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Taco Cabana: From street to plate

From their headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, Taco Cabana’s culinary team—Diego Galicia, R&D coordinator, and Walter “Smokey” Waters, executive chef—travel yearly to Mexico to scope out ideas. On a recent trip to Mexico City, they were impressed by the simplicity and clean, crisp flavors of the food sold from street carts.  A creamy corn topping on a soft taco inspired them to create Chipotle Corn Street Tacos, appearing on the menu this summer.

Authenticity rules

To duplicate the corn topping, Galicia combined sweet corn, sourced frozen off the cob, fresh jalapeños, diced onions—fried on the grill to caramelize them—and a chipotle cream. “We worked with a vendor to develop the latter, which combines a creamy salad dressing with chipotle sauce,” says Galicia. “It takes the place of the Mexican mayonnaise used by the street vendors.” Grated cotija cheese and ground cayenne pepper finish off the topping.

“It took awhile for the cotija cheese to take hold,” notes Galicia. “There’s not a lot of cotija in fast casual. But we found the right mix with the corn and other ingredients. Since I grew up in Mexico, I try to keep the R&D team in line with the colors, vibrancy and authenticity of each dish we put on our menu.”

Meat of the matter

A previous LTO focused on chicken, so Waters and Galicia chose steak as the protein for this taco. When it first launched, Taco Cabana was sourcing skirt steak, but switched to beef sirloin “because it plays better with the other flavors,” claims Waters. The chain works with a vendor who marinates the sirloin and sends it diced and uncooked to each of the 160 locations, where it’s grilled fresh, to order, throughout the day. Another reason for the switch—sirloin is at a more stable price point than skirt steak.

The magic number

Waters and Galicia like to limit LTOs to no more than four components so they go through the line without hassle. So far, the Chipotle Corn Street Tacos have been easy for operations to handle. Another plus—the ingredients are lighter and perceived as healthier by customers.

Thumbs down

At first, Galicia and Waters tried commercial American mayonnaise in the creamy corn topping, thinking it could stand in for the Mexican mayo. “It didn’t work,” recalls the R&D coordinator. “It wasn’t tart or acidic enough; we needed something with more tang.” The creamy salad dressing-chipotle blend hit the right notes.
They also experimented with beef brisket and a smoky barbeque sauce as a taco filling, but that didn’t work out flavor-wise.

What’s next?

Taco Cabana likes to provide patrons with a “passport to Mexico” in a fast-casual setting. That means pushing the envelope, but not too far. Next up, says Galicia, may be shrimp tacos—an item that blends authenticity with customer appeal in just the right proportions.

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