Taco Bell HQ News: Heat Is Where It’s At

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Americans don’t want spicy food.  Oh, they think they do, but they really don’t.  The want medium — “zesty” — but not really, truly hot.

That’s always been the conventional wisdom.  It’s said that, while there are always the daredevil diners who will pour the habanero sauce on anything, middle-America isn’t interested in being challenged with real heat.  In other words, most of us are wimps.

But could the conventional wisdom be going by the wayside?  Might the American palate be shifting in a way that opens up menus at national restaurant chains to items that deliver the goods in terms of a truly spicy meal?  That’s what the folks at Taco Bell are counting on with the recent expansion of the Volcano Menu.  Proven sales performance and an overall belief in changing culinary trends have them convinced they have a product that can sell well around the country with a genuinely spicy dish.

But could the heat be enough to impress me, the undisputed Endless Simmer king of chicken wings?

During the recent trip to Taco Bell headquarters, one of the main areas of conversation was the return of the Volcano Taco — a former “limited time” item — to the permanent menu and the addition of the Volcano Double Beef Burrito.  In both, the heat comes from the addition of a spicy sauce…the bright red taco shell is not spicy, despite appearances.

The Volcano Sauce is pretty hot.  How hot?  According to Taco Bell, it clocks in at 800 Scoville Units.  As a point of comparison, if you’ve been to TB and tried the “Fire” sauce available in the packets, that scores 500, so it’s almost 1.5 time as hot.  When tasted alone, the heat is a very clean and straightforward one, arriving pretty quickly.  The sauce also has a slight smokey flavor of cumin, which adds to the complexity of the taste profile. It elicited a slight clearing of the throat when I tasted it straight, so it’s nothing to sneeze at.  Or maybe it is something to sneeze at.  I hate when idioms conflict with real life.

In the taco, which has meat, cheese and lettuce, the sauce is front and center.  This is the dish that appeals to the heat-demons out there.  But it might be a bit too aggressive for those a bit more capsaicin-averse.  The better option for those folks is the burrito, which includes a dose of sour cream that mellows the flavor a bit.

So that’s cool…you can snag something reasonably hot as part of your fast food meal.  But the interesting thing from a foodie perspective is the underlying reasons why the American eater is going for the hot stuff.  Are we really getting to a point where the presence of ethnic cuisine restaurants throughout the country means that we’re ready to step it up in weight class when it comes to spiciness?

Hell, my Mom eats Thai food.  Granted, she repeatedly tells them “NO HEAT” when ordering, but if a meat and potatoes eater can feel comfortable ordering in a place where they could conceivably kill a draft horse with a liberal dose of those bird chilis, that’s progress.

And the fact that Taco Bell is behind a multi-million dollar campaign promising to bring the big heat, that should be all the evidence you need to convince you that this shift in taste is the real deal.

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8 comments

  • BS June 4, 2009  

    I’ll take the one with sour cream. I can handle heat, but I like it mixed in with other flavors – I totally don’t get that desire to eat just heat.

  • Maids June 4, 2009  

    I am American. I am a razzle-dazzle spicy hot eater.

  • DaFlake June 5, 2009  

    The flaming red taco shell of the Volcano Taco scares me – not cuz of the taste, but cuz of the FLAMING REDNESS. How much Red dye #’s 5 & 7 are in that sucka’?

  • Catherine July 24, 2009  

    TB usually scares me. But that Volcano Taco is pretty great…

  • Steve July 25, 2015  

    Ah, and if you could have only seen the future as I type this 6 years after your original article…

    Bland is more popular than ever. In fact, the very chain that you write about has decided to tame down their “fire” sauce for the masses, eliminate “medium” and make their never very hot “hot” taco sauce, even tamer to take the slot of the old “medium”. I think you were close to spot-on when you wrote this. Except, the American palette isn’t getting more adventurous, it’s enjoying in THINKING it’s getting more adventurous. “Hey, can you call my medium sauce hot?” sounds a lot like “Hey, can I get that curry with no heat?”

    Just for everyone’s info so they can better gauge how hot things are:

    Fire sauce – 500 scoville units (at the time this article was written)
    Volcano sauce – 800 scoville units (this was a pre-production taste test in 2009 – it actually came out less hot than fire)
    Tabasco – 2,500 scoville units
    Jalapeno pepper – 5,000 scoville units
    Habanero pepper – 350,000 scoville units

    I don’t know that a hot sauce that’s 1/10th as hot as a jalapeno deserves to be called “fire” and I’m pretty sure magma ranks somewhere higher than 800…

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