Ah, the drive-thru taco. Is there anything more satisfying when you have a craving for salty, high-caloric, trashy filler for your insatiable and very shameful fast-food desires? Okay, maybe just an entire pool filled with queso, but we aren't wealthy enough to get all Scrooge McDuck with liquid cheese over here. We're mainly just interested in where we can get a cheap drive-thru taco that doesn't suck and won't break the bank.
Last Saturday we hit up seven Houston taco drive-thrus (and one drive-in) to see how the city's "trash" tacos, those composed of ground beef or relatively comparable filler, stack up against each other. Thankfully, we had a few lackeys on hand that we could torture with a blind tasting.
Now, not every drive-thru in the greater Houston area was tested out. Plus, we absolutely had to stop at Gerardo's Drive-In, a magical place on Patton that, with just one woman working the food counter, is about ten times faster than any of the drive-thrus we went to.
Read on for the best soft and hardshell tacos we found in Houston. The overall champ is kind of a shock.
Whataburger Chicken Fajita Taco
This is a lazy chicken fajita wrap. It's so lazy, in fact, it seems as if somebody just dumped some Tyson frozen chicken on a baking sheet with a few peppers and threw it in the oven for 20 minutes — the actual time it took to get this delivered to the vehicle at the Shepherd location, after we were asked to pull up into that special waiting area in the sun where car a/c systems go to die. For taking such a long time, and having an astronomical cost (two were $9.50 with tax), the experience was also topped off with a grotesque climax: One of the tacos leaked out a watery, smelly substance through the paper bag and onto the car seat.
The fajita doesn't taste cooked in any way, shape or form, not even microwaved. The taco as a whole tastes like that scene from Carrie when the Mom is all "I could smell the roadhouse whiskey on his breath," except in this case you can smell the roadhouse Whataburger on the taco's breath and then on your own for hours after. You will need some whiskey after that.
Taco Bell Soft Taco
And here, now, the taco of America's fleeting youth. That's what it is, right? A dollar-and-change treat for high schoolers on the way home from band practice? The salty, questionable meat — it's only 88 percent antibiotic-laden beef, and the rest is...um...black magic? — was accompanied by chewy lettuce with an off-putting taste. Perhaps it was about to turn. The tortilla was papery, albeit in a thicker way, like a sheet of ancient papyrus recovered from an archaeological dig. Borrow those excavation tools and put this one back in the ground, buried deep, lest the scent rise like the living dead.
This drive-thru at Washington and Durham, known primarily for its array of margaritas to go — indeed, the signature house frozen marg is potent, flavorful and available even as a two-gallon party starter — also offers a menu of food, including tacos, but chewy, tendony chopped steak and seemingly microwaved tortillas (the edges were hardened like cardboard) couldn't be saved by the accompanying fiery orange sauce, delicious as it was, no matter how much you slathered it on. That and with a margarita and tip, the bill was more than $25.
Best Trash Taco: Taco Cabana
The ground beef is at the perfect level of saltiness, and the tender and well-grilled tortilla is wrapped in foil, keeping this trashy taco perfectly soft without getting soggy, while the meat is succulent and downright juicy. This is everything a trash taco should be. The tomato and lettuce taste fresh, and the cheese is melty from the hot, meaty filler. We were amazed by this taco, and are still kind of craving one. Plus, it's less than $2 per taco.
Hard Shell Taco
Jack in the Box
Is this meat? This can't possibly be meat. It almost has the texture of beans. There is a cult of Jack in the Box taco worshippers. Apparently Americans eat 554 million of these tacos a year. Maybe because four of them will set you back only $2.38, a fairly good deal if you down them right away and don't stop to think about the ramifications of such poor eating habits.
Again with that lettuce on the verge. Though the meat has a better texture than Jack in the Box's, there is something about the shell that just seems inedible. It's like if you got the Taco Bell taco box set from Kroger and tried to eat the taco shells without heating them first, basically. That and the meat turns the outer edge soggy.
Best Hard Shell: Taco Cabana
The shell wasn't entirely crunchy, but this hard taco was a whole hell of a lot better than its competition, with the same salty beef crumbles as Taco Cabana's soft taco offering. The soft taco is obviously the better option here, but if you're jonesing for the hard shell, this is probably your best bet in town.
Wildcard/Mex Tacos: It's a Tie, actually
El Rey's Ropa Vieja Taco
El Rey does a handful of tacos really well, and relatively cheap ($2.85/taco), from al pastor, with big chunks of fatty pork, to the dense carnita (pictured). But it's the ropa vieja that won our hearts, with spicy, seasoned meat offset by fresh purple cabbage and cilantro for a glorious and addiction-worthy drive-thru taco. This is the must-order taco when it comes to fast-food spots on Washington, hands down; just be prepared for a less than stellar wait time.
Gerardo's Drive-In's Barbacoa Taco
At this unassuming eatery and convenience store, barbacoa is the specialty, and it's definitely worth the trip for lunch. A perfectly griddled tortilla — your choice of corn or flour — and a selection of prepared salsas that are creamy, spicy and dreamier than most in town make this well-executed street-style taco one of the best you'll find in the Loop. Plus, three tacos will only set you back a little more than $7 (tax included), which is pretty incredible. Take them to go or eat them at a table while catching some fútbol on the television.
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Best Overall: Taco Cabana's Soft Taco
While it was a tough decision between the top three tacos, Taco Cabana was actually the most impressive and pretty surprising, considering that the fast-food chain never really gets that much cred. The flavor and quality of this meat came across as leaps and bounds above the local fast-food competition, and the tortilla seems to defy the fact that this is fast food at all, retaining an authentic, taqueria-like quality. It's on the cheaper side at $1.89, and the location at 3905 Kirby is verified fast, efficient and good for drive-thru. Enjoy those cheap eats, and find the overall rankings below.
1. Taco Cabana soft taco
2. Gerardo's barbacoa
3. El Rey ropa vieja
4. Taco Cabana hard shell
5. El Rey carnita and El Rey al pastor taco
6. Jack in The Box hard shell
7. Taco Bell hardshell
8. W Grill steak soft taco
9. Taco Bell soft taco
10. Whataburger chicken fajita taco