Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why Is This Place Even Still Here?

Taco Cabana # 101
3310 San Pedro Avenue
(at Hildebrand)

When it began, Taco Cabana was a cool place, a novelty: a place where the local anglo community could go for cheap, casual Tex-Mex food, a cuisine that was just beginning to attain some resonance outside the Hispanic culture. It was a way for the children of German and Czech and Polish and Western-European immigrants to adopt as their own some aspects of the Mexican culture that had, for all their lives, defined the essence of San Antonio, while still being exotically foreign. It was a way to bridge the cultural gap between the largest immigrant groups in town. 

The place was a success, and spawned a chain that eventually reached about as far from San Pedro Avenue as a restaurant chain could reach. It went public, and bought up rival chains (remember Sombrero Rosa?), and eventually was gobbled up by a conglomerate in New Jersey. Probably not the same one that now owns Pace, but similar in ilk, anyway.

The Taco Cabana location at the center of the Hildebrand Corridor hasn't changed all that much from those early days. They've added roll-up plastic curtains, to make their dining area habitable during the less balmy parts of the year; that's about it. But it continues now as it was then, a place for cheap Tex-Mex food. About the biggest development in the menu was the inclusion, some years back, of margaritas, which made it, once again, a cool place for a now slightly older crowd.

But this Taco Cabana is one of about 25 Mexican places along Hildebrand Avenue, from Fredericksburg Road to 281. What does it have to recommend it, to distinguish it from the competition?

The short answer: name and location.

The corner of San Pedro and Hildebrand Avenues is probably not any busier than it was back in the 70's; back then, there was no freeway where 281 is now, and San Pedro was, with Broadway, the main artery going north. But it is a busy corner, and people coming out of Taco Cabana's drive-through fall into two categories: those who stare plaintively at northbound drivers approaching the light, hoping to be let into the traffic flow; and those who force their way in with a sudden gush of the accelerator. Getting in and out of the parking lot can be tricky, too, especially during rush hour. 

Once you attain the parking lot, you find a menu that can be fairly described as fundamental. Taco Cabana, for example, offers six kinds of breakfast taco; I doubt any other Tex-Mex place in the Corridor offers less than twice that many. They maximize profits by minimizing the variety of ingredients, a classic attribute of the successful franchise restaurant. You won't see lengua or tripa on the menu at Taco Cabana, unless someone figures out how to make it out of chicken meat and corn tortillas.

But that's not really important. I've never ordered tripa in my life, nor do I see myself ever doing so; and I wouldn't want to be at the same table as someone who's just gotten a steaming bowl of menudo. I'd rather share my table with liver and onions (which is what people in Hell eat on special occasions, or when the beet truck doesn't arrive).  No, the menu at Taco Cabana, while limited to, shall we say, the Tex-Mex classics, is varied enough to satisfy most people. After all, we're not here for haute cuisine.

My own experience at TC, undertaken just to fill a hole in my project to review all the Mexican restaurants in the Hildebrand Corridor, began with a request for two of the pricier breakfast-taco options: one steak-and-egg taco, and one brisket-and-egg taco; and coffee. The cashier asked if I wanted "a combo": two tacos and a drink. Since that was what I had ordered, I said yes, then I stood there for a pretty good while, watching the total on the register go up and up and up as she tried to figure out how to put my order in to the computerized system. After consulations with another employer, she settled on an amount: $6.56. "You can't get those kinds of tacos on a combo," she said. (The breakfast taco combo is limited to the other four types of taco offered: potato and egg, bacon and egg, chorizo and egg, and bean and cheese.)

Was that a fair amount? Well, it wasn't outrageous, certainly. But it was more, comparably, than I'd've paid had I eaten in most of the other places along the corridor. My customary favourite breakfast tacos, chilaquiles and machacado, usually run around $1.80 each; my friend Rick's perennial favourite, beef fajita tacos, go for about the same. Taco Cabana's high-end steak and brisket tacos go for $2.39 each. The dollar-twenty difference doesn't begin to break my bank, but it does break my rule of trying to not pay more for something than I think it's worth.*

I poured myself a cup of coffee in the paper cup provided, and settled in on one of the uncomfortably small picnic-style tables. When my number was called, which was soon, the act of extricating myself from that table threatened to overturn the coffee, but I managed to do it without a spill. I approached the counter and found two trays, each with two tacos on them, wrapped in foil. Which tray, I asked the help, was mine? They pointed, and I took the indicated tray, loaded up some little plastic ramekins with the condiments of my choice, and reinveigled myself at my table.

The tacos on my tray were both bean and cheese. I oozed out of my table again and returned to the counter. The other tray now had three foil-wrapped packets on it, so there had to be an investigation of the contents. (I wonder if they made new bean-and-cheese tacos for whomever had placed the other order. I hope so. My fingers, clean though they might have been, had been all over those tacos.)

Last city inspection: February 2011
3 demerits (very good)
The tacos themselves were okay. The egg, despite being prepared in some of the largest batches I've ever seen in a restaurant, was in that prime zone between hard and runny, what I consider "done": fluffy, a little moist, no crust, and no drip. The steak was not as perfectly done. It had no seasoning to speak of, and was inconsistently cooked. Some parts had acquired the slight crusty edges, while other parts were limp and underdone. The jalapeño slices I had added, and the pico de gallo, were the only elements that gave the taco any kick at all. The flour tortilla was unremarkable in every way. The brisket taco had a little more flavour to it, but it, too, suffered from the same kind of blandness. 

This kind of mundane food might make sense in a national corporation, trying as it must to satisfy a wide range of regional tastes. But I have to wonder: if the food at Taco Cabana is going to become a national-standard homogenized sort of faux-Tex-Mex, how is it going to survive in competition with all the other taco houses? Ah! There's that name. And that location. And that advertising budget.

Taco Cabana on Urbanspoon
* And there's an ecological factor we might want to consider as well. At those other restaurants you get food served on washable plates; at Taco Cabana, everything is entirely disposable. I suspect that a meal at Taco Cabana produces more waste than the same meal at any other restaurant on the street. Haven't done a study of it; just an observation.


  1. JRoberto CAugust 11, 2012

    That's a good point about the plastic plates and utensils. I never think much about that, and I like to think of myself as sort of eco-friendly.

  2. Yes! Yes yes yes yes yes!


Add your own two cents here.