It seemed appropriate to anonymously visit Taco Cabana (TC) for a couple of reasons. First, I am going to start a Sherman’s March through Dallas taquerias and a common local chain could maybe provide us with a ‘reference taco’ around which others could be judged. Second, TC has just started promoting a new line of street tacos. More on them in a moment. But first, a bit of background.
Jump for taco report.Taco Cabana is a chain of about 150 restaurants located in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Headquarters is in San Antonio, although they are owned by Carrols Restaurant Group in Syracuse, NY. To use their words: “We chop the cilantro, hand-roll the flautas, stir the beans, grill the fajitas, dice the onions, roast the peppers … We make our food fresh, preparing and serving it with care.” To you and I they appear to compete head on with Taco Bueno, Taco Bell, Taco Diner, and others in the competitive budget/casual dining end of the category. Every location (except some campus operations and one mall location) has a patio.
We visited the branch at Central and Spring Creek . The chain is in the process of a major facilities upgrade, and this branch already represents the new look. Advertised changes include warm décor, food delivery to the table, and a short dessert menu (tres leches cake, sopapillas, and chocolate Cake).
At 4pm on Saturday it was about three quarters full with families and couples. You place your order at a counter, above which is displayed the menu, some items with pictures. Like most of these menu boards, the layout is designed to emphasize the new items. At the moment, that is a “Build Your Own Cabana Bowl” (not tried) and the Street Tacos. it’s serve-yourself drinks, but food orders are delivered to your table. The tables and chairs are of the hard-surfaced, sit-don’t-dwell variety popular in fast-food eateries. All of the furniture is painted in bright primary colors.
While waiting, you can visit the salsa bar where there is a selection of seven salsas. The salsa varieties are carefully chosen: the rojo tastes of its components – tomato and cilantro. The ranch is like ranch salad dressing with chipotle smokiness. The fuego is a smoky mix of tomatoes, jalopeno chilies and cilantro (my favorite, and the subject of some Internet discussion as to its recipe). The green salsa was the highest on the Scoville Scale, but nothing to faze the average Plano resident. In fact, the whole Taco Cabana menu is family friendly. It excludes such exotics as cabeza (head) or lengua (tongue) found in the street food tacos in other countries.
Street Tacos, in the TC idiom, are skirt steak rather then the ground beef of the standard taco incarnation ($4.79 for 2, with rice, beans, and 2 additional tortillas). They come in a corn, rather than flour, tortilla and are coated with onions and cilantro. The meal of three street tacos with rice and beans is $6.49. And, they are rather good. The seasoning is correct, the meat tasty and moist, and the onions and cilantro add piquancy and seasoning. You can add additional sides if you wish. We added 3oz of guacamole for 99c and thought it technically correct, but rather too expensive given the current market price of avocados. Dos Equis was $3.25 a bottle. Not out of line. We found the tacos with pinto beans and rice (we left the rice) filled the two of us. So overall, TC did a good job of establishing what a taco has to be.
Check out the street tacos and memorize the taste. Over the next few months we are going to compare countless tacos from corporate megaliths down to family-owned taquerias with this street taco in an effort to get a feel for what is good, and what is not.
For now, I am more impressed than I thought I would be with TC. As Arnold said on leaving his favorite taco joint, “I’ll be back.”