When we learned that Taco Bell was entering the booze category with their new millennial-aimed, liquor-permitted Cantina concept, our curiosity was piqued. The world’s very first Taco Bell Cantina opened its doors to Chicago’s Wicker Park in late September, so we asked one of Chicago’s finest barmen to scope it out for us. Below, Daniel de Oliveira shares his initial thoughts on the unlikely new addition to Chicago’s dining and drinking scene.
Taco Bell’s Cantina concept debuted last month in Chicago, but the brand plans to roll out several hundred throughout the United States in the future.
After opening just a few weeks ago, the Taco Bell Cantina has apparently been a real hot-spot for the Chicago industry crowd, and I was somewhat looking forward to checking it out for myself. I haven’t been to a Taco Bell in about fifteen years, but I have a lot of friends who absolutely love it, so I went in with an open mind. I enlisted friend and local bar fellow Sergio Serna to accompany me on this mission. Just an hour after visiting the first boozy Taco Bell in the United States, here are my thoughts.
(It is important to note two factors: 1. They will not serve you more than one drink per person at a time, and 2. Sergio was paying.)
With sleek surfaces, ambient lighting and charging stations everywhere, Taco Bell Cantina is aiming to be a nighttime destination among the younger crowd.
Exactly the same as you remembered in high school. I don’t know why some part of me thought it would be different. Sergio ordered the Volcano Quesarito Box, and I followed suit. Reason being: I wanted to try the taco with the Dorito shell, and I wanted the chance to win a gold PS4.
Furnished with sleek wood, communal tables, and charge ports everywhere, the place looks like a hip new Mexican cantina. If it didn’t have a bright LED menu board above the cashiers, you might actually think that it was. We sat in the window to people watch and were immediately disappointed that we didn’t opt for the chef’s table… seriously. Everyone was super friendly and gave us a heads up that we couldn’t take the drinks to go.
They have three different spirits and three different frozen mixers. You can mix and match to your choosing. We consulted our inner mixologists and decided upon for the Mountain Dew Baja Blast with Ketel One Vodka, the Cantina Margarita with Don Julio Blanco and the Twisted Cantina Punch with Captain Morgan White Rum.
Mountain Dew Baja Blast: This overly sweet and somewhat chemical tasting concoction actually paired really well with the food, and countered the somewhat excessive amount of hot sauce I slathered on my taco. The vodka itself was completely lost, but I think a London dry gin might stand up quite nicely.
Overall rating: 2 out of 5 lime wedges
Cantina Margarita: I love a good frozen margarita made with premium tequila, so I had high hopes for this drink. Unfortunately, after my first sip I was brought back to reality. The margarita mix is exactly as you’d expect in any chain restaurant; cloying, artificially sweet and devoid of any real lime flavor. However, a cocktail made with a top shelf, 100% agave Tequila for under $8 (tax and gratuity included) is really not bad at all.
Overall rating: 3 out of 5 lime wedges
Twisted Cantina Punch: This was clearly the best “cocktail” we had all afternoon. The taste profile was that of Hawaiian Punch, only not as sweet. The light Rum gave it body, and it was just as delicious on the first sip as it was on the last.
Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5 lime wedges
Taco Bell Cantina’s alcoholic offerings include vodka-spiked Mountain Dew Baja Blasts (left) and a Koolaid-esque Twisted Cantina Punch with rum.
All in all, my first experience at Taco Bell Cantina was a good one. Cheap food, cheaper drinks, what more could you want? Will I be coming back anytime soon? Possibly, but only after a few rounds of drinks—and only if Sergio is picking up the tab.