing we’ve been having for lunch for the past 20 years. The Chalupa is just the same old daily grind inside a slightly altered shell. As is the millennium.

So many people have these grand visions of the millennium as a milestone, a time of change, a new era where nothing will be the same. Newsflash: things will be the same. The ball will drop, Dick Clark will smile his 207-year old smile and, after the weekend, everyone will be back at work doing whatever they were doing before. The hype will have come and gone, and life will continue as usual, with pizza for lunch and beef in our tacos.

The fact is that, like a Chalupa, the millennium will be the ground beef we’re used to inside a new fried shell. Nothing really changes, and life still trudges on in inexorable monotony. Happy Holidays!

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