Running for the Cantina With Taco Bell's New Cantina Tacos

When friends and loved ones offer unsolicited praise for something, usually a movie, a dismissing hand is usually a sufficient reaction to get them off my back. This week, however, they sucker-punched my weak spot: tacos. "Did you hear about Taco Bell's new 'street tacos'?" "When the hell are you going to try those Cantina Tacos?" "Hey..."

"Enough," I said. "I get the freakin' message. Back off. Let's go." And away we went, running for a border fraught with landmarks and booby traps with such pithy names as Crunchwrap Supreme, Enchrito and Volcano Taco. As we drove up, I thought, it took a ploy of this magnitude -- and really annoying people -- aimed at taco addicts and mildly adventurous eaters to convince me fork over money to a restaurant I hadn't patronized in 15 years.

It was only a matter of time before Taco Bell got in on the "authentic taco" action at its stores. (Not to mention their taco truck, which will be in Dallas August 12-15.) That it took Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands, so long is surprising, especially in the midst of a lawsuit brought against the chain for the salmonella outbreak traced back to Taco Bell stores in 21 states. There's a word for that: huevos. But there I was at the counter, hopefully not set to be the first salmonella case in Texas. "One of each of the Cantina Tacos, please."

The limited-time promotion tacos come in three flavors: chicken, steak and carnitas. The two former options aren't special -- nor a stretch -- for Taco Bell. It's difficult to imagine some R&D monkey really earned his paycheck the day he came up with those. "And we'll wrap them in two corn tortillas!" Genius. The carnitas, however, now, that's fascinating, almost as fascinating in the way KFC's Double Down is fascinating.

The price of the tacos ($1.49 each) was what initially attracted me, kick-starting my appetite. The low price ostensibly means Taco Bell can compete with your hole-in-the-wall taquerias. Unfortunately, the tacos weren't as appealing in taste as they were in cost.

I couldn't get passed past the spongy (thought pleasantly sweet) tortillas that could have been a mega-mart's private label brand. This was especially true of the chicken taco, in which the meat was only a textural component. The tortilla, cilantro, green-tinged minced onion and spritz from the accompanying lime wedge overpowered the chicken. What was exciting about the steak was that it was really steak. And tasted like steak! It wasn't reconstituted beef or the ground stuff commonly called "taco meat" made to look like sliced steak. The carnitas taco was well seasoned, but fell short of my misplaced expectations.

"What did you expect?" said my food-borne illness-risking companion. It could've at least looked like carnitas. What I got was two food processor pulses short of lightly sautéed ground pork. The peach-hued grease that dribbled down my fingers and onto the plate formed an archipelago of liquid fat that gave the carnitas its mild umph. It was that chain of tiny islands where I wanted to ban all those who hounded me into walking into Taco Bell.

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José Ralat Maldonado

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