The first Cantina opened in Chicago in June 2015, and while a national rollout has been slow, it’s about to explode. Last summer, as Taco Bell opened its first Cantinas in Manhattan, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that the company planned to open 1,000 new restaurants by 2022, and “300 will be either urban or Cantina concepts.”
Alexandria’s Cantina, the first in the Washington area, debuted a few days before Christmas. You might expect it to hum later at night, but there wasn’t an open table in the building at dinner time on a recent Friday. The crowd ranged from middle-aged couples to 20-somethings who looked like they just rolled out of bed, rocking sweatpants and the popular Adidas slides-and-socks combo.
Despite the glowing Taco Bell sign facing King Street, the Cantina’s interior decor is a far cry from the fluorescent lighting and swiveling plastic chairs found at most of the chain’s locations. Call it Generic Fast-Casual: a vaguely industrial vibe with exposed ductwork and tile walls; bar stools lining counters that resemble the granite breakfast bars found in upscale condo buildings; customers queuing up to order through a bank of touch screens instead of cashiers. (The only time you need to interact with a human is to have your ID checked before picking up alcoholic drinks.) The result is a weird dining limbo: You’re definitely not in a restaurant with a drive-through window, but it doesn’t quite feel classy enough for date night, either, unless you both really love Gorditas.
Though the Cantina has a full liquor license, the adult beverages are surprisingly limited. There are four beers on tap — Miller Lite, Dos Equis, Sam Adams and the local Fair Winds Howling Gale IPA — for $4.75 or $5 for a 16-ounce plastic cup, and three frozen drinks that swirl in machines behind the counter. The headliner is the “Mountain Dew Baja Blast Twisted Freeze,” the chain’s signature seafoam-green slushy spiked with a choice of Tito’s Vodka, Bacardi Rum or Jose Cuervo Tequila. Tasted side-by-side, the default vodka option isn’t noticeably different than the all-ages version: Sticky sweet, with waves of lime and sugary citrus, followed by brainfreeze. Tequila would probably be a better option than Bacardi, though extra shots are available through the touch screens — limit two — if you need it stronger.
The menu isn’t much different than what you might find at a standard suburban Bell, with the exception of a trio of “sharables.” A bowl of Cheesy Jalapeño Dippers sounds like something you’d split over a beer, though the Naked Chicken Chips with nacho cheese dipping sauce seem like a way to get rid of the shards of chicken tenders that once might have been destined to be the shell of a naked chicken chalupa. On second thought, that sounds exactly like something Americans would consume after a couple of drinks.
Taco Bell Cantina: 417 King St., Alexandria. Open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.