Restaurant Reviews

First Look: Taco Casa Makes it to Houston

The crispy taco stays crisp.
The crispy taco stays crisp. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

click to enlarge It's finally here. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
It's finally here.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
In a state that treasures its tacos and has appropriated Mexican cuisine from our south of the border neighbors, it’s a wonder that many Texans still opt for the drive-thru at a fast food taco chain instead of stopping at one of the many taco trucks offering Abuela’s authentic recipes and from scratch ingredients. It’s rarely just convenience. There are taqueria trucks parked at every gas station and open parking lot available in our city of four million (or is it six? I can’t keep up).

What is it that makes us crave the cheap, assembly line variations of tacos and burritos at the fast food Mexican restaurants? Some nutritionists claim that it’s the autolyzed yeast used to enhance the flavor in some junk food that causes people to crave it. Maybe it’s just the convenient reliability of knowing that it will taste exactly the same each time. Whatever it is, even those of us who pretend to turn up our noses at such blatantly inauthentic Tex-Mex have surrendered at some point, whether it be after a night of ill-advised partying or on a seemingly exit-less highway which finally offers the sign of The Bell. Or maybe you’re one of those who has the value menu memorized.

click to enlarge The Taco Bell version of a bean burrito. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
The Taco Bell version of a bean burrito.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Even my mother, who thinks Taco Bell is disgusting, craves the cheap fried tacos at Jack in the Box. We all do. We just know never to actually open them up and look inside.

Now, there’s another cheap and quick alternative on the scene. Houston has finally gotten a Taco Casa.

From the buzz on social media, one would think it was on par with the second coming. Houston has a number of people who have moved here from the Dallas/Fort Worth area over the years and I am sure most of them would tell you that Houston is the far superior place to live, except for one thing; these North Texas transplants miss their precious Taco Casa.

I had to discover from where this fanatical adoration had sprung. So, I took a first look at the new Taco Casa in Cypress. Yes, that’s a bit north of Houston, but it’s the closest we’re going to get for now. However, I would bet my boots, if I owned a pair, that the Taco Casa invasion has just begun.

My first look actually was thwarted by being pulled over, in the Taco Casa parking lot, by a sheriff’s deputy. It was February, but my inspection sticker said January, so Mr. Deputy gave me a friendly warning. I am sure he was hoping my white van was carrying something more nefarious than a mom and a teenage boy on a trip to the orthodontist. My stomach in knots, I did not feel like eating fast food Tex-Mex after that. This is why the first look is a little late.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
My second look was more successful. The exterior of the restaurant is attractive despite the 1970s orange and yellow that most fast food places have slowly done away with. Taco Casa, however, has kept the same colors since it was founded in 1972 in Fort Worth by Shelda and Roy Upshaw. They have also kept the same menu.

After nearly a decade as owners of a Taco Bell franchise, they founded their own business, according to Leisure and Hospitality Magazine. There are now more than 90 stores in Texas and three in Oklahoma. It can be confusing to find information on the Texas-based company because there are quite a number of restaurants, including a chain in Alabama, that go by the name Taco Casa.

The Upshaws' Taco Casa has a loyal fan base, that’s for sure, especially around college towns like Bryan/ College Station.

click to enlarge The interior is warm and attractive. Sorta like me. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
The interior is warm and attractive. Sorta like me.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The stonework, the large outdoor patio, and the modern wood and tile decor of the new Cypress location gives off a vibe of fast-casual, more like a Taco Cabana. The seating looked comfortable and there were plenty of people enjoying their lunch break.

The menu was actually a bit disappointing to me. There didn’t seem to be many options. For one thing, there’s no chicken or steak on the menu like that of Taco Casa’s closest competitors. Secondly, the items just seemed like variations on a theme. A boring theme.

The positives were that the counter menu was displayed large enough to read easily and that there are also printed menus handy which list the items, ingredients and (uh-oh) nutrition facts.

Being new to the Taco Casa experience, I  went for the less expensive Taco Casa Favorites. The Super Items seemed a bit pricey in comparison and I didn’t want to get in over my head with giant portions.

The service was friendly, but they were still training employees, so it took a little longer than normal. I perused the condiments stand, which seemed to only offer up one type of taco sauce, hot. And lots of crayons.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
I took my food to go, but then realized that I'd forgotten to get the bean burritos for my son, so I made a run to the drive-thru. I told the voice over the intercom that I would like to try some packets of the other sauces because it was my first visit. Unfortunately, all I received was more packets of the hot sauce. It’s fine, a little more tomato flavor than Taco Bell’s. Personally, I like the vinegar base of TB’s taco sauces. My husband liked Taco Casa’s.

Once my Taco Casa buddies and I were home, I unwrapped and analyzed each one. Of course, I had to make comparisons to that other stalwart of Tex-Mess, Taco Bell. It can’t be helped.

First, the crispy taco ($1.69). Still crispy after a 15-minute drive. How, I don’t know. The corn shell had little air bubbles in it, which made me wonder if there was rice flour in it as well. Don’t quote me on that. I just wondered.

click to enlarge The crispy taco stays crisp. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
The crispy taco stays crisp.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The taco was filled with beef. Taco Casa says it’s 100 percent ground beef. I won’t go into the whole Taco Bell saga from a few years ago about their beef mixture, but Taco Casa’s definitely looks like real ground beef-without the seasoning. While I appreciated the texture of the meat, it definitely needed a few packets of sauce to give it some flavor. I really liked the crispy shell. The iceberg lettuce was, well, iceberg and I actually could taste the cheese. Taco Casa says it uses Wisconsin cheddar and they are definitely more generous with it than the Bell.

The soft taco ($1.79) was pretty pedestrian. Similar to the other guys, but way more filling inside.

click to enlarge Taco Casa is generous with the beef and cheese. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Taco Casa is generous with the beef and cheese.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The chili burger was neither chili nor burger. It’s a steamed hamburger bun with a scoop of the 100 percent ground beef, a buttload of shredded lettuce and a little mild sauce. I added cheese for an extra cost. It made no difference. It still tasted bland. I am pretty sure there is nothing to make this chili burger taste better, except some actual chili and a burger patty. But it was pretty inexpensive if you're trying to fill yourself up.

Then, we come to the stand out items. Those of us who grew up with Del Taco, before it made its exit from Texas, and remember fondly the Taco Bell of our teenage years can revisit our love of the bean. Yes, the awesomeness that once was Taco Bell’s pintos and cheese can be found in the form of Taco Casa’s frijoles. You remember. The little round waxed paper bowl of refried beans that never actually came up to the top of the container, but instead were hidden under the reddish-brown sauce and a thick hat of melted cheddar cheese.

click to enlarge The frijoles may not look pretty, but it's what's on the inside that matters. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
The frijoles may not look pretty, but it's what's on the inside that matters.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Seriously, I was taken back years ago to when I got my driver’s license and first job. After my shift waiting tables at Pizza Hut (now a Yum! Brands company, along with Taco Bell), I would drive to the little adobe, pueblo-shaped structure with its fake mission bell and eat my fill for under two bucks. Pintos and cheese was always on my list.

I am not here to diss Taco Bell, but its beans are not what they were. They have become a soupy tasteless mess. That’s all I am going to say.

Taco Casa’s frijoles are what give its substantial bean burritos the taste that will keep lovers of refrieds coming back for more. For $1.69, they deliver on flavor, ingredients and heft. Instead of the raw chopped onions in TB’s bean burritos, Taco Casa’s were minced and cooked into the beans, adding the onion flavor without the harsh texture. My husband and son will be their new best customers.

click to enlarge Taco Casa's bean burritos are Texas-sized. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Taco Casa's bean burritos are Texas-sized.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
My own taste buds have matured to the point that I rarely eat fast food. It always tastes like chemicals and I never feel well afterward. Taco Casa’s frijoles may be the one thing that will bring me back to the drive-thru.

So, why are the frijoles so good? I am going to take a stab at this and say it’s because they aren’t vegetarian, according to the menu. Which probably means lard. I couldn’t get any information one way or the other, but if the beans aren’t vegetarian, there’s some animal product in there somewhere and it’s why they taste like real refried beans.

Unfortunately, that’s also why the beans are even more caloric than the ground beef. Have a look-see at the nutrition facts and you’ll be saying Holy Frijoles!

I will also warn that the Super Salad($6.99) is not super because it has healthy vegetables. It has super calories. The Super Nachos($6.99) should be shared with the entire office if you know what’s good for you.

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For those watching their calories, here’s a heads up: The Taco Lite has more calories and fat than the Super Taco. Perhaps it’s meant to be a joke.

Another favorite of Taco Casa loyalists is the iced tea. Any cup size, 99 cents. And there is sweet tea available. You can even buy a gallon bag of it. To top it off, Taco Casa's drinks are served with the little pebble ice. Ice chewers rejoice!

Alas, there are no frozen margaritas or cold cervezas to sip on the patio.

My first (second) look at Taco Casa returned me to a time when true Mexican food in the seventies and early eighties was somewhat limited to the people who actually were Mexican and knew how to cook it. We suburban gringos were getting it in small, inauthentic doses from the emerging fast food industry. Maybe that early influence on our still forming tastebuds has a nostalgic hold on us, even when we have a much more vibrant and global culinary scene in Houston today.

Still, I might grab some Taco Casa frijoles, then stop at the taco truck parked down the street selling homemade pork tamales and barbacoa tacos. That's fusion cuisine in H-town.

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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.