When I saw that Taco Bell was going to start offering street-style tacos with their new line of Cantina Tacos, I immediately volunteered to be the test subject â€“ er, reviewer – of this new product. I’m not trying to sound pretentious, but out of all of the esteemed TIB staff, I probably have the most experience in eating authentic Mexican cuisine. You can’t throw a rock in my town without hitting a taquerÃa that looks like it was dropped straight outta Mexico. For you gringos out there who have no idea what a taquerÃa is, it’s basically a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint offering super-authentic food. It may not be air-conditioned, it may look a little dingy, there might be some minor language barriers, but here you can find things like barbacoa (cow head meat) and lengua (cow tongue), offerings that I’m pretty sure you’ll never see on Taco Bell’s menu.
A brief explanation of what a street taco actually is: two small, soft corn tortillas (we’re talking three or four bites, here) wrapped around chopped meat, which is then covered with fresh onions and cilantro. You can also top that with whatever salsa is available, if you like. That’s it. There’s no iceberg lettuce, no nacho cheese sauce, no sour cream. They are called street tacos because traditionally they are sold from carts on the streets of Mexico, like hot dog vendors in New York. They are fast, fresh, and small enough to devour in two minutes, perfect for a hungry pedestrian. Oh, right, and they are also delicious.
According to Taco Bell’s press release, “‘Our Cantina Tacos are based upon authentic-style Mexican street tacos, which are designed using simple, fresh ingredients, that customers regard as high quality,’ said David Ovens, Chief Marketing Officer, Taco Bell Corp., Irvine, Calif.” I’m not sure if the meat I get in a street taco from a taquerÃa would be considered “high-quality,” but it certainly is tasty. I don’t ask questions about where it comes from or what happens in the back alley after closing time. I just stuff the taco in my mouth and walk away.
Taco Bell is offering three different meats in their Cantina tacos: Premium Fire-Grilled Chicken, Premium Cut Carne Asada Steak or Carnitas Shredded Pork. I’ll give “Carne Asada Steak” a pass, but saying “Carnitas Shredded Pork” is basically saying “Shredded Pork Shredded Pork.” Someone alert the Department of Redundancy Department! I guess they are trying to save thousands of Midwestern Taco Bell employees from the task of explaining what carnitas are. I find it mildly insulting, but perhaps that’s my Mexican food snobbery kicking in again.
Let’s check these Cantina Tacos out, and see how many times I can insult the majority of the United States with my pretentiousness in one review.
Impressions on all three: The Cantina Tacos come wrapped in tin foil, which is how street tacos are originally sold. Unfortunately, they don’t come labeled, so you’ll have to check the innards to see which taco you’re about to eat. As you peel back the top layer of foil, there’s a little wedge of lime tucked securely into the bottom layer, which I found to be a clever bit of packaging. This could have been stolen wholesale from Mexican taco carts â€“ I’ve somehow never made it south of the border. But my taquerÃa experience is solid, and they always offer lime wedges at the salsa bar. I’ve just never thought try lime on my tacos. I never thought Taco Bell would teach me to have a more authentic street taco experience. I’m a little embarrassed, actually.
Okay, now let’s break these down separately.
Carnitas Cantina Taco
Taco Bell’s website describes these as “Two freshly grilled, warm corn tortillas, filled with new slow-roasted carnitas shredded pork then topped off with freshly chopped onions and cilantro, and served with a freshly sliced lime wedge for a fresh, citrus burst of flavor.”
I have to say, they aren’t too far off the mark. The pork is surprisingly tender, flavorful, and practically dripping with delicious juices. The onions add a nice crunch, but lack the burst of flavor that fresh onions deliver. The cilantro was present, but doesn’t really pop. I hate Taco Bell for making me sound like a judge on Top Chef.
The two tortillas holding the taco together were okay, but not exactly thrilling. They were soft and pliable, but could have used a little more time on the grill, or griddle, or whatever. Their flavor was that of a decent soft corn tortilla; however, that flavor kind of overwhelmed the flavor of the contents inside. I was left wishing I had about double the amount of filling that was present, especially since the meat was so juicy and tender.
The wedge of lime that came with my carnitas taco was disappointing. They claim that it was “freshly sliced,” which is obviously not the case. I have drank my fair share of tequila with training wheels, and I know that a freshly sliced wedge of lime is shiny and slick with yummy citrus juices. The one that came tucked in this foil pouch had a dried skin over it, indicating that it had either been sitting out for quite a while or was even possibly pre-sliced at a different location. I was only able to get a few sad drips out of it that didn’t really add anything to the taco.
This is something Taco Bell really should have been careful about, because it is one of their big selling points on the Cantina Tacos. Their commercial even has a lime wedge as their spokesfruit, touting the deliciousness of these tacos in a sexy Latino voice that belongs on the male protagonist of a telanovela. If you’re going to put so much emphasis on the lime, you should really make it shine, and the one I got with this taco certainly didn’t.
Chicken Cantina Taco
Once more, from the mouth of Taco Bell: actually, all the descriptions are pretty much the same as the one above, so just replace ” new slow-roasted carnitas shredded pork” with “marinated all-white meat chicken.” Done and done.
This taco had lots more filling than the carnitas, which was good to see. The chicken was very tender, and I could see the coloring from the supposed marination on it, but not a lot of seasoning came through. That’s okay though, because the meat had great texture, and the addition of more onion and cilantro really made them play well with the chicken.
This taco came with a much juicier lime, which allowed me to really get the whole street taco experience. I have to say, you wouldn’t think a little bit of lime would do much, but the tartness of the citrus juice contrasts with the bold flavors of onion and cilantro, and it really makes a whole package that floods your mouth with saliva. Which sounds kind of gross when I put it that way. “It’ll make ya mouth water!” I guess that works better.
The tortillas on my chicken Cantina Taco seemed to be a little better cooked, and because there was so much more filling than on the carnitas, the tortillas were able to take their proper place in the taco, adding more flavor instead of smothering the contents therein.
Steak Cantina Taco
Taco Bell: “marinated steak.” Okay then.
My steak Cantina Taco had lots of meaty bits in it, but the onion and cilantro were practically nonexistent, which made my face turn into a colon and “begin parentheses” sign. The steak was quite good, though. Taco Bell already offers several different products that contain steak, and I’ve always been impressed by the quality of the beef. You’d expect shoe leather from a Mexican fast food joint that sells something called a “Crunchwrap,” but they usually deliver a tasty steak experience, and that doesn’t differ in the case of this taco. The meat has a nice texture and you can definitely taste the marinade here, as opposed to the chicken.
While I was sad about the lack of toppings, I still managed to enjoy this taco because of the steak. I also got a lime that was middlin’ juicy, which added a little extra flavor, but it was probably sad that it didn’t have its friends to play with. Now I want to make a t-shirt design with a cartoon lime wedge, onion and bundle of cilantro all having a party and looking adorable. I’ll submit it to Threadless. It’s sure to be a hit.
Overall, Taco Bell’s Cantina Tacos have their ups and downs, but all in all I’d say they’re a fantastic addition to the fast food giant’s menu. It seems like Taco Bell has been mixing around the same six ingredients to make “new” menu items for years now, so seeing such a stark departure from that is actually exciting. Would they hold up in a cart on the mean streets of Mexico or in a taquerÃa on the mean streets of Arizona? Eh, probably not. There’s a serious inconsistency in the amount of filling and the onion and cilantro are chopped much smaller than I’ve ever seen in a street taco. I’d go so far as to even guess that Taco Bell gets them pre-chopped; they’ve got some flavor, but it seems more muted than what you’d get on a street taco, where the onion is chunky and bursting with flavor, and you can tell the cilantro was fresh and chopped by hand.
But this isn’t about holding up to the standards of a good taquerÃa. This is about a fast food conglomerate dipping its toe into the waters of authentic Mexican food. Many of the people who try these tacos have no idea what a street taco even is, and if you dropped them smack-dab in the middle of our friends to the south, they would probably try to order a Cantina Taco from a street cart. They might even be incensed that the vendor did not ask them which kind of Border sauce they would like with their order. And they would be laughed at, mercilessly.
So when it really comes down to it, I think Taco Bell did the best they could with their Cantina Tacos. Maybe the ingredients aren’t straight-from-the-market fresh, but you’ve got to cut them some slack â€“ they’re a multimillion dollar corporation, not one old dude cooking the food he loves in the back of a hot little shack while his daughter takes orders up front. I think any gringo would find these tacos to be a refreshing change of pace and a new and unique flavor profile that they’ve never experienced. For that, Taco Bell gets great props from this reviewer, who is apparently the snobbiest Mexican food gringo in the world.
And hey, if Cantina Tacos really take off, maybe they’ll start introducing lengua tacos! Take THAT, Iowa! (Sorry, I just had to get one last jab in. I have no beef with you, Iowa.)
(Nutrition Facts â€“ 1 taco (113 grams) â€“ Carnitas â€“ 200 calories, 60 calories from fat, 7 grams total of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 35 milligrams of cholesterol, 260 milligrams of sodium, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 1 gram of sugars, 9 grams of protein. Chicken — 170 calories, 20 calories from fat, 2.5 grams total of fat, 0.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 25 milligrams of cholesterol, 350 milligrams of sodium, 27 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 1 gram of sugars, 11 grams of protein. Steak â€“ 160 calories, 60 calories from fat, 2.5 grams total of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 15 milligrams of cholesterol, 270 milligrams of sodium, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 2 grams of sugars, 9 grams of protein.)
Item: Taco Bell Cantina Tacos (Carnitas, Chicken, Steak)
Price: $2.79 for the CANTINA Tacos Bundle (2 tacos of choice), $1.49 for 1 taco
Size: 1 taco (113 grams)
Purchased at: Taco Bell
Rating: 8 out of 10 (Carnitas)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Chicken)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Steak)
Pros: Total departure from the usual Taco Bell fare. Teaching gringos about street tacos. Tender meat. Learning that lime juice makes a street taco even better. “Spokesfruit.” Cilantro is yummy. Adorable cartoon food.
Cons: Uneven distribution of fillings. Top Chef foodie terminology. Lime wedges were not fresh. Looking like a snob on the Internet. Genetic predisposition that makes some people think cilantro tastes like soap.