In a different reality, I am heading out for a wild night, and that wild night begins with a visit to Taco Bell Cantina. (Or perhaps ends that way, a staving-off of tomorrow’s potential hangover that patrons have sworn by since time immemorial, or at least the Tex-Mex chain’s founding in 1962.) For the last few years, Taco Bell has been opening supercharged cantina outposts around the country. They feature open kitchens, more stylish decor, additional menu items, and alcoholic beverages. The first one debuted in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in 2015: “Why you will drink at Taco Bell exactly once,” reads a Chicago Tribune headline from that time. The flagship, on the Strip in Las Vegas, has a wedding chapel. The matrimonial package includes a Taco Party Pack, a Cinnabon Delights cake, the use of a bouquet made of sauce packets, and a half-hour ceremony officiated by Flora Pop, who I assumed was Taco Bell’s in-house drag queen priestess but turns out instead to be a mobile pop-up wedding company.
Now there is a Taco Bell Cantina in Brookline, the first in these parts. It opened in November in the heart of BU territory on Comm. Ave. It does not, sadly, have a chapel.
What it does have is the kind of brightly lit interior that makes late-night revelers cringe upon entry, a painful fluorescence. There are wall panels that say “TACO TACO TACO” in graffiti-esque lettering; TVs broadcasting college basketball; a self-order kiosk with a screen, which once might have seemed tech-y but now just feels presciently prudent. Bright red arrows on the ground, a festive murder red, indicate the prescribed path and spacing for customers. There’s a staircase to nowhere; a staffer tells me there will be seating up there … one day. For now, there are “Table Closed” stickers on all of the tables. A mural featuring colorful bells, drinks, and sauce packets exhorts us to “Eat More Tacos!” Twist my proverbial arm.
I don’t love Taco Bell. I don’t hate Taco Bell. I don’t have much true feeling for Taco Bell at all, although I know many do. I think the last time I ate here was on an after-hours outing somewhere in Iowa during college; a friend who had recently returned from a semester in Paraguay ordered a “burrrrito,” his rolled r’s received with confused silence. (According to Taco Bell’s website, founder Glen Bell’s first customers, in Downey, Calif., called the signature menu item “tay-kohs.”)
But I do like refried beans and nacho cheese. And I like frozen margaritas. Also, we are in this reality, and there is no wild night in store. What else have I got going on?
Taco Bell Cantina right now, like campus itself, is relatively deserted. There are a few masked customers waiting for their orders. There are a few staffers doling out the adult beverages, and a few more assembling food in the open kitchen. I can’t decide whether the pop soundtrack makes things feel like more or less of a bummer. The chain’s classic dishes are on the menu, or at least most of them; the restaurant is eternally switching things up in ways that are hard to follow if Taco Bell isn’t your native language. It’s a Zen thing, a lesson in non-attachment.
If Taco Bell were a fancy restaurant, we’d call the chef “relentlessly innovative” or something like that, but it isn’t. Still, we benefit from genius reengineering like the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos, a taco in a Dorito shell. It’s a strange case where two things I love come together as one, and the product of their union just doesn’t do it for me. Most Taco Bell gets soggy fast, but there needs to at least be a safe five-minute window before things devolve. The shell also isn’t quite Dorito-y enough: too thin, not the right flavor. But then the Crunchwrap Supreme steps in. If you’re not familiar, it’s basically a taco wrapped in a flour tortilla and grilled shut, and it is hexagonal. We need more hexagonal food in the world, because it is very satisfying to eat, like a sandwich cut on the diagonal (which is obviously the superior way): so many pointy bites.
I order a Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa from the “new” section of the menu; the thick, bubbly shell has cheese toasted into it and the texture of a basement ceiling tile drying out after a leak. Also under the “new” heading: the Veggie Nachos Party Pack, which seems like it could be a big seller near BU and is one of the rare things on the Taco Bell menu not worth its comparatively high price tag of $9.99. More than any other Taco Bell item, these nachos must be eaten before they cool into rigor mortis, but even so the chips are too flimsy to scoop the wee spheres of guacamole at the edges of the tray. They break every time. They just can’t. They have given up. They can’t! They are all of us at our saddest during COVID times, if we were tortilla chips.
It’s OK. The best thing on the menu remains. Not only that, it’s on the value menu. For $1.59, you can have a Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito, which is exactly what it ought to be: a flour tortilla rolled around beans, seasoned rice, nacho cheese sauce, and creamy jalapeño sauce. Add on onions and red sauce for a bit more complexity. The warm burrito has the soft flop and heft of a sleeping child gently removed from the car and slung unconscious onto the shoulder to be transported inside to a cozy bed. It is so comforting.
One does not come to this Taco Bell Cantina to get drunk, it turns out. We are on a college campus, and only one alcoholic drink will be sold per valid ID. There is draft beer: Sam Adams Seasonal, Harpoon IPA, Modelo, Coors Light, plus wild berry hard seltzer. But the signature item is the Twisted Freeze, basically a boozy slushy. It comes in Mountain Dew Baja Blast, Beach Berry, and the all-important Cantina Margarita, spiked with vodka, rum, or tequila at $6 a pop. I learn about the limits when I try to order one of each. For research purposes! At any rate, it turns out the only flavor available is the Baja Blast, plus a piña colada that is both thematically wrong and not included on the touch-screen menu. They have the new flavors in stock, I’m told. They just need to use up the old ones first. The Baja Blast tastes like lime-ish soda and is the kind of drink beloved by people who don’t like the taste of alcohol. The ice is more coarse than drift-like, its burr and bubbles vaguely stinging the tongue. Only later does it occur to me I could have ordered the other flavor and simply spiked it at home. I’m out of practice being a coed.
Many of the staffers seem to be native Spanish speakers, and I wonder what they think of it, how it feels to work here. Like living in America in general, maybe, a land that is surreal but belongs to us all. As I leave Taco Bell Cantina, I notice there’s also a Chipotle two doors down. About a half-mile away on Comm. Ave., until recently, there was a little place called Taqueria El Barrio. It was run by the people behind Cambridge restaurant BISq. “It’s like your baby. You want to make sure it lives and breathes. You put all your love into it,” chef and co-owner Alex Saenz told me just before it opened last fall. “We’re not made of money. We’re not trying to overdo it. We just wanted to open a place that can be successful and homey, and the people who work there can be proud of it.”
It closed a year later, a casualty of the pandemic. Then it reopened in Fenway’s Time Out Market, which just this week announced its decision to go into hibernation starting Dec. 20.
I think the Taco Bell Cantina concept is a fine one, and the Brookline outpost could be fun … one day. I don’t begrudge it its existence in the least. I can’t help but wonder, though, if I’m looking at the near future of restaurants — one where sweet, independent, locally owned businesses like Taqueria El Barrio, with its array of flavorful salsas handmade with care, simply cannot stay alive and we wind up with a landscape of McDonald’s Bistro and Pizza Hut Enoteca and Starbucks Bar & Grille. It’s a thought too depressing for one tequila-spiked, aqua-hued Baja Blast to handle.
872 Commonwealth Ave., Brookline, 617-906-7204, www.tacobell.com