REVIEW: Taco Bell Cantina Tacos (Carnitas, Chicken and Steak)

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 – 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 taquería that looks like it was dropped straight outta Mexico. For you gringos out there who have no idea what a taquería 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 taquería 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 – I’ve somehow never made it south of the border. But my taquería 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 taquería 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 taquería. 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 – 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 – 1 taco (113 grams) – Carnitas – 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 – 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.)

Other Cantina Taco reviews:
We Rate Stuff
Grub Grade
Would I Buy It Again
You Care What We Think
Geekweek (video)

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.

29 thoughts to “REVIEW: Taco Bell Cantina Tacos (Carnitas, Chicken and Steak)”

  1. When I first heard about this new offering from TB I was very leery as to whether the tacos would be half way decent. Have to admit I was not very hopeful but after your review I am going to give them a try.

  2. I believe you officially hold the record for TIB’s longest review. Congratulations!

    I’ll probably end up trying these, if our Taco Bell locations get them. I’d really like Taco Bell create a Chipotle-sized burrito. Or even better, I’d really like a Chipotle to open here on this rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

    1. Aw, don’t be such a baby. Hey your McDonald’s sells Spam! Do you KNOW what I would do for such a thing. Well…nothing really. But thanks for the congrats, I’ll make it a personal goal in the future to break my own record.

  3. I think these should be marketed for the northerns in America who don’t get a chance to visit a taquería. Which makes me miss when i lived in Texas because I could get some of the best Mexican food.

  4. Thanks for reviewing these because I saw the commercial and I am such a taco whore I knew I was going to have to try them. Guess I know what I will be having for dinner tonight. Now, off to the store for my Corona beer!

  5. I got to an authentic Taqueria up here in Jersey… yes they exist because we have a large immigrant community. I always preferred the Tacos “mexicanos” as they called them over the americanized versions with flour tortillas. I tried the Cantina tacos at Gringo Bell and did enjoy them, of course I prefered the meats and veggies from the real taqueria, but the Cantina tacos are an okay substitute if you don’t have a taqueria nearby.

  6. The very first UK Taco Bell has opened in the UK!!! Sadly it is still really far from where I live – BUT the uk website promises more branches opening soon! Can’t wait!

  7. Tried these earlier this week. I must say that you have a higher opinion of the meat in the tacos than I do. I found it fairly tasteless. Of course, there’s no way that a fast food joint is going to have meat as rich and seasoned as the meat you get in a taquería.

    And, yeah… I’m pretty sure the “onion cilantro” mix is brought in pre-made, no way is that stuff fresh. Also, the ones I got barely had any on them.

    From reviews that I’ve seen it seems like The Bell is pretty inconsistant on how much of the meat/onion cilantro mix to put on these things anyway. I imagine it’s just inexperience in making a taco that isn’t just packed to the gills with melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, rice and all that other gloop they usually pile in there.

    The other biggest diff between these and a street taco? The tortillas. At The Bell, they run them quickly though a tortilla warmer thingy, that basically does little more than steam them. A real taquería? They throw them on the griddle with a lil’ oil and fry them just a little. That bit’o grease is what makes all the difference.

    To me, the most amusing thing about their press release? The line about their ingredients “that customers regard as high quality”. Now, I’ve known people that ate at Taco Bell a couple of times a week, and loved it, and even THEY wouldn’t refer to it as “high quality”….. A god-send when you’re drunk or stoned? Maybe, “high quality”? Not so much.

    Anyway, I can’t see myself making Taco Bell a destination and to order these ever again. But then again, I live in Texas. I can find real taquerías or taco-wagons pretty much any time I want, and score lengua or barbacoa tacos for a buck each. If I live in, say… Maine? or North Dakota? …these would probably seem more delightful… Also, like our reviewer, I’m impressed to see Taco Bell (finally) add a new meat to their menu after… what? 50 years or something?

    I’d still rate these at the low end of mediocre. However, having said all that, if I, for some reason, ended up at a Taco Bell, this is probably what I would order.

    1. Well, Mr. Hominygrits, I know that you have easy access to taquerías, as I do, so I can see why you would be so harsh on the Cantina Tacos. I gave them a high score because I think Taco Bell did the best they could in making their own version of street tacos. I may never order Cantina Tacos again, because I can go next door and get the “real thing”, but I think if you look at it as TB bringing street tacos to people who otherwise would have never experienced such a flavor, they succeeded, if only in approximation.

  8. Had the carnitas and chicken tacos for dinner tonight (from TB Moanalua Marvo). I agree with your review. Were they great? No. Were they good? Yes.

  9. street tacos are for the most part trash they might be tasty at times but they are far from anything that great so the bar IMO is not set very high. and i like a good dive as much as the next guy but come on 99.9% of taco trucks and a large percentage of mexican restaurants are about as filthy as you can get.

    1. Hey, they don’t call them Roach Coaches for nothing! And while I’ve never actually eaten from one, I would gladly order a taco if I was hungry and one happened to be parked nearby. You claim to like a good dive, and yet contradict that statement in the very same sentence.

      I don’t require my eating places to be pristine – just delicious.

  10. I had the steak and the carnitas ones last night. They don’t give much of the carnitas meat at my ‘bell’ either. But, like you, my experience with the meat was a great one! The same, however, holds true unfortunately, for the shell. It left something to be desired. There was no saltiness or something. I had to add some salt to make it palatable.

    My steak one was heaven! Especially since the limes were so fresh!

    Salt n lime! yay!

    I might order them again. MIGHT. 1.69 is a bit much, seeing as how i can get a medium drink, doritos and a frikkin double beef burrito for 31 cents more.

  11. Hopefully, these tacos will not steal the customers of the independent businesses who work HARD to satisfy.

    1. While I wholeheartedly agree with you, I don’t think that will ever be the case. Anyone who frequents a mom and pop Mexican place isn’t going to become a faithful Taco Bell fan after eating these. Like myself, they may try them, just to see how they stack up, but if they have any palate at all they’ll go right back to their local favorite.

      As a matter of fact, the opposite may hold true – after tasting the Cantina Tacos, people who have never been to an authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint may find the courage to go into one and see what it’s all about.

      1. I hope so, but it’s possible people would just pick taco bell over REAL food joints, just because of the price.

        I hate fast food organizations haha.

  12. I tried the steak version and was really pretty impressed. Of course they aren’t as good as a mom & pop taquería, but these really are the closest to authentic as Taco Bell has ever gotten, and they should get props for that.
    I got the three taco combo with a drink for about $6 and was thoroughly satisfied.

  13. Seems like everyone in the blogosphere has tried these, but probably wouldn’t buy them more than once. I agree with you that they did the best they could, but the price for the portion sucks.

  14. I just had an order of the pork street taco’s in a Taco Time in Idaho. I ordered them before reading the reviews and was supreised at how negative the reviews were. I quite enjoyed them. There was substantial meat onions and cilantro to stuff all 4 of the small tortillas. The lime was fresh and had a lot of juice so if I had to rate my local Taco Time on their street taco’s. I would give it a 9 out of 10.

  15. I finally tried these a few days ago. I must have gotten the worst possible version of these tacos. I ordered two pork and one steak. The pork was so dried out it was like eating out of the recycling bin next to the paper shredder at work. The tortillas were also dry and reminded me of uncooked Frito dough. The steak version wasn’t so bad. The meat, cilantro and onion mix was good. Really, it was the tortilla that ruined it for me. None of my tacos came with lime. Seriously fucking lame. This is the first time I have ever been repulsed by food I’ve ordered at The Bell. That says alot. I still order the chili cheese burritos on a regular basis.

    1. That blows. The disparity between one person’s fast food experience and another’s is what makes reviewing fast food products rough. Also, damn you, I’ve been missing the Chilito for like, two decades!

      1. They truely are the bee’s knees. Aren’t they at every location? I thought they were the meaty equivalent of a bean burrito. I’ll have to keep that in mind if I ever leave the confines of southwest Ohio. Wait…I take that back. I’ve had them in West Virginia and Pittsburg. Maybe it’s an east of the Mighty Muddy thing.

          1. That’s funny, a friend of mine who lived in Cleveland (which is obviously not in southwest Ohio – which I had to look up – geography fail) used to taunt me with his ability to order a Chilito. When I lived in SoCal I used to get them, and then they just disappeared. I’ve tried ordering one from every Taco Bell I’ve visited, and everybody acts like I’m from a different planet. I have only the Meximelt to console myself.

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