Yountville, California, is home to The French Laundry, the Thomas Keller establishment many consider one of the very best restaurants in the nation. But just 200 feet down the road, in the gravel parking lot of a particularly divey bar, there's a taco truck—serving the best tacos I've ever had. Whatever meat you choose is cradled in a double-wrap of corn tortillas, with diced onions, cilantro, and lime: cheap, simple, perfect. The taco ideal.
So when I heard about Taco Bell's limited-time offer of Cantina Tacos, in classic taqueria style, I was intrigued. The promotional photos looked nearly identical to those I devoured at the stand in Yountville—still, to this day, my favorite tacos.
I was a huge Taco Bell fan as a kid (three soft tacos, no cheese, no lettuce, with two orders of cinnamon twists) but have since lost my taste for the flour-tortilla tacos filled with meat paste. Frankly, I didn't expect much from their new offerings.
But with the "Cantina Tacos," you've got a choice of three different types of meat (beef, chicken, or pork carnitas), with diced onion and cilantro on two corn tortillas. They add a slice of lime in the tin foil, just in case—separated from the tacos, so the tortillas don't get mushy. And you can mix and match the meats, which is cool—unlike places like Boston Market, where you have to buy three of one type of slider.
First up was the beef (160 calories). I opened the taco up, expecting to find the typical meat paste—but to my surprise, it had strips of real beef. They weren't exactly juicy, and the beef wasn't of a particularly high quality, but it was significantly better than the regular ground beef. It was just slightly spiced, with what tasted like generic fajita spice powder. The cilantro added more flavor, and the onions added bite and texture, but didn't overpower the total package.
The chicken wasn't bad, either (170 calories). As with the beef, the cilantro and onions were well balanced, though the chicken was a hint dry—like something that had been reheated from the night before. It did have a spicy chili powder on it, which gave it a good kick. Overall, not bad. Last was the carnitas (200 calories). I had been looking forward to this the most, and it didn't disappoint. The pork was wet and greasy, and tasted a hint smokey; juice oozed out the end of the taco into the aluminum foil wrapper as I scarfed it down.
These Cantina Tacos blow the old tacos out of the water. There's no comparison. And I'm not the only one. The folks over at Serious Eats were so intrigued, they tried them as well, and were pretty impressed. [Ed. note: This is correct.] I almost got the impression that I was back at a taco stand. After finishing the first set of three, I got in the drive-thru line and had three more.
While the meat at somewhere like Chipotle is still better, Taco Bell's Cantina Tacos come at a much lower price ($1.49 per taco)—you can go through twice, like I did, and not break the bank. And no question, it's a huge step above Taco Bell's usual offerings. I'd like to think this could be a trend: fast-food restaurants offering higher-quality products.