An Open Letter to Taco Bell Concerning the New "Cantina Tacos"

Aug 3, 2010 at 11:30 am
Dear Taco Bell,

I doubt you remember me. We haven't seen each other in a while. Not since college, I believe, when one of your burritos, plucked from beneath the heat lamp at your outlet inside the University of Maryland's student union and liberally doused with hot sauce, was the only sustenance other than packaged ramen that I could afford.

At any rate, since then I've largely left you alone. My tastes have evolved, and even though as a restaurant critic and food blogger I've made fun of or tried to foment outrage about fast food on any number of occasions, I haven't really picked on you. Frankly, you're too easy a target with your "Fourth Meal" and your "Melty" foods and that annoying little dog. It wouldn't be sporting.

But then, driving home the other day, I heard a commercial for your new "Cantina Tacos." These are tacos in the traditional taqueria style: served on corn tortillas, topped with chopped onion and cilantro, with a lime wedge on the side. I nearly drove off the road, so great was my outrage.

Have you no shame, Taco Bell? Have you no shame?

Look: Serve all the hard-shell tacos, gorditas and chalupas you want. Fill 'em with those scoops of saucy meat pellets you call ground beef. Batter and deep-fry a burrito for all I care. You're not fooling anyone who truly loves authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine -- and, more importantly, you know you're not fooling any of us.

We have a sort of unwritten contract with each other. You won't cross into our territory, and we won't waste our breath shouting from the rooftops that what you serve is a bastardization of a bastardization.

The "Cantina Tacos" violate that contract, and I will not stand for it.

Incontrovertible fact: The taqueria taco is a perfect food. An aficionado will prefer one taqueria to another, or one for tacos al pastor and another for lengua, but the basic formula of corn tortillas + meat + onion and cilantro + salsa + lime cannot be improved.

Thus, by defintion, your "Cantina Tacos" can't improve upon the taqueria taco. That leaves three possibilities:

1) Somehow, you -- the people who gave us the "Crunchwrap Supreme" -- are able to make the best example of the taqueria taco.

2) The "Cantina Tacos" are insipid ripoffs of the taqueria taco.

3) The "Cantina Taco" is an abomination before God.

I know where I'm putting my money.

"But wait!" you -- or your supporters -- cry. "Even if you don't like our 'Cantina Tacos,' you must admit that we will be exposing far more people to the taqueria taco than would ever experience it otherwise!"

No. You are, to be generous, exposing your diners to a pale imitation of a taqueria taco -- diners' choices are steak, chicken and "carnitas" pork -- in the hopes not that they will suddenly awake from their chalupa reveries and discover the joys of chicharrones but that they will return and purchase more of your "Cantina Tacos" in the limited time they are available.

You could at least have had the courage to call them "Taqueria Tacos." Then maybe a curious diner (assuming he or she doesn't already know) would have asked, "What is a taqueria?" and checked the local restaurant listings and embarked a voyage of true taco discovery.

But, as always, when it comes to actual respect for the cuisine you have corrupted, you run far, far away from the border.