‘Cantina’ vs Taqueria: The Taco Bell Challenge

We can’t count the number of people who have asked us about Taco Bell’s new ‘street’ tacos.  While admittedly curious, our first instinct was to shrug it off – I mean, how much competition could they really give the real taco slingers? – but the frequency of the question wore us down, so… what the heck, let’s at least give it a google.

On our first click, we found this:

“Our Cantina Tacos are based upon authentic-style Mexican street tacos, which are designed using simple, fresh ingredients, that customers regard as high quality.”

-David Ovens, Chief Marketing Officer, Taco Bell Corp., Irvine, Calif.

Now that right there is some serious smack talk (“Mexican street tacos”, “simple, fresh”) mixed up with some world-class bet hedging (“authentic-style,” and “that customers regard as high quality”).  Furthermore, the news release that the above snippet came from also made hay out of Taco Bell’s new ‘carnitas’ offering. Whoa… carnitas? At Taco Bell?  They’re sure seem to be grasping for authentic Mexican street (food) cred… and, no two ways about it, that’s taco truck territory.

Ah, screw it, we’ve got to check this out.

It just so happens that one of our go-to trucks, Taco Nazo, is located directly across from a Taco Bell.  As Taco Bell only offers steak, chicken, and carnitas (while Taco Nazo offers 10 different meat options) we ordered one taco with each of Taco Bell’s meat options from both locations.

Jim hit the Taco Bell drive-thru while the rest of us ordered at Nazo.  About 15 minutes after we received our Nazo tacos, Jim arrived in the Nazo lot with a sack in hand.  We hadn’t really given any thought to ‘speed of service’ as being much of a differentiator, but it must be noted that from a fast food perspective, the Bell wasn’t particularly fast… against expectations, Nazo clearly won on efficiency.

Upon our initial visual inspection of Jim’s haul, though, the Cantina contingent seemed to be reasserting itself. They definitely had all of the authentic Mexican taco elements with their 2 soft corn tortillas, meat, onions, cilantro, and a lime wedge.  I couldn’t have imagined that Taco Bell would feel obligated to be so bound by tradition… we were beginning to feel just a bit uneasy about things.

The next impression was of the striking size difference between the two.  The Cantina tacos were huge – probably half again the size of Nazo’s, yet they were even with Nazo in price (actually a cent less). Hmmmm… there’s that sinking feeling again.

Nazo swung it back around a bit with their overall presentation, though – the three tacos looked particularly nice on the plate with the bright green cilantro jazzing things up, and the cucumbers and grilled pepper were both appealing and conspicuously missing from the Cantina array. Hard to fault the Bell too much for that, though – perhaps if we were having the Cantina tacos in the Taco Bell dining room, it’d be fairer?

But enough with the window dressing, time to dig in!

Steak Tacos:

Appearance – No contest here, Nazo nails this. The Cantina steak consists of slightly pale and disturbingly uniform rectangular beef chunks, while the competitor’s steak looks like… diced steak. The Taco Nazo onions and cilantro were obviously stored separately, put on the taco separately, and as a result looked extremely fresh while the Cantina toppings looked like they had been mixed together hours prior to use. Their nod to cilantro consisted of small flecks of dull dark green that clung to the diced onion bits.

Taste – Nazo takes it again – theirs actually tasted like steak, and good beefy steak at that. The cantina ‘beef nuggets’, as Jim astutely noted, tasted like they were fished out of a Campbell’s soup can. The Cantina tortillas seemed steamed rather than grilled ‘a la plancha’, and were significantly chewier and tougher as a result. There was no cilantro flavor to be found in the Cantina taco.

Chicken Tacos:

Appearance – This match was much closer than the last.  Nazo’s chicken bits were about the size of pea gravel, and showed obvious char from grilling, while the Bell chicken was cut into larger strips, and had an yellow-orange-ish tint from the seasoning. Neither were particularly appealing or unappealing, though the cantina taco still suffered from the pallid onion-cilantro mix.

Taste – Nazo takes it by our show of hands, though well-meaning people might legitimately disagree on this one.  The rub here is that Nazo’s chicken tasted of grilled poultry – which is good – but the Taco Bell seasoning was quite pleasant as well (though one found it to be overpowering).  The texture of both poultry renditions was well within acceptable range. The Cantina chicken tacos still suffered from the same tortilla and topping issues as found in the steak tacos.

Carnitas Tacos:

Appearance – I still haven’t recovered from the sight of Taco Bell’s carnitas, and have to wonder if it ever, at any point in its processing, even vaguely resembled pork. It didn’t so much sit in the tortilla as stick to it, and looked like the answer to a question nobody (should’ve) asked, like, “What would meat stucco be like?”, or “how do we make this tortilla look like it was used as a diaper?”   Even more disturbingly, the adobe-hued grease stained the onions and further darkened the cilantro.

Taste – On the Taco Bell side of things, flavor matched appearance. There was some mention of it tasting like Bac-Os, but that didn’t seem to quite capture the full scope of the catastrophe.  And, really, why try? All you need to know is that it was just awful. If there’s any justice in this world, the food scientist that helped to bring this crime against humanity (and pig) to market should be peering over the edge of a very tall building and contemplating the worst.  And, should the worst come to pass, honesty compels me to admit that I’d eat the results of it before ever considering putting any more of Taco Bell’s ‘carnitas’ in my mouth.


So, Taco Nazo takes it, right?  Well, sure, but that’s not quite the full story – truth be told, we’ve been putting our thumb on the scales in Taco Bell’s favor all along. As all but the most casual of taco truck touristas know, it’s not a taco without salsa, and Taco Bell’s comedy hour cayenne catsup packets were so inferior to Nazo’s fresh salsa that it wasn’t even funny.

In conclusion – if you want a good taco, go to a good taco truck.  If you want a bad taco, go to a bad taco truck.  If there’s no taco truck around, go to Chipotle.


Filed under Taco Smackdown

15 responses to “‘Cantina’ vs Taqueria: The Taco Bell Challenge

  1. Hannah

    I loved this.

  2. Elizabeth Lessner

    You guys think of everything! Great review.

  3. Mike Beaumont

    Hahaha. This was great. Best part: “If there’s any justice in this world, the food scientist that helped to bring this crime against humanity (and pig) to market should be peering over the edge of a very tall building and contemplating the worst. And, should the worst come to pass, honesty compels me to admit that I’d eat the results of it before ever considering putting any more of Taco Bell’s ‘carnitas’ in my mouth.”

    😀 😀

  4. Lisa

    I tried the Cantina tacos the other day “just to see”.. It was a nice effort, but I wouldn’t trade street tacos for Taco Bell ever again.

  5. Ashley

    I won’t ever stray from the trucks, however, that being said, it’s important to point out that the trucks aren’t open until 4AM. We only found out about these Cantina taco’s when a friend went on a late night food run during an impromptu house party and I have to say, the house full of truck enthusiasts were rather excited by the discovery. Still no substitution but still a better alternative for the “Fourth Meal.” Gluttony… my favorite sin of all.

  6. terra

    Slashfood reviewed the cantina tacos the other day and (I don’t have a link) came to the same conclusion – chicken is pretty tasty, the others not so much and the carnitas resembled cat food.

    But if Taco Nazo is faster than Taco Bell drive-thru, I see no need to ever try myself.

  7. One disclaimer. Taco Bell does get one presentation point. They fold the tacos nicely in an aluminum foil wrapper and fold in such a way that the lime slice is separated from the taco. In the case of the carnitas that is a big deal since it ensured one part of the order will be edible. I was in the Taco Bell line forever, but it was 7 cars deep at 9:55 pm at night, they might have tied with Taco Nazo any time earlier in the evening. As for late night tacos – Los Gauchos is worth the drive for a late night al pastor craving.


    The beef reminded me of Campbells vegetable beef soup beef but longer in length and less favorful. The chicken reminded me of rubber. The Carnitas reminded me that it may not be a bad thing to be vegetarian.

  8. This is freakin’ awesome.

  9. Nice work, guys. I have to admit that I do get Taco Bell cravings once every few months and usually indulge myself in their greasy awfulness when Anne’s not around, as she’s not a fan… so I can appreciate what appears to be a pretty fair review of their offerings. I might try out their chicken edition next time I’m by there, but it sound like none of it is as good as the Nazo offerings.

    Hopefully someday we’ll get some Taco Trucks closer on the Near East Side. As Ashely pointed, Taco Bell is more accessible in the late night hours, and they’re also in more locations than my favorite Taco Trucks, which is unfortunate for those of us who don’t like to drive across town for lunch. 😉

  10. lleian

    We just tried the chicken and carnitas tacos from Taco Bell on Friday. just plain AWFUL. no contest.

  11. Update: See Walker’s Comment from before.

    Total number of Open Taco Trucks in Columbus 40
    Total Taco Bells – under 25


  12. Nicole

    I tried the chicken cantina tacos out of pure curiosity. EWwwwwwwWWWW! It just made me sad to live in Delaware where there are no taco trucks close to wash the taste of rubber chicken product out of my mouth. I will be dining the carts this weekend in an effort to erase the horrid memory from my tastebuds.

  13. Pingback: Taco Truck Chronicles: Deliciosos Tacos | Local Nomad

  14. Ya

    Yes Taco trucks are better but you have to always leave Taco Bell open for Nachos and the CHALUPA…..Taco Bell’s best invention!

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