Taco Cabana – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taco Cabana on Unser Blvd In Rio Rancho

In 1972, English author Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cuisine, penned The Cuisines of Mexico, a Mexican cookbook in which she described Texas’s Mexican food as “inauthentic,” coining the term “Tex-Mex.”  Kennedy essentially drew a line of demarcation between the foods of her beloved Mexico, what she viewed as “the real thing” and the foods prepared North of the Border. Her assertion was that most Mexican food in America is technically of Tex-Mex derivation (yes, that includes New Mexican cuisine).

Meghan McCarron’s feature on Tex-Mex cuisine for Eater seems to indicate Kennedy’s low regard for Tex-Mex cuisine is rather widespread: “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.” 

Steak Fajita Nachos

Just what is Tex-Mex and why does it inspire such rancor?  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.”

When founder Felix Stehling launched Taco Cabana, then a humble San Antonio taco stand in 1978, he probably didn’t think twice  about how he would categorize his taqueria’s featured fare.  Nor did he think at all about placating Diana Kennedy. Taco Cabana would serve Mexican food as it’s prepared in San Antonio–Tex-Mex if you will. As of August 2020, Taco Cabana had 166 locations–mostly in the Lone Star State with a handful in the Land of Enchantment. It’s obviously been pleasing palates throughout the region.

One-Half Chicken Flameante

If you’re surprised that Taco Cabana would do so well in New Mexico, perhaps one of the reasons for that success is a concession the restaurant made to win over New Mexicans: “Traditionally, Taco Cabana ABQ served a Tex Mex cuisine which consisted of heavy spice, flavorful meats and fresh salsas. We realized quickly we need to incorporate a few more items to our menu: posole, carne adovada and green chile, green chile, green chile! Our blend of the two cuisines has been well received and we thank you Albuquerque for letting us experiment with tradition.”

30 October 2020: Speaking of concessions, when my Kim was recently craving grilled chicken and we had neither time nor inclination to slave over a grill for a couple of hours, we headed off to Taco Cabana for our first visit in more than a decade (other than the times we stop by for aguas fresca).  Taco Cabana’s chicken flameante, available in quarter, half and whole chicken sizes is  marinated in a blend of citrus juices, herbs and seasonings then grilled over an open flame.  It’s a moist and juicy bird though perhaps overly smoked.  With a protein as delicate as chicken, a little smoke goes a long way.  The chicken flameante is served with borracho beans (with green chile and onions), rice and flour tortillas.

Combo Platter

30 October 2020: 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, cantaloupe and lemonade flavors as well as the traditional Mexican rice beverage, horchata.  Unfailingly fresh, they can slake the most stubborn of thirsts.  Alas, their availability of watermelon and cantaloupe is seasonal and the horchata could use more cinnamon.  True to its Texas roots, Taco Cabana also serves a red cream soda.

30 October 2020:  Not only is San Antonio the birthplace of Taco Cabana, the Spur City also spawned melted processed-cheese, that gross, gloppy stuff that comes out of a pump.  We’re always wary of ordering nachos for fear they’d be smothered in that molten, revolting mess.  Our preference is always for a great Mexican melting cheese, white not yellow.  Taco Cabana offers five different nacho plates, including beef fajita nachos made with USDA choice inside skirt steak marinated in the restaurant’s signature marinade and seasoning blend then flame-grilled to “deliver an authentic smoky flavor.” As with the chicken flameante, we both thought the “smoky flavor” was a bit overdone–not a smoky hint but a full out assault.  As for the cheese, we were relieved and grateful it wasn’t that stuff with which chips are smothered in sports stadiums all over the country. 

Ground Beef Taco

30 October 2020:  What your humble blogger won’t do for his readers.  Ordering the “Mexican Combo Patter” (cheese enchilada, crispy taco and chile relleno) at Taco Cabana might just answer that rhetorical question.  I perform the research, do the hard and painful stuff so you don’t have to.    Sadly, the “green chile, green chile, green chile” promised in the aforementioned “concession” had the bite of an anemic bell pepper.  Other than blending artistically with the melting yellow cheese, it was barely noticeable.  The contents of the ground beef taco (shredded cheese, lettuce) spilled out of its hard-shell home. The highlight of the combo platter was the guacamole.

30 October 2020: One thing Taco Cabana does well–better in many cases than most New Mexican restaurants (most of whom, shamefully, don’t even make their own)–is flour tortillas.  These beauteous orbs are probably two or three times as thick as the paper-thin tortillas served at some restaurants.  As with all good homemade flour tortillas, these tortillas have a pronounced pinto pony patterned char on both sides.  They’re best consumed while still warm.

Flour Tortilla

Taco Cabana is obviously proud of its Tex-Mex heritage and New Mexicans seem rather enamored of it as well.

Taco Cabana
2041 Unser Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 994-8478
LATEST VISIT: 30 October 2020
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Chicken Flameante, Tortillas, Aguas Frescas

About Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, more than 1 million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on nearly 1,200 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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9 Comments on “Taco Cabana – Albuquerque, New Mexico”

  1. I would normally go to the one on San Mateo. Their flavor seems to be a little better and the people more organized.
    The last time I visit there, I brought back two dozen tortillas. Would somebody please open one of these places here on Maui? Mostly on the Kihei side!

  2. My family loves dining at Taco Cabana especially when we have visitors from out of town. Their food is always fresh, tasty and priced right. Happy holidays to you and your family. Looking forward to seeing you soon. Keep well and stay safe my friend.

    1. Hi Shaina

      You weren’t at the Safari Grill the last two times we visited and I even brought The Dude, my dachshund, to meet you. You were much missed. No visit to Safari Grill is complete without seeing your smiling face and catching up with you. I pray all is well with you and your family.

      Best,

      Gil

  3. Im glad you chose photos from your order and not something they prepared unrealistically. I usually always fight for my salsas especially if its a large order, last time my garnish for my menudo was straight up rotted and stunk up my car, and i almost never get a receipt in the drive thru. Usually have to go around twice or go in to get my correct salsas, utensils, and etc which now that covid makes things harder, is an even bigger waste of time. Sometimes they wont say if theyre out of speciality salsa such as the pineapple salsa for the carne adavada street tacos until after you pay and get your food to check it. Almost every single time my order is wrong when it comes to those tacos. I always get over charged because an inexperienced cashier just rings me up for 3regular carne adovada tacos which are a different taco entirely.

  4. Taco Cabana is late night, “after concert”, or “after party” food….when you’re just trying to get some grub in after a long night. It’s not really sober Tuesday night dinner kinda food.

  5. I urge you to try the Taco Cabana on San Mateo. We have found that the flavors do change slightly at the different locations and San Mateo is the most consistent, yummy and spicy. We love the taste of bacon in the refried beans and the salsas are zippy and fresh. Not a fan of the cheese sauce that shows up on some dishes but just ask, they’re very willing to customize. We all love the carne adovada platter, always flavorful.

  6. The Taco Cabana is amazingly good – great! – when considering what it is. It is Mexican “fast food”, however, all of the food is freshly prepared to order, it is open 24 hours too! Very inexpensive, but very good, and legions of light-stars ahead of a place like Taco Bell.

    The flour tortillas here are especially good. Thick, fluffy, etc., so tasty even on their own with butter or honey.

    The quesadillas with guacamole are scrumptious. The breakfast tacos (with chorizo) are very good.

    Tell me where at a place like Taco Bell one could get Mexican / New Mexican treats such as carne adovada, chile rellenos, and barbacoa like you can get at Taco Cabana? The barbacoa and adovada is especially good (the adovada surprisingly piquant for a 24-hour fast food chain).

    Their rotisserie chicken (either alone or in items like tacos and burritos) is quite reliable and very good.

    I used to live right across the street from a Cabana and am a big proponent / big fan. Sure, is it as good as a reliable independent sit-down Mexican or New Mexico joint in the Duke City? Of course not. However, for a quick $4 or so, it is an incredibly good and reliable option. (Even the pancakes and bacon are pretty good!)…

    Overall, I would rate the Cabana something like a 16, and if one could do a rating in terms of “rate it for what it is (a 24-hour fast food joint)”, I would give is something more like a 20.

  7. Kind of a combination of KFC, Taco Bell and the Village Inn. Confused Greasy Tex-Mex Diner food. The salsas are tasty, but they do not offset the flavorless food. I have been sickened by it a couple of times. Why did I not learn the first time?!

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