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A Crunchwrap cut in half and stacked.
A homemade Crunchwrap Supreme.
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The Allure of Thinking Outside the Bun

Portland chefs love to make their own versions of Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme. But what makes Taco Bell’s most popular dish so much more enticing than any other chain’s?

In the summer of 2005, Taco Bell introduced a limited-time menu item to its lineup of hard-shell tacos, burritos, and nachos: A quesadilla-esque dish with a layer of seasoned ground beef, nacho cheese, a tostada, and typical Taco Bell toppings like sour cream and shredded lettuce, all wrapped in tortillas. The hexagonal shape and griddled seal added structural support to the gargantuan quesadilla so toppings won’t spill out when devoured at 11 p.m. It was such a hit, it became a menu staple — and Taco Bell’s most-ordered item.

The Crunchwrap Supreme has earned its spot in the fast food hall of fame, alongside the Whopper and McNugget. It’s so popular that in cities across the U.S., several chefs took their own cracks at them, particularly in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Portland, Gabriel Rucker stuffed one with duck and marionberry hoisin; Birrieria PDX sold a version stuffed with braised beef. Considering its handheld nature, it made sense as an early pandemic option: It was exciting enough to draw crowds out, and it would survive the drive home.

Years after restaurants shut down in the spring of 2020, the Taco Bell hack remains a trope for chefs. On Halloween, the teams at downtown Korean restaurant Toki and pop-up Astral teamed up to serve a “Toki Bell” menu, with dishes like a “Chee$y Gordita Crunch” with Sichuan-spiced ground beef. In September 2022, the pop-up Street Disco tackled the Taco Bell menu with an emphasis on discontinued dishes, like a Mexican “pizzette” and enchiritos.

But no other Taco Bell menu item has more copycats than the Crunchwrap, from food carts to pop-ups to specials. Its lasting popularity is a testament to the foods that excite us now, and how nostalgia, the internet, and Portland’s ethos shape the local restaurant world.

Nacheaux, based within the Southeast Portland bar Swan Dive, has served fried-chicken-stuffed “Crunch Wraps” since it opened its cart in March 2020. Chef Anthony Brown rarely keeps his menu stagnant, so many other variations have appeared on his menu, stuffed with crawfish or cheeseburger components. His Crunch Wraps bring him back to growing up in Los Angeles, and late-night Taco Bell runs with friends. “Somebody in the [research and development] department at Taco Bell is a genius,” Brown says. “The things that they do, they speak to the stoner mindset ... Who has better munchies than Taco Bell?”

In Portland, a city known for its cannabis culture and hypebeast dining, that “stoner mindset” goes a long way. This is a city that popularized duck fat gravy-smothered pancakes, fried mozzarella shot glasses full of marinara, and the bacon maple bar. Inexpensive, satisfyingly messy, and easy to access, the drive-thru is a stoner culture trope for a reason, so it’s no surprise that other fast food homages — like Matta’s Filet-O-Fish variant with catfish and a pandan bun — do well here.

Chef Ricky Bella, a Bullard alum who runs the kitchen at Cuban cocktail lounge Palomar, first ate a chef-made Crunchwrap Supreme while working at Bit House Saloon. A cook — “super talented, super stoner bro,” in Bella’s words — made a version with the taco supplies set aside for the bar’s food menu, and Bella was hooked. He’s made his own Crunchwrap Supremes at every restaurant he’s worked since: fried chicken and queso Crunchwraps at Bullard, kalua pig and mac salad Crunchwraps at Ate-Oh-Ate. These days, he’ll hawk “Crunchwrap Cubanos” at the Southeast Portland bar on special.

“The high-brow, low-brow thing has always been something people have done,” Bella says. “The newest iteration seems to be fast food, but as long as I can remember at restaurants, there’s been some version.”

Bella refers to this latest iteration as “meme food,” dishes informed by internet trends and humor. Its evolution can be traced back to the era of Instagram food: Dishes almost designed to be shared and gawked at online, like milkshakes top-heavy with candy or rainbow bagels. “Over-the-top, intensely trend-driven, and visually arresting, Instagram food is almost always something to be obtained, rather than cooked or created,” Amanda Mull wrote in a 2017 Eater story. “It’s elusive and aspirational, something instantly recognizable yet only minimally available.”

In general, however, we’ve seemed to culturally abandon these foods, in favor of better-tasting options. The facade of indulgence has faded as people have become more jaded, both in terms of diners and chefs. The way the pandemic shifted our perspectives on dining — wariness about going out, an increased interest in takeout and delivery, frustrations with the state of the industry — made “attaining” an aesthetics-driven dish less of a goal; instead, people seem to be taking more honest shots of the foods that comfort them. Chefs, on the other hand, have developed their own cynicism, a survivor’s mentality born out of burnout and a Dadaist perspective on the modern restaurant industry.

“I can make some intricate tweezer food dish, and it will get a decent amount of traction online, but I do a Crunchwrap and there’s a line out the door,” Bella says. “A lot of chefs in this industry since the COVID shutdown have taken on a ‘fuck it’ chip on their shoulder. We made it through hell, this industry has been so hard for us for so long; you have to have a sense of humor about it.”

But the Crunchwrap’s stronghold on Portland chefs isn’t just a play on fast food nostalgia and Instagram bait; its structure and format are objectively well-suited to a balanced, fun, creative dish. It’s portable with built-in textural contrast at its center. “When I made the fried chicken and queso cheese Crunchwrap at Bullard, I went on record saying it was the best thing I made in my life,” Bella says. “I think that’s where the humor comes from. It’s only a funny joke if it’s an incredible plate of food.”

Swan Dive

727 SE Grand Avenue, Portland, Oregon Visit Website

Palomar

959 Southeast Division Street, , OR 97214 (971) 357-8020 Visit Website
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