Taco Bell Cantina just opened in Newport Beach, a tiny wedge of an eatery standing tall and proud next to Stag Bar on 22nd St. off W. Balboa Blvd. (Yes, it’s in the same location as the now-defunct Original Pizza and yes, its presence represents the encroaching maniacal claws of rampant consumerism on our small, loveable town.)
Anyway, after months of construction, speculation and what-the-heck-is-a-Taco-Bell-Cantina conversations, it’s officially here, open 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day of the week. And while it might smell like a Taco Bell and taste like a Taco Bell, it’s got a slightly more artistic, less sterile edge than the brightly colored standard joint we know. Most notably, unlike a typical Taco Bell, this one serves beer and wine. (Fear not, hard alcohol is on the way.)
The boozy Taco Bell Cantina concept isn’t the first of its kind—that honor goes to Chicago’s Wicker Park location—but it is the first to feature a Taco Bell-branded beer, made in collaboration with Huntington Beach’s Four Sons Brewing. The beer, called Beach Bell, is a Mexican-style amber lager, available while supplies last and at the Newport Beach location only.
The move is a smart one by the Taco Bell Powers That Be to infuse palpably local flavor into what could quickly devolve into a glorified Taco Bell with beer. Four Sons Brewing is a family-run, beloved Surf City business with a taproom managed by Dad Duke, Mom Daune and of course, the four sons—Deven, Derek, Drew and Dustin. (Alliteration spouts strong as the craft beer at this establishment.)
Other than the wine and local brew, Taco Bell Cantina Newport Beach will also feature six, location-specific, tapas-style appetizers called shareable plates. These plates include: Seven-layer Bean Dip, Cheesy Bacon Jalapeño Dippers and Naked Chicken Chips. No word on why the Newport Beach chicken chips are naked but stranger things have happened around the Peninsula at 2 a.m.
In person, the decor at Taco Bell Cantina is underwhelming but when you remember it’s a Taco Bell, you’re suddenly enthused. It’s kind of like Taco Bell and a small coffeehouse with acoustic music on Wednesdays had a baby. And then that baby grew up to really love mediocre tacos and beer.
Highlights of the design include an open kitchen viewable beyond a thin, glass wall adjacent to the cashier’s counter; tall, dark stools surrounding a long, communal table; and large, picture-frame windows that take up the entire front and side walls. Perhaps the intent is to nosh on your Chicken Chalupas and watch palm trees sway as surfers carry their boards barefoot across the sidewalk and cars honk in brash harmony along Balboa Blvd. Ah, Classic Newport.
The dining area can accommodate 32 people with a 14-seat bar crafted from reclaimed wood. Clear globe lights dangle from the ceiling and on the farthest wall from the entrance, a mural by Volcom artist Joe Frizelle provides just the right amount of authentic, shaka-approved flair.
“There will be no Taco Bell Cantinas that look exactly the same,” said Matt Prince, a Taco Bell spokesman, when questioned about the Cantina concept.
Different, yes. Though in the lineage of Cantinas before it some things remain the same; like its Chicago predecessor, the Newport Beach location will offer spiked Twisted Freezes, which are essentially frozen slushies that can be upgraded with a pour of vodka, tequila or rum.
In the end, call it what you want, the place is still a Taco Bell with booze. The tacos taste the same here as they do at the Taco Bell in the food court at your local mall. But that’s probably the point. Paint the place with provoking art, douse it in local brews and at its core, the food items—and consumers’ expectations of what it means to order them—must remain the same. The sociological definition of greasy, fast food demands this kind of consistency and homogeneity. Also, anyone who finds themselves inside Taco Bell Cantina at 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday honestly won’t care.