In 1972, English author Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cuisine, penned a Mexican cookbook in which she described Texas’s Mexican food as “inauthentic,” coining the term Tex-Mex. As Meghan McCarron of Eater, explained “The standard narrative about Tex-Mex is that it’s an inauthentic, unartful, cheese-covered fusion, the kind of eating meant to be paired with unhealthy amounts of alcohol or to cure the effects thereof. There’s a lot of easy-melt cheese, the margaritas are made with a mix, and the salsas come from a bottle.”
According to Serious Eats, Tex-Mex cuisine “ is rooted in the state’s Tejano culture (Texans of Spanish or Mexican heritage who lived in Texas before it became a republic) and also Mexican immigrants who hailed largely from Northern Mexico.” This heritage gets the credit for the popularity of smoky cumin in Tex-Mex cooking. As far as Tex-Mex’s other historically popular elements go, items like ground beef, sour cream, and processed cheese like Velveeta derive from mid-century American tastes. Northern Mexican influences with an Americana-based twist yielded Tex-Mex staples like cheese enchiladas, fajita platters, and Texan queso, which can still be found in every nook and cranny of the Lone Star State and in restaurants all over the country.”
James Beard award-winning author Rick Bayless believes there are seven distinct culinary regions of Mexico, not including the Southwestern United States, which he contends “you could even break that down further into the cuisines of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and even the ranchos of California.”
Few, including founder Felix Stehling, would have envisioned that the humble San Antonio taco stand he launched in 1978 would eventually expand to more than 130 restaurants throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and a few other states or that it would serve over 46 million guests in a year. In a scant few years, the self-proclaimed “original Mexican patio cafe” has become a popular and powerhouse alternative to Mexican fast-food industry leader Taco Bell and restaurants of that ilk.
Today Albuquerque has three Taco Cabana restaurants, all thriving. Much of the attraction is the generous portions of relatively inexpensive and mostly familiar Mexican food served in a colorful, lively environment. An extensive offering of “cooked to order” Mexican fare includes nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and rotisserie chicken. In the respect that meals don’t languish under a heat lamp, it’s more of a full-service restaurant than Taco Bell and is infinitesimally better, too. While the Duke City has much better Mexican restaurants, Taco Cabana provides a faster alternative.
For us, the draw to Taco Cabana (especially on balmy summer days) has always been the aguas frescas (literally translated as fresh waters) in watermelon and cantaloupe flavors as well as the traditional Mexican rice beverage, horchata. Unfailingly fresh, they can slake the most stubborn of thirsts. Alas, their availability is subject to the whims and pratfalls of distributors who may not always be as reliable as thirsty patrons would like. True to its Texas roots, Taco Cabana also serves a red cream soda, albeit one made by Barq’s.
Our first dining experience in a New Mexico Taco Cabana didn’t take place until more than nine years had elapsed since we returned to the Land of Enchantment. From past experiences in Texas, we wanted to avoid the Tex-Mex stylings of Cabana’s cuisine, so we both ordered the grilled chicken which was marinated in a blend of citrus juices, herbs and seasonings then grilled over an open flame. It was certainly better than the loathsome rotisserie chicken sold in so many local grocery stores (you know, the hummingbird sized chicken with a leathery coating).
In June, 2006, we made a U-turn when we noticed that Taco Cabana was offering grilled pupusas, the thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients (El Salvador’s national snack). Alas, Taco Cabana’s version bear little resemblance to the pupusas you’d find at any self-respecting Salvadoran restaurant. The corn tortillas are much thinner with a gritty corn masa texture and resemble thick tacos. The “grilled” part turned out to be fajita meat, tomatoes, melted cheese and grilled onions. Not surprisingly, the pupusas aren’t served with curtido (a pickled-cabbage relish with a taste more than vaguely reminiscent of something between coleslaw and sauerkraut). To say these pupusas were a disappointment is a vast understatement.
Taco Cabana offers a nice salsa bar with thin, fresh chips and several salsas of varying heat intensity. The pineapple salsa may bring to mind a doctored up image of a jar of Gerber baby food spiced with hot peppers. While it looks like baby food, it does pack a punch.
2041 Unser Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 October 2020
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Roasted Chicken