Without booze, is State Street's Taco Bell still special?

We investigate the hits and misses of the "Shareables" menu at the new "Cantina."

  Photos by Chris Lay.

Photos by Chris Lay.

It was perhaps a blessing in disguise that the deep-fryer was on the fritz when I first stopped in at the new Taco Bell Cantina on State Street. My plan had been to order one of each item on the "Shareables" menu specific to this "Cantina"-branded subset of the fast-food chain (cheesy jalapeño dippers, mini quesadilla nachos, naked chicken chips) and, all by my lonesome, ingest their collective 2600 calories in a single sitting. Mercifully, though, fate stepped in and forced me to break my review sessions into separate visits, saving my insides from such unadvisable strain.

The new Cantina is certainly splashy to look at, with an upscale sheen to its interior. The previous handful of fast-food places that have existed at 534 State St. (an earlier no-frills Taco Bell smooshed together with a KFC, then roast-beef sandwich shop called Full of Bull, and then a Wendy's) all stuck with more or less the same counter and seating arrangement, but this rebranded Taco Bell iteration pulled out all the stops and went back to bedrock to rebuild the guts of the operation from the ground up. It feels fancy-ish, with flat-screen TVs lining the walls and playing a mix of news, sports, and celebrity gossip shows. Or at least it's as fancy-ish as a place can get where you still need a cashier to buzz you into the bathrooms. There's even one screen dedicated to simply listing the names of customers whose food is in the process of being flipped and folded into the various shapes that tortillas are capable of making.

The spacious kitchen, surrounded by walls of glass that all but invite you to inspect it, feels almost minimalist when compared to the sometimes cramped stations behind the counters at non-Cantina Taco Bells. The dining room layout is a little awkward, with a large communal-feeling table perpendicularly plopped right where lines of customers would ideally extend out from the registers (of which I have only ever seen one being used to take orders). More often than not, the staff process orders efficiently enough that backup hasn't been too much of a problem, but I can only imagine the potential for bar-time chaos as brown-out-drunk co-eds try and sort out which line ends where.

The aesthetic improvements over old-fashioned Taco Bells are impressive, in their way, but this location more or less serves the same menu, which, since we've all had a meximelt or two in our lifetime... is not worth reviewing. Crave, regret, repeat, you know the drill. What is worth exploring are those three items that you can only get at Cantinas, of which this is the first in Madison: the aforementioned trifecta of "Shareables."

  Neither naked nor chip.

Neither naked nor chip.

At the top of the "Shareables" price tier are the $5 naked chicken chips. Besides the fact that there is nothing "chippy" about these flat triangles of meat, I am also baffled as to why they are being sold as "naked," since they are clearly breaded and fried. So, for those keeping score at home, we're only one-for-three on accurate naming conventions right out the gate. After a pleasantly short wait, about a dozen or so of these chip-sized nuggets were delivered to me, shiny with grease, which further negates whatever healthfulness the word "naked" might mean to imply.

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These chicken chips are much denser than the processed poultry you'd find in other fast food nugget-type items, but not unpleasantly so, with the breading itself doing the heavy lifting with regard to any crispiness. Imagine pounding a standard chicken nugget flat with a tenderizing hammer, run it through the fry-o-later a second time, and you've just about got a naked chicken chip. They tasted fine, and despite their density didn't feel heavy. I ate mine with a spork to ward off greasy fingers, but there's nothing wrong if you want to dive in to these things fingers-first. They're served with tiny cups of nacho cheese (the sort that Taco Bell serves with every other menu item) and a spicy ranch dip that, between the two, was a much better compliment to the "chips."

In the middle of the list, at $4, are the mini quesadilla nachos. They're the least inventive of the Cantina-unique items. What we have here are a few quesadillas made on smaller-than-usual tortillas, sliced into sixths, and topped with ice-cream-scoop lumps of sour cream, guacamole, and salsa. Shrink down any of the quesadillas you've ever had, and yeah, that's about what you've got right here. Mini? Yes. Quesadilla? Most definitely. Nachos? Not in any meaningful sense, no.

Finally, we get to the cheapest menu item of the bunch, the $3 cheesy jalapeño dipper. Lo and behold, this was damn good by pretty much any standard, much less fast-food standards. What you get are two skinny-looking burritos that have been crisped up on their tops and bottoms with a quick squish in a panini grill. Instead of the gloppy meat-and-bean mess that goes into the usual Taco Bell burritos, there's a delicious mix of cheese, bacon, and shockingly flavorful jalapeños. These were right on that line for me, spice-wise, but I'm a wuss about heat, so your mileage may vary. That said, the balance of tastes and textures—between the almost imperceptible mild cheese, the chewy smokiness of the bacon chunks, the crisply fresh acidity of the peppers, and the flaky give of the tortilla, to say nothing of the rock bottom price-point—makes this something I can wholeheartedly recommend. My only criticism would be that the amount of sour cream that came on the side was not quite enough for my dipping needs.

  Cheesy jalapeño dippers deliver an unexpectedly solid balance of flavors.

Cheesy jalapeño dippers deliver an unexpectedly solid balance of flavors.

Based on the "Shareables" menu categorization, and presumably the eventual addition of alcohol to the menu offerings, Taco Bell is clearly making an interesting play with these Cantinas. It seems the State Street Bell wants to become a destination where customers will actually sit and stay for a while, as opposed to inhaling a lonely Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch or two in the wee small hours before hitting the road. It has yet to be seen if Taco Bell will be able to sell this idea well enough to elevate itself above the Chipotle and Qdoba locations a short walk away on State Street.

Alcohol will help, but that's still in some uncomfortable limbo. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has made it his mission to keep any more establishments near campus from getting liquor licenses, through a series of bizarre one-license-at-a-time crusades. In December, Soglin vetoed the Cantina's license, and the Madison Common Council  later upheld that veto.

Despite all that, an orange liquor-license application placard still sits optimistically in the Taco Bell Cantina's window. Employees, gesturing towards the three flavors of presumably boozed-up (and presently verboten) Mountain Dew slush spinning away in their chilly dispensers behind the counter, still believe alcohol is absolutely on the way. When I asked one employee when they expected the location to start serving alcohol, I got this jaunty clap-back of a reply: "When the man starts running for governor." So until Soglin becomes sufficiently distracted by his (all but assuredly doomed) bid against Scott Walker, or succeeds in shutting the Cantina down, at least we can still enjoy these cheesy jalapeño dippers.