As if the recent resurrection of Del Taco, plus the ongoing expansion of Taco Casa and the revamping of Taco Cabana's menu hasn't been enough to satisfy the taco cravings of fast-foodies, here comes another drive-through taco place.
Ah, but this is Taco Villa, beloved for its taco burgers, smothered burritos, fresh ingredients and humble West Texas roots. It's part of Fort Worth-based Bobby Cox Companies' small fast-food empire, yes. But compared to other fast food restaurants, Taco Villa is sort of an underdog, with fewer than 20 stores, most of which are in Amarillo, Midland and Odessa. Something to say for longevity, too; the first store opened in Odessa in 1968.
Taco Villa made its North Texas debut a month ago in Benbrook, in a brand-new, turquoise-splashed building, right in the middle of a fast-food mecca that also includes a new Taco Casa. But TC's sweet tea has been no match for Taco Villa: lines at lunch and dinner have been long, and the drive-through line often wraps around the building.
The quality of the food is a step up from Taco Bell, Taco Casa and Taco Bueno, but it's not quite as good as Taco Cabana or one of Cox's other places, Rosa's Cafe. It is inexpensive, and most of what we sampled wasn't half bad.
Taco Villa's signature item, the Taco Burger ($1.99), was a disappointment, however. Instead of a traditional meat patty, ground beef is used. It's not a loose meat sandwich like Maid-Rite's. Instead, the ground beef is held together by oats. This gave the meat a very dense, unappealing, oatmeal-like texture, and the meat lacked a beefy flavor. It came on a plain white bun, soggy and wrinkled, but the tomato slices and shredded iceberg lettuce were fresh and crisp.
A small side of fries ($1.79) was good -- thin, golden, crunchy and nicely salted. Curly fries, like those at Arby's, are also available, and you can get them smothered in queso or chili con carne.
We tried another signature item, the Guadalajara chalupa ($2.49), and found much to like. On top of a thin, fried corn tortilla came a generous layer of guacamole, topped with shredded lettuce and grated cheddar cheese. The guacamole had a smooth texture, like whipped cream, and a slightly sweet flavor. Chalupas often burst apart on first bite, but ours stayed together until the last crunch.
Our friendly cashier also recommended a combo smothered burrito ($3.49), which included a large flour tortilla stuffed with ground beef, soft refried beans and the requested spicy green chile sauce. We were surprised at how attractively it was presented: yellow cheese sauce on one side, red chile con carne on the other, and a streak of sour cream down the middle. On top was a handful of sliced black olives.
This much food, for $3.50, was a steal, but the spiciness of the green chile sauce was often overpowering.
Our favorite item was a terrific and simple fajita taco ($2.59), filled with tender chunks of marinated steak, bright pico de gallo and shredded cheddar. The steak was the star here -- cooked medium, with lots of pink and flavor and char. It's so unusual for a fast-food restaurant to prepare meat medium -- what other fast food place does that? Bummer the flour tortillas aren't made in-house, but this one was good -- thin but sturdy, with a subtle flavor.
Like Rosa's, Taco Villa has a separate salsa bar featuring a chunky red salsa and fresh pico de gallo. Utensils and drink lids come from a dispenser -- not only a bit of a money-saver for the restaurant but a far more sanitary alternative to leaving these items in bins for everyone else to touch.
Taco Cabana and Rosa's remain the top Mexican fast-food stops, but Taco Villa is certainly a nice addition to our taco-loving town.