On Monday morning, the Internet hive mind that is Reddit unearthed a gem: a 1992 TV ad for Taco Cabana—it appears to be the restaurant chain’s oldest commercial found on YouTube. Before we go any further, let’s all watch it together below.
Okay, now that we’re all here, we have some questions.
Question No. 1: What’s with the Chili’s diss?
Taco Cabana is a restaurant. So is Chili’s. They are both based in Texas, where they date back to the seventies (Chili’s opened its first spot in Dallas, in 1975; Taco C debuted in San Antonio in 1978). But that’s about where the similarities end. Taco Cabana sells Mexican food; Chili’s has a more expansive menu, but it’s known for its burgers. Taco C is drive-thru fast food; Chili’s is perhaps the definitive example of the nineties’ fast-casual trend. In order to better understand why Taco Cabana singled out Chili’s as an opponent twenty-seven years ago, we took a quick dive through history in an attempt to discern whether Chili’s was ever marketed as a Mexican restaurant—not entirely implausible, given its name and branding. Its owners originally considered Chili’s as a Tex-Mex themed burger place that also served tacos. However, by 1992, the Tex-Mex side was mostly out of the equation—a glimpse of the menu in this TV commercial from the same year sees it billed as a “Hamburger Bar & Grill,” and the ad focuses on the restaurant’s ribs (it’s not the famous “I want my baby back” jingle, though). That makes Chili’s a fairly random competitor to single out as a poor value (“expensive drinks plus a tip?!”) compared with Taco C—people picking one over the other probably want different things?—but we admire the confrontational attitude. (Rabbit-hole side note: Internationally, the branding of Chili’s is a different story—in Canada, it’s billed as “Chili’s Texas Grill,” while in India, it’s marketed as “American and Mexican food.”)
Question No. 2: Do Taco Cabana and Pappasito’s have beef?
In addition to taking shots at Chili’s, the Taco Cabana ad also shoots one across the bow of a more direct competitor: the Houston-based Pappasito’s Cantina chain, which pops up on screen twelve seconds in. “Why would you want to spend thirty bucks for lunch over there?” the guy wearing the extremely nineties tie asks his golfing buddy, as the screen cuts to a shot of Pappasito’s. It raises the question: was there a cold war between Taco C and Pappasito’s? Is it still going on?
Googling around provides little in the way of answers to that question, which suggests that the answer is “no.” On this 2013 Daily Meal post about the fifteen best Tex-Mex restaurants in the country, the two both eke their way onto the list, with Taco C one slot ahead of its competitor at No. 14. There are occasional Yelp reviews where a disgruntled customer dismisses one with a recommendation for the other. But there’s no historical record of the two chains seeing themselves as foes, so we’re going to assume that this was a feud that Taco Cabana attempted to start, but not one that blew up the world of early nineties Tex-Mex chains.
UPDATE: Pappasito’s informs us, via a pun-laden tweet, that in fact there was some bad blood between the two chains in the early ’90s, but that it has since been smoothed over.
Well, this is guacward, but we did feud with @TacoCabana in the old days. In queso you didn’t know, nowadays we’re tighter than a pair of tamales. Thanks for the laugh @TacoCabana @TEXASMONTHLY @dansolomon @Chilis https://t.co/4KDDPJRe4n— Pappasito's Cantina (@PappasitosTXMEX) February 12, 2019
Question No. 3: How much have prices changed over the years?
Inflation is real, but at Taco Cabana—and Chili’s and Pappasito’s, apparently—the basic claims of the fellas in the ad more or less hold true. You can, in fact, still enjoy lunch at Taco C for less than $5, depending what you order—that’ll get you a pair of beef tacos, or three bean and cheese, which ain’t bad. The $30 they derisively complain about spending at Pappa’s, meanwhile, is also still pretty accurate in 2019. The Monday lunch special of a chicken fajitas taco and a beef tostada, served with rice and beans, is $11.99. Add a tip and tax, and you’ve got $30 for two. Not all of the prices are the same—a pound of fajitas in 1992 ran $10.49, according to the ad, while that same order (with a dozen tortillas included), is now a whopping $25.99. But all things considered, these prices remain pretty reasonable and surprisingly accurate.
Question No. 4: Is that really how you pronounce “Cabana”?
Current Taco Cabana ads hit the vowel sounds the same way you do in “banana,” so it’s weird to hear it pronounced the way the folks in the 1992 commercial do. It’s definitely one of those words that has an anglicized pronunciation and a Spanish one. When you’re talking about Mexican food, the 1992 pronunciation makes more sense (even though it is the first time we’ve ever heard anyone say it that way when talking about Taco C).
Question No. 5: How old is that baby now?
The little baby held by the woman in the red-and-white striped sweatshirt(?) thing is now an adult in their late twenties—1992 was a long time ago.