(Editor's Note: This is our second warning-related post of the day. I didn't intend for this to be a trend but couldn't think of any other way to alert readers to the potential mental harm posed by these items. You've been warned.)
It should be very obvious to anybody who reads The Hungover Gourmet with any regularity that I love food. Love cooking it, reading about it, watching it made and, naturally, eating it. And while there's nothing quite like an exquisite meal prepared by talented cooks in a restaurant I love, there's also nothing wrong with the cheap eats one might find at a hole-in-the-wall.
Several years ago my wife and I were in Cabo San Lucas for a friend's wedding. Few trips I've ever been on have matched it as far as food goes... the freshest sushi, eye-opening Mexican meals, delicious breakfast burritos consumed day after day at a small, marina-side restaurant.
But, years later, the meal I remember most fondly was on the dusty backstreets of Cabo, away from the tourist shops and urchins begging for change in the shadow of yachts with heli-pads. Almost literally a hole-in-the-wall, the sleepy restaurant featured a staff that spoke no English, a closet-like bathroom across the courtyard, and an open-air sink that must have been a sight when the bar was packed with locals and adventurous gringos.
This was probably the closest thing to real "street tacos" I've ever had and I can close my eyes and remember the grilled, butter-tender carne asada and chopped carnitas bathed in a spicy red sauce that arrived at our table, complete with shredded cabbage, warm corn tortillas and diced red onion.
It was those memories of happier times and far superior food that I drew upon as I sat in the local Taco Bell eating a trio of their new Cantina Tacos that can best be summed up by one word...
I'm not exactly sure how they succeeded in making steak, chicken and pork almost completely flavorless. I'm more concerned with why they would do this. Granted, I know that nobody is rushing to their local Bell thinking they're going to catch a blast of authentic Tijuana street cuisine, but if you're not even going to try and make it taste good why bother?
Actually, that's not fair. It's not that the depressing handfuls didn't taste "good", they simply didn't, well, "taste". Say what you want about misguided ideas like the McDonald's Philly Cheesesteak but it tasted like something. Maybe that something was gristle, greasy onions and cheeseishness but at least it had taste. These flacid failures – aside from the pork, which I'll get to in a minute – have no taste aside from whatever the consumer adds to them.
Not exactly overwhelmed by early reviews I'd read, I decided to hedge my bets and add some Nachos Bell Grande to my order. And, in a really idiotic move that ranks with my worst culinary decisions ever, I opted to pass on regular Mountain Dew and go for the Mountain Dew Baja Blast. I'm not sure why something promising a delicious blast of lime was a strangely tropical blue, I must admit that it did satisfy one nagging curiosity – it tastes exactly like what I've imagined you'd get from mixing Windex with Cool Mint Listerine. Same color, too. I just wonder if it'll fight gingivitis and/or leave me with a streak-free shine.
My Cantina Tacos arrived in individual foil wrappers featuring Taco Bell's half-assed attempt at letting me know what to expect. One was labeled "Chicken", another featured the words "Special" and the third had no label at all, making me recall the "some kind of meat" joke from MEATBALLS.
A quick unveil revealed the "mystery" taco as steak and a translucent diced substance I'm assuming was onion. On the plus side, a fresh-looking, juicy lime quarter was wrapped with each taco, which I'd soon realize was going to provide the one flavor profile I was going to enjoy. As an added bonus even the cilantro had been cured of its trademark "flavor".
The chicken taco featured the same bland nothingness, a blank canvas of flavor if ever I'd tasted one. Really put the chef-testants on TOP CHEF or HELL'S KITCHEN under the gun next season and make them identify what this stuff is supposed to be!
Only the pork, shredded within an inch of its life and swimming in a sauce I was quick to glance away from, had any flavor. Unfortunately, that flavor was quickly summarised in my notes as "something slightly funky" – not foul, but not good and certainly not helped by a quick sip of Baja Blast.
As I sat staring out the window, eating my less-than-grande nachos and wondering why I didn't order a Mexican Pizza I had to lament how my Week of Eating Dan-gerously was progressing. The week began with such promise as I downed jury duty sushi followed by a food truck hamburger and some excellent pit beef (more on those later). Luckily, with big brother JT headed into town the days ahead held both the promise of some local seafood and maybe even a cheesesteak from my old stomping grounds.
Depressing as they may have been, I'm determined not to let Taco Bell's Cantina Tacos get the best of me.