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Despite its reputation for cranking out intestine-testing Mexican-inspired fare, Taco Bell is a beloved fast-food destination for munchie seekers nationwide. Case in point: The number of news outlets, from NPR to the Denver Post, that have covered the fast-food chain’s recent announcement that Mexican Pizza will return to its menu on May 19.
While the beloved menu item will give Coloradans another reason to hit drive-thrus at the state’s nearly 160 Taco Bell locations, Mile High City chefs are offering something even better: scratch-made riffs on cult-favorite menu items. Here, we’ve rounded up three places to satisfy your Taco Bell cravings in Denver. No drive-thru lines or antacids required.
While Merlin Vernier hasn’t eaten at the chain for a few years, he understands the grub’s appeal. “People love their [insert expletive] Taco Bell,” says Vernier, chef-owner of four-month-old Street Feud on East Colfax, a fast-casual joint that serves bites inspired by street food from around the world. “I think there is that nostalgia there for people of a certain age.”
That’s why he crafted a variation of the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, a flatbread-wrapped hard corn shell layered with ground beef, refried beans, cheese, lettuce, and spicy ranch—as a birthday treat for former Street Feud sous chef and Taco Bell fan Gaby Syvaniemi. The creation—dubbed 2 Shells, 1 Taco—was so popular with his staff that he decided to add it to Street Feud’s permanent menu. Vernier’s flavor-packed taco is comprised of shredded chicken tinga, which is simmered on the stovetop with aromatics until it is fall-apart tender; silky refried beans infused with huitlacoche, a corn fungus with earthy, licoricelike undertones; house-made spicy ranch and cheese sauces; and sprinkles of pickled onions and cotija cheese. Order the masterpiece with the seven-layer dip and chips and a cajeta-caramel-drizzled apple empanada. 5410 E. Colfax
Hops & Pie
Six years ago, Hops & Pie chef-owner Drew Watson introduced the Krunch Wrap Superior—his take on the Crunch Wrap Supreme—to the Berkely pizzeria’s customers. Since then, it’s been a fan favorite. To make the specialty, Taco Bell packs a giant flour tortilla with seasoned ground beef, nacho cheese sauce, a crunchy tostada, sour cream, lettuce, and tomato before folding everything into a six-sided disc and toasting it to a crisp. At Hops & Pie, Watson stuffs a local flour tortilla with house-made chorizo, which is made from pork marinated and ground in house. Other key components include avocado crema zinged with lime juice and cilantro; fresh pico de gallo; sour cream; cheddar; and a roux-thickened queso spiced with chile de arbol, garlic, onion, cumin, and other seasonings. We recommend pairing your Krunch Wrap with a beverage from Hops & Pie’s new draft cocktail menu such as a blood orange margarita or old fashioned. 3920 Tennyson St.
Blake Edmunds isn’t sure how he feels about Taco Bell as a whole. But the Cheesy Gordita Crunch is everything he wants in an Americanized taco. “It’s got soft and hard taco shells,” says Edmunds, chef and co-owner of Señor Bear and Mister Oso in RiNo. “It’s got melted cheese. That pepper jack sauce is super bright and a little spicy…it’s a super fun, well-rounded taco.”
Mister Oso—which is known for its smoked and roasted meat tacos, salads, ceviches, and crudos—has Edmunds’ interpretation of a Cheesy Gordo Crunch during happy hour (daily 3–6 p.m.). In lieu of ground beef and the usual toppings, Edmunds fills his tacos with chorizo verde cooked with roasted peppers and fresh herbs; lettuce; shredded cheese; and a pickled fresno pepper sauce. They are best devoured with one of the restaurant’s pisco sours or spicy house margs. Bonus: On Cinco de Mayo (May 5) this year, Mister Oso will sell a platter of Taco Bell–inspired dishes, including Edmund’s riffs on the Crunch Wrap Supreme, Mexican Pizza, and Fiesta Potatoes. 3163 Larimer St.