Sometimes, a meal that once captivated the masses falls into obscurity, only to make a surprising comeback, championed by restaurants, TV chefs, and food influencers. We’ve witnessed this phenomenon with various continental dishes, from clams casino to chicken piccata. Nostalgia sells, after all. But amidst these resurrections, there’s one humble dish that has yet to regain its stylish prominence: the taco salad.
What Defines a Taco Salad?
Before delving further, let’s clarify what truly constitutes a taco salad. While there are plenty of Mexican-inspired bowls out there featuring salsa, guacamole, and shredded chicken, I argue that the presence of a fried tortilla is what sets a taco salad apart. The crispy tortilla can serve as the salad bowl or be crumbled on top, but its inclusion is essential. Just as a Pittsburgh salad would be incomplete without french fries, a taco salad should feature meat, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, and, optionally, sliced black olives and jalapeños to enhance its identity.
The Disappearing Act of the Taco Salad
Although there’s no concrete data on the taco salad’s decline in popularity, a simple Google search reveals a string of recipes from independent food blogs, suggesting its waning presence. Even in home kitchens, the taco salad fails to thrive, particularly among Gen Z who gravitate towards other meal options.
Cafeterias and fast food chains, where the taco salad once reigned supreme in the ’80s and ’90s, also reflect its diminishing status. Taco Bell, for instance, discontinued its beloved Fiesta Taco Salad in 2020, despite the pleas of roughly 3,000 millennials who signed a change.org petition for its return. One speculated reason behind its discontinuation, aside from pandemic-related menu streamlining, was the challenge of maintaining fresh taco shell bowls throughout the day. Additionally, public schools striving to provide “healthy” meals have shied away from serving a bowl of ground meat and sour cream in a fried tortilla.
Exploring the Taco Salad Dilemma
From a business perspective, it makes sense for major fast food chains like Taco Bell to phase out big, clunky, and quickly stale corn-shelled bowls. Yet, can we truly say that taco salads are universally appealing? While I, personally, enjoy a slightly warm, protein-rich salad, it’s evident that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Upon crowdsourcing opinions via Instagram, I received feedback ranging from complaints about the shell becoming soggy to dismissive remarks branding it as “normcore suburban mall food.”
Taco salads occupy a culinary niche similar to other “continental” trends of the past, such as clams casino and chicken piccata. However, the taco salad faces unique challenges in occupying a prominent position in the current dining landscape. While Mexican cuisine finally receives the recognition it deserves in top-tier restaurants, Tex-Mex, the domain of the taco salad, thrives primarily within regional chain eateries.
Moreover, taco salads still carry a lingering reputation issue. The infamous image of Donald Trump posing with a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo 2016, accompanied by the caption “I love Hispanics!”, created a public relations disaster that tainted the image of taco salads. No one wants to be associated with someone as mentally and physically unwell as Trump. Just as there isn’t a Grub Street Diet for Vladimir Putin, taco salads suffer from guilt by association.
However, this disdain for taco salads highlights how perceptions of food authenticity and purity are continuously evolving. Despite any negative connotations, the taco salad has endured, appealing not only to suburban white communities but also to Latino communities, representing a significant slice of American food culture. Although it may not have experienced a gourmet reinvention, it possesses undeniable staying power.
The Taco Salad’s Hidden Resurgence
While you may not spot the term “taco salad” explicitly on menus, certain chains still feature this beloved dish under alternative names. For instance, El Pollo Loco presents it as a Tostada Salad, adding an air of sophistication to its presentation.
Another surprising trend in the culinary world is the rise of various “bowl foods” like acai bowls, lifestyle bowls, and poke bowls. Fast casual dining has birthed functional phrases such as protein bars and grain bowls, which might make it seem unlikely for a beef and cheese-filled bowl to find its place among these modern trends. Considering the current trajectory, it’s doubtful that the taco salad will penetrate the mainstream dining scene.
Yet, there exist countless innovative chefs who can reimagine this classic dish. The taco salad is tailor-made for the daring, rule-breaking chefs behind pop-up restaurants in Los Angeles and beyond. They should seize the opportunity to put their own twist on the taco salad. Fun-loving individuals will wholeheartedly embrace it, while those who take themselves too seriously might scoff.
No food trend ever truly dies. Whether or not the taco salad reclaims its spot in the culinary zeitgeist remains uncertain. Nonetheless, it will continue to find peculiar ways to endure. Perhaps, if we’re open-minded, it may even undergo a transformative evolution.
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