Taco Bell Cantina’s Columbia Heights location. Photograph by Daniella Byck.
Each day, throughout the day, we at Washingtonian drop various local news items into Slack. Most disappear into oblivion. But yesterday, at 10:55 a.m., a fervor erupted: Editor Daniella Byck shared that a Taco Bell Cantina is coming to Chinatown. (The Taco Bell Cantina is an ingenious mélange of the classic Taco Bell menu and hard liquor.)
For the next eight hours, Washingtonian’s staff intermittently weighed in on Taco Bell—the haters and the superfans alike. We learned that Andrew Beaujon has visited Taco Bell HQ in California, that Little Miner Taco has a “delicious take on a Crunchwrap,” and that several among us have never been to Taco Bell at all. A Cantina staff night was floated, because “nothing says camaraderie like an ice-cold Baja Blast™.”
Today, to take my mind off of whatever the Chinese spy balloon is doing, I have gathered a bushel of reflections on Taco Bell from Washingtonian’s staff. I must also acknowledge that the District is home to world-class Latin American cuisine served from brilliant local chefs. Please patronize them, as we usually do. But sometimes you just have to Live Más™.
Daniella Byck, Lifestyle Editor
“When I was 9 years old, I went to sleep-away camp for the first time. I took the camp bus, which stopped at a Taco Bell off the highway—my first Taco Bell experience ever. I don’t know if it was nerves, motion sickness, or something about that quesadilla, but when my cabin came to table for dinner that first night, I threw up…all over the table. It was an ominous start to what became a great summer—and my first and only Taco Bell visit. Though I kept going to camp and riding in cars, I did not keep eating Taco Bell. But maybe the siren song of a Baja Blast—and a Lactaid—will lure me to the Cantina in Chinatown.”
Jacob Raim, Director of Digital Products
“My senior year of college, one of my roommates had a bizarre dream about ordering every single thing on the Taco Bell menu, and we went and did it. It was like $125. Between a few of us, we polished off the whole menu. It was amazing, but clearly too much food.”
Mimi Montgomery, Home and Features Editor
“I have a long history with Taco Bell. Allow me to elaborate: For some reason, my family used to stop by Taco Bell on the way home from church every Sunday. Why my dad felt compelled to consume fast-food tacos after listening to parables about Jesus for an hour, I cannot say. But I have fond memories of eating cheese quesadillas in the back seat of my parents’ 1990s Volvo on the way home and wiping my hands on my white cotton church stockings. (I know, I was feral.) In fact, one of my most prized possessions came from those trips: A stuffed animal version of the beloved ’90s mascot the Taco Bell chihuahua, who chirped out a high-pitched ‘¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!’ when you pushed a button on its plush little paw. An icon!
“In middle school, the Spanish club had an annual taco-eating contest in which all the tacos were provided by Taco Bell. In retrospect, I realize this is extremely problematic. But at the time, I was just really freaking amped to crush some tacos. Everyone had about a minute to eat as many as they could, Joey Chestnut-style. And, yes, I was the only girl to enter the contest. I think I got about six in, which makes me feel ill and very sad to think about today. Unfortunately, I did not win—I can’t remember who did, but I’m sure it was some middle-school boy who smelled vaguely of AXE and like, wore the same My Chemical Romance T-shirt every day.
“In high school, my Spanish teacher had an extremely loose interpretation of what constituted as educating her classroom on the mechanics of learning another language and culture. Which is why, for most of our classes, we watched Finding Nemo dubbed in Spanish with English subtitles and ate Taco Bell. All that to say, for a lengthy period of time, I consumed a lot of Taco Bell and learned very little to no Spanish.
“My relationship with the chain came to a close when, one fateful day in high school, I went to our local Taco Bell to get a snack before soccer practice. (These were the days when you could eat like, a large thing of fries from McDonald’s and call it a ‘snack.’) I went up to the counter to order my usual soft-shell beef taco. No, the woman behind the counter told me mournfully, I could not get a beef taco today. Why, you might ask? Was there a beef shortage? Had the tortillas fallen out of the back of the delivery truck? Had Bert the line cook accidentally cut off the power to the stove again? No, it was none of those things. It was because, the woman informed me, the spot’s ‘meat tube’ was broken. Meat. Tube. Two words that should never be conjoined together into one idea. Meat tube!***
“All that to say, I haven’t been to Taco Bell in over 15-ish years. There are many things one can forget from high school—their locker combination, the monologue from Hamlet, the name of the exceptionally dreamy senior who had hair like Zac Efron in High School Musical—but the Meat Tube Incident has not been one of them. But I am ready to give Taco Bell another try. Will the new Chinatown Cantina be the thing that pushes me back into the warm, flour tortilla-scented arms of Taco Bell once more? Perhaps. But I will likely need several boozy Baja Blasts before I can freely Live Mas™ once more.”
***Washingtonian would like to state that it does not have factual evidence surrounding the existence of said “meat tube,” and that this is just the recollection of one staffer. Taco Bell corporate, please do not email us.
Ann Limpert, Executive Food Editor
“The prospect of frozen margs kind of balances out the horror of a ‘meat tube.’ “
Andrew Beaujon, Senior Editor
“I mentioned to my wife last night that a surprising number of my colleagues hadn’t been to Taco Bell recently or at all. By Thursday evening, a clear mutual consensus had emerged: The fam had to hit the King Street Taco Bell Cantina for dinner. My relationship with Taco Bell goes back farther than I can remember, but it was cemented in the ’90s when I was a touring musician in a group that included several vegetarians. When we saw a Taco Bell sign, we tended to pounce. My favorite item was the 7-Layer Burrito, which Taco Bell has inexplicably discontinued (surely they have the stuff to make the 7-Layer Burrito on hand—doesn’t Taco Bell limit itself to 11 ingredients that it remixes into every item on the menu?) and to be honest, now that it’s gone, I’ve had a lot fewer reasons to Think Outside the Bun™.
“But when I was a young maggot, working in a record store between tours and paying $234 a month to split a house in Arlington with my friends, Taco Bell represented a seriously good night out for me, especially when the night in question began at midnight and my budget was $5 or under. Now that we have the Taco Bell Cantina, I no longer have to imagine what it would be like to eat a Doritos Locos Taco Supreme in Europe, where fast food restaurants often serve booze: You just order an alcoholic slushie at a screen alongside your food and then consume it like you’re a dirtbag at Gstaad.
“I was surprised to note at the King Street Cantina that the liquor the staff use to doctor your margarita is better than you’d expect—Tito’s Vodka, Cuervo Silver. I can also report that the way to order is not à la carte. Get a combo (I chose a Crunchwrap Supreme Cravings Trio, which included a Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco, for $5) and upgrade your drink. You’ll save a couple of bucks! The food was tasty and the bill for three people— including two drinks—was $32.39. Was it ‘authentic’? Um, no, it was Taco Bell, and I was not hungry afterward. Problem solved.”
Anonymous Washingtonian Staffer Who Does Not Want to Get Into Trouble With Their Mom
“I used to love Taco Bell in college. I would often eat there late-night, under the influence(s). (One of those influences being a college-kid budget; $5 went a long way back then!) I thought it was the best thing ever. Then I tried it as a less-influenced adult, and have not had it since. RIP to my love of Taco Bell’s chicken quesadilla with fire sauce. If you can say all that without getting me in trouble with my mom, you can print it!”
Patrick Hruby, Deputy Editor
“I am truly sorry for those of you who would choose to eat Taco Bell outside of an airport desperation hunger situation, but I also understand that the heart wants what it wants.”
Correction: A previous version of this post said, erroneously, that the Cantina would be coming to Chinatown in April.