Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5 p.m.
What the Cantina Bowl is supposed to look like.
Fresh, light, crisp, subtle.
These are the descriptors that drifted through my mind as I chomped down my meal at a preview event for Taco Bell's new Cantina Bell menu.
Who are you and what have you done with Taco Bell?!
The new menu, a Chipotle-like lineup of "gourmet" bowls and burritos, is a bold move for the Irvine-based mega-chain--it's food has never been loved for its pretty face. Created by Lorena Garcia, a Venezuela-raised chef who's appeared on The Biggest Loser and Top Chef, the offerings are unlike anything else on the bro-focused menu. Think juicy chicken with real grill marks, guacamole with actual avocado chunks, romaine lettuce instead of wimpy iceberg and vibrant fire-roasted corn salsa. The prized item is the burrito bowl, a giant leap for a company that rarely thinks outside shell or tortilla.
Lorena Garcia (dressed in black) explains how she came up with the menu.
"I said, 'What if we don't wrap it?'" Garcia explained, sitting at the head of the table filled with hungry reporters and bloggers like this one. "I want to be able to see what I'm eating."
For Cantina Bell, Garcia got rid of the guacamole gun (the one that shoots out globs of green stuff and can probably double as a lethal weapon) and ditched sour cream all together. (It's never been a part of Latin American cuisine, anyway, save for those pesky pochos) Garcia grew up eating tons of cilantro and wanted to incorporate it in a major way, so Taco Bell set up cilantro fields across the country to keep up with the demand. In total, she introduced eight new ingredients to the permanent Taco Bell menu, which is a big deal considering it seems that the restaurant previously had like four.
And what the Cantina Bowl really looks like--pretty darn close!
Anyway, we got to try the chicken Cantina Bowl, which arrived in fancy bowls on our fancy place settings. First off, the thing is hefty, similar to Chipotle's burrito bowls. The Taco Bell folks assured us that what we saw in front of us was what customers would getting, and even passed around a bowl in its real-life packaging. It was heavy indeed. I could do bicep curls with that thing.
The chicken itself was tender, juicy, and substantial, unlike any fast-food chicken I've tasted. The lettuce was crisp, the corn was sweet and the cilantro rice was nice and moist. Without the citrus-y chicken, however, the overall flavor was a bit bland for me--if I were at Taco Bell, I would have grabbed a handful of Fire packets and doused the thing. The beans didn't add much of anything for me and the creamy cilantro dressing was tasty but a little too subtle. While Chipotle is like an explosion, Cantina Bell is like a scented candle, pleasant but not mind-blowing.
Still, everything was fresh (and very pretty!). And at $4.79 and 550 calories, I could see this being a hit for those who want something quick and relatively guilt-free.
The Cantina Bell menu launches on July 5 at Taco Bell restaurants nationwide, but if you can't wait until then, there are a few OC locations serving it now, including the one on Barranca in Irvine, Red Hill in Tustin and Rockfield in Lake Forest.