They did it. They finally did it. After years of jokes about Taco Bell just reusing the same half-dozen ingredients to create new menu items, The Bell flipped the bird in your face, teamed up with chef Lorena Garcia, and made a whole new line of products called the Taco Bell Cantina.
I bet you feel ashamed for making fun of them now, don’t you?
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s start with this mysterious chef Lorena Garcia. Who is she? What are her credentials? Let’s play Internet P.I.
First of all, she has no Wikipedia page. This immediately sets off red alarms. As far as I’m concerned, if it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, it either doesn’t exist or isn’t worth mentioning.
Junk Food Betty notwithstanding, of course.
That said, she does have some credentials, if you could call them that. She was on season four of Top Chef Masters. She did not win. She is on the current season of Top Chef Masters. Results TBD. She was a judge on America’s Next Great Restaurant. It was canceled after the first season due to low ratings. She has a website. She owns? Is executive chef of? Lorena Garcia Cocina restaurant. It is located in the Miami Airport. Concourse D.
No word on how many Michelin stars it has received.
Speaking of Top Chef Masters, here’s a fun little tidbit: during both the first and second episodes (the only episodes that have aired as of this post), Bravo aired Taco Bell Cantina commercials that focused heavily on chef Garcia. Hmmm. The show also airs this fine-print disclaimer at the end of every episode: “Winning and elimination decisions were made by the Judges in consultation with the Producers. Some elimination decisions were discussed with Bravo.”
I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy here or anything. Just…pointing that out.
Ooooookay, so we know who we’re working with, here. Now let’s see what we’re working with.
Working off the Taco Bell press release, chef Garcia worked with Taco Bell’s food innovators to come up with 26 new recipes, which they then narrowed down to 8.
These aren’t just eight new “recipes” using the same ol’ Taco Bell ingredients, however. These are eight new recipes using eight new ingredients.
The ingredients: “Whole black beans, cilantro rice, 100-percent all-white meat chicken in a citrus and herb marinade, guacamole made with 100-percent Hass avocado, fire-roasted corn salsa, creamy cilantro dressing, romaine lettuce and pico de gallo.”
Well, those certainly are a departure from Taco Bell’s current ingredients! That sounds sarcastic, but I’m actually serious. Minus the pico de gallo, which sounds rather similar to Taco Bell’s Fresco Menu’s “fiesta salsa”, these are all brand new and sound very promising.
The recipes: Cantina Bowl, Cantina Burrito, chips and guacamole, chips and roasted corn & pepper salsa, chips and pico de gallo, and cilantro rice topped with black beans.
I’m no math major, but I only count six new menu options there. To indulge Taco Bell, however, I’ll count their chips as a “new recipe”, since they are prepared in-store daily (which they presumably were not before), and count the rice and beans as two separate recipes. Okay, there. That makes eight.
Reviewing all eight new items would make for a lengthy review, and my verbosity is already embarrassing enough as it is. Thankfully, Taco Bell has made it easy for me – they’ve stuffed pretty much every new item into their Cantina Bowl. The official description: “Experience our new citrus-herb marinated chicken, flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn & pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly-prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice. Also available in Steak or Veggie.”
Wow, that’s a lot of…everything Cantina. I don’t know whether to thank Taco Bell for making my job easier, or curse them for having to go through an excavation journey to unearth, photograph, and taste each of these unique individual items.
If you’re wondering about the Cantina Burrito, just take everything I say about the Cantina Bowl and dump it into a tortilla. Seriously. It’s the exact same stuff, but instead of using a fork, you can eat it while you drive, dumping creamy cilantro dressing on your crotch, which will make for an awkward situation when you’re talking to the cops after getting into a fender bender while picking corn and beans off the front of your shirt. “Officer, it’s creamy cilantro dressing, I swear! …No, that is not a euphemism!”
Here we have the bowl, in all its seven-new-ingredients glory. Actually, make that eight? While Taco Bell’s description of the Cantina Bowl makes no mention of lettuce, it is obviously present, luring you into thinking you might actually be eating a salad. The most crowded salad in the history of salads.
This, however, is no salad. ‘Tis a bowl. My bowl was handed to me at the drive-thru by a man with a large bandage on his finger, covered by a plastic glove. Apparently he was not competent enough to cut tortillas into triangles for their in-house tortilla chips.
Well, he didn’t do much better at the drive-thru, as my Cantina Bowl was sideways in the bag he handed to me, and the lid was also not secured, resulting in some of my citrus-herb marinated chicken spilling into the bag and everything shifting sideways. I shook the bowl back into place and put the chicken back in when I got home, giving no fucks that it had touched the probably-unsanitary bag. I’ve eaten off worse.
Okay, let’s break this shit down. For my own sense of organization, we’ll go from bottom to top.
Described by Taco Bell as: “Our fluffy white rice contains an authentic hint of cilantro and perfectly compliments any Cantina Bowl or Burrito.”
My experience: The rice was indeed fluffy and well-cooked; it was moist and tasty, but they must really be emphasizing the “hint” part of cilantro, because I detected no cilantro taste at all. And I know my cilantro.
Taco Bell: Described as “tasty and flavorful”. Not much to say about beans, I guess.
Me: As you might be able to tell by the picture, the beans were rather mushy. I didn’t mind, though; I love black beans, and these were full-flavored. Plus, their juices mixed in with the rice, which only added to the rice’s moistness and flavor.
Roasted corn & pepper salsa:
TB: “Includes sweet roasted corn and bright, beautiful red and green bell peppers.”
Me: The corn does, indeed, look roasted, and I was surprised that it actually tasted roasted, too. I didn’t really see any green peppers, but the little bits of red pepper added some nice color and a detectible bit of flavor.
TB: “Our enticing guacamole includes real Hass avocados, ripe tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and a little kick of lime.”
Me: I call bullshit on this one. The guacamole does have a strong, authentic, delicious avocado flavor, but it’s more like avocado purée than guac. There are no chunks, and no taste of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, or lime, that I could tell. Hell, I’d still put it on just about anything I order from Taco Bell just because I love avocados, but don’t expect much other than creamy avocado that’s probably been pushed through a pastry bag.
Citrus-herb marinated chicken (also pictured above):
TB: “Our grilled, premium white-meat chicken is marinated in a savory blend of lemon and fresh herbs.”
Me: I take issue with the word “premium”, here. My immediate thought upon eating the chicken was of those Foster Farms pre-cooked chicken strips that come in the red pouches. The chicken was moist, but had a processed texture to it. There was a hint of citrus flavor, but not as much as I would have liked, and I don’t know what kind of herbs they used, but I couldn’t taste any of them.
Pico de gallo:
Taco Bell and I pretty much agree here. Tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. The tomatoes were fresh and the onions were crunchy, which are pretty much the only places you can go wrong with pico. I didn’t bother taking a picture because if you can’t imagine chopped tomatoes and onions mixed with cilantro, you have no culinary imagination. Plus, I was pretty tired of taking pictures at this point.
Creamy cilantro dressing:
Taco Bell has no specific description of the dressing on their website, and neither do I, because I couldn’t find an appreciable amount to take a picture of, nor could I really taste a specific cilantro dressing-like substance.
After carefully partitioning and tasting each of the individual ingredients, I was finally able to eat the Cantina Bowl in what I assume was its intended form, and by that I mean, I took my fork and mixed all that shit together into a giant mass of Cantina ingredients. The result? In this case, I’d have to say the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. While some of the ingredients were disappointing by themselves, with everything mixed together, there were lots of different textures, from the crunchiness of the corn and onions to the creaminess of the “guacamole”. I have to believe there was actually some dressing in there, because everything was very moist.
Overall, I have to say Taco Bell’s Cantina Bowl was just okay. There were some hits, like the texture of the rice and the flavor of the beans, and some misses, like the processed feel of the chicken and the disappointing lack of cilantro flavor, despite it being a key part of several ingredients. Also, the Bell makes a big deal in proclaiming that the lettuce is romaine, but it looked and tasted just like regular shredded iceberg to me.
I might give some of the other Cantina Bell items a try – maybe the bean and rice bowl, heck, why not throw some of that avocado paste on top – but the next time I go to Taco Bell, I won’t be getting another Cantina Bowl. I appreciate the effort TB took in revitalizing their menu, but the overall execution was lacking in the flavors it promised.
Good luck on Top Chef Masters, Lorena Garcia. Perhaps you’ll fare better there than you did at Taco Bell. And if Bravo and its sponsors have anything to say about it, I’m sure you’ll do just fine.
Taco Bell Cantina Bowl