Taco Bueno Houston; lights are on but nobody home!

Things haven’t been going well for Taco Bueno since they decided to return to Houston in 2020. Taco Bueno’s first go in Houston lasted from 1979-1988 and culminated with five locations throughout the city and only one in a suburb (Katy). This first go-around was all company-owned outlets, and to Taco Bueno’s credit, they had spent almost ten years at a few locations before pulling the plug. Taco aficionados tend to compare the chain with Taco Bell, which is pretty apt. They’re not gloriously stuck in the past like Taco Casa, but they’re also not quite as far down the “mutant food” path that Taco Bell has taken. Specifically, it’s not authentic, but Taco Bueno still resembles Tex-Mex, while Taco Bell more closely resembles a Pepsico Test Kitchen. Anyways, the Texas-founded and headquartered chain has about 140 locations at the latest count, making it tiny compared to Taco Bell. However, it is still a decent size for a regional player. This go-around for Taco Bueno is pretty different from the first round. The franchised locations mostly take over broken leases, with at least two stores filling the spot of former Carl’s Jr. locations and at least one former Taco Cabana. Another change is the positioning of locations, which are all in suburbs and exurbs this time, or more correctly were, because Taco Bueno is down to one operating location in the greater SE Texas area, Conroe, and one to open in April, Humble.

So what happened to the rest of the stores? Well, Katy was the first to open, and it received a pretty warm reception. It had a few months of proper operation that helped build up their reviews, and seemingly, once the Houston folk were left to their own devices and the hype died down, so did the food. I tried Taco Bueno twice, and while I’ll withhold my overall opinion for now, I will say there was a noticeable decline in quality between visits only spaced in a few months. I think lacking traffic caused a drop in freshness, but that’s just my opinion. Progress was slow, with the next location, Pasadena, opening about a year later in Fall 2021 in a former Krispy Kreme. Followed shortly thereafter by Conroe, who, along with Katy, both sat in former Carl’s Jr. locations. The subsequent openings would experience a similar reception and decline as Katy, albeit on a smaller scale. Lake Jackson would open in a former Taco Cabana in 2022, and Rosenberg would open by the end of the same year, and this is where the problems really began. As the newest location opened, Pasadena quietly closed. The Rosenberg location also began having issues with operation only weeks after its grand opening. According to unsubstantiated rumors, the health department may have been involved in that temporary closing. Eventually, though, this would be resolved, and the four remaining locations lumbered on through 2023. At some point, Lake Jackson also quietly closed, not leaving a trace beyond their Yelp page. By the end of the year, the Rosenberg and Katy locations also closed, leaving Conroe as the sole survivor. At this point, it’s not entirely clear what the plans are for the future of Taco Bueno in Houston, but I’d say they’re on thin ice.


    1. Hopefully, it is pretty close to me. Taco Bueno turned their food quality back around on their return to Houston in 2020. Conroe is still open and Humble is scheduled to open this month.

  1. I’ve been a Taco Bueno aficionado for over 40 years now and am disappointed to see they are struggling over the past several years. In my humble opinion, they are better than Taco Casa and Taco Cabana and are leaps and bounds better than Taco Bell when it comes to quality of the food (Taco Bell has gotten so far away from its Tex-Mex roots it is hardly if comparable anymore, but alas, that is another story altogether).

    I can’t really speak to what is going on in the Houston and southeast Texas market, but I can make a few comments on Taco Bueno in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area which is where I reside and frequent the locations. Back in 2018 and 2019 Taco Bueno closed multiple locations in the D/FW and North Texas area (along with other areas I believe). According to sources it was at this time they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was around this time that I first really started to notice cutting corners, subpar customer service and a lack of attention to little details that customers start to take notice of. In my opinion though, their problems started about ten to fifteen years before this when they started to remodel their older stores and changed the basic design and decor of what Taco Bueno was known for. The historic Taco Bueno stores from the 1970s and 1980s were in the design of an old Spanish mission with the interior decor in the old Spanish style as well (similar to what one may find in an El Fenix Restaurant for example). That made it feel like Taco Bueno was unique, a cut above other Tex-Mex fast-food chains. Unfortunately, post 2000, they changed their design for new stores and totally remodeled their older stores – completely moving away from the original Spanish style model. At that time, in my opinion, they lost their identity. They began to look and feel like any other modern ubiquitous fast-food chain. They weren’t distinct anymore and didn’t have that cozy, homelike atmosphere that the old Spanish style locations had. Gradually it seemed that customer service and attention to details also declined. To me, it seemed like a slow gradual process, but in my opinion these factors eventually took their toll. The location that I usually frequent in the D/FW area here was no exception. They began cutting corners, such as closing the dining room way early, not keeping the inside salsa bar open during business hours, not keeping the interior of the store and/or restrooms clean, having subpar customer service, exterior lighting and signage burned out or half working and not making the exterior look open and appealing – especially after dark. I actually contacted the corporate office about these issues with mixed results.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still love Taco Bueno and frequent them on a regular basis, but they could do much better. The food is still higher quality than other competing Tex-Mex fast-food chains, but I believe if they got back to their roots and focused on some of these other problems and the basics, they could once again compete in the ever-challenging fast-food market.  

    1. You made several great points. I grew up with Bueno so they have a soft spot in my heart. Something I also noticed is that every location has tons of negative reviews claiming food was terrible and that Taco Bell was better. I am starting to get the feeling that these are employees for Taco Bell writing the reviews. I just hope the new one in Humble, TX stays open for many years.