In the last few years, the taco has become a mad scientist's laboratory. Many well-intentioned Vincent Prices -- whether from south of the border or homegrown -- have sought to elevate the taco, fusing it with disparate parts. Their experiments are to be commended; the masses that have dipped into their Kool-Aid, however, should be pitied. Those who have succeeded in this alchemy now produce some of the best versions of the taco by keeping it honest. Tacodeli in Austin and El Tizoncito in Dallas are two such examples. They realize that to move forward, one must look backward.
Taco Cabana, the San Antonio-based purveyor of many Tex-Mex comestibles, is attempting such a Janus act with its limited-time promotion: street tacos. Officially available on National Taco Day (Monday, October 4) through December, I had the opportunity to taste them early. And egad! Them street tacos ain't that bad.
Before continuing with this review, it should be noted that Taco Cabana is offering another National Taco Day promotion: free Kiolbassa-brand smoked sausage (that's right, Polish style) and egg breakfast tacos to dine-in customers from 7-9 a.m.
According to Todd Coerver, chief marketing officer at Taco Cabana, the genesis of the new tacos is in a trip he and some Taco Cabana kitchen staff took to Guadalajara, Mexico, an exploratory trip led by Johnny Hernandez, chef-proprietor of La Gloria Ice House in the shadow of the Culinary Institute of America's San Antonio branch. "What we took away from our visits to street-side stands and restaurants was the popularity of the steak taco trio," said Coerver via telephone. That is exactly the chain's new menu item, one order of three steak tacos. Unlike Taco Bell's piss-poor foray into street tacos, Taco Cabana doesn't skimp on the meat, though both could have used more cilantro and onions. Thankfully, the latter chain has a condiment buffet that includes cilantro and onions. The salsa roja from the buffet, overly sweet with a delayed hit of jalapeño, unfortunately detracted from the meat's flavor, pleasant enough but inconsistent. Some bites were briny. Some bites were beautiful. Yes, beautiful, worthy of recommendation.
A spritz of lime juice brightened the steak, and the tortillas didn't disintegrate in my mitts. That's due to the slightly rubbery texture of the corn tortillas, which aren't made in-house like the flour tortillas are. However, Coerver told me that if this new menu item performs well, other renditions are to be rolled out. I'm placing my vote for pork. I'm curious to see how Taco Cabana will approach tacos al pastor.
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Those of you curious enough to bestow the benefit of the doubt, I suggest trying the new street tacos. Purists, I was like you once. When I first ate at Tacodeli, I scoffed, declaring the tacos there nothing but fancy Anglo-hipster grub. But, with an open mouth must come an open mind.