The announcement prompted a social media debate on the propriety of a corporate version of Mexican fast food in a neighborhood with a variety of options for Mexican and Salvadoran cuisine. Taco Bell Cantinas offer a more upscale version of the typical run for the border, serving alcohol and offering touch screens for ordering.
“I think that’s quite offensive, given that there’s so many businesses along Park Road,” said Nicole Newman, who grew up blocks away and works nearby, as she left the Target store in Columbia Heights on Friday. “When they developed Columbia Heights, it was with the promise that they would make investments in smaller businesses, and make investments in the Latino community here.”
Columbia Heights has been the center of intense development since a Metro station opened in 1999, with chains like Target and Bed Bath and Beyond serving as retail anchors in the DC USA shopping complex. A host of other chain restaurants, including Cava and IHOP, dominate the strip, with smaller restaurants — some of them offering Latin American food — cropping up and often disappearing.
El Tio, for example, sold “Fine Tex Mex,” according to the sign above its vacant storefront about a block north of DC USA, until it closed last year. Little Havana, a Cuban restaurant, also shuttered last year just months after it opened.
But chefs in the areas didn’t appear threatened by Taco Bell Cantina’s addition to the neighborhood. The company, after all, is a subsidiary of a fast-food conglomerate called Yum that also operates KFC and Pizza Hut.
Alfredo Solis, the Washington restaurateur behind Little Havana, as well as Anafre and Mezcalero, two surviving Mexican restaurants in Columbia Heights, said he wasn’t worried about the chain’s arrival. He doesn’t even consider it competition.
“What I do is different than Taco Bell,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect my business. Taco Bell is Taco Bell. . . . It’s nothing even close to my food.”
Chris Svetlik, a native Texan who runs Republic Cantina, a couple miles away in Truxton Circle, considers himself a Taco Bell fan. He said he has fond memories of stopping at the restaurant after swim practice to load up on carbohydrates.
“I think it validates the concept of mixing tacos and booze, seeing a big corporate player coming in,” he said. “Taco Bell has pushed the boundaries a little bit of where they’ve taken ‘authentic’ Mexican.”
The definition of authenticity, however, seems mutable. Jeffrey Pilcher, a food historian and author of “Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food,” said Taco Bell founder Glen Bell claimed to have invented the taco shell in the 1950s, even though taco shell fryers were patented by Mexican American restaurateurs in the 1940s.
“Today, of course, authenticity means the regional cuisines of Mexico, as opposed to the Mexican regional cuisines of California, Texas, New Mexico,” he wrote in an email. “It’s convenient for both sides to think that Mexicans are traditional and authentic while Americans are modern and industrial. But as a result, Mexican Americans disappear from the story.”
Others were less interested in the cultural politics of Taco Bell, and were just hungry.
Nisant Patel, a self-professed Taco Bell superfan, said he moved to Columbia Heights six years ago. He estimated he used to visit the restaurant at least weekly, having grown up around Taco Bell in the Chicago area — the birthplace of the Cantina concept five years ago. Also, he’s vegetarian and said it’s easy to find something on the menu.
“It’s different from going to an actual Mexican restaurant,” he said.
District residents who can’t wait until the spring opening can head to Alexandria, where the Washington area’s first Cantina opened last year. Aside from a restaurant in Union Station, downtown D.C. and areas nearby have been bereft of Taco Bells since 2011, when one in the U Street corridor closed.
Tim Carman contributed to this report.