Lorena Garcia's Taco Bell Cantina Bowl Not a Core Shaker

Categories: First Bites
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All photos by Laine Doss
Chef Lorena Garcia presents Taco Bell's Cantina items.
Last night a select dozen or so people were invited to try celebrity chef Lorena Garcia's latest dish. The affair, held at Garcia's midtown Miami studio, was stellar.

From the complimentary valet parking to the bartender serving cilantro-infused cocktails, the evening was five-star. Garcia's test kitchen was turned into a dining room worthy of any South Beach hotel. White linens, crystal, and purple orchid centerpieces graced the long communal table, with hostess Garcia at the head of the table. Imported still water and fine wine was poured as Garcia welcomed us to dinner.

Then came the appetizers. A plate with three white ramekins arrived at each table, accompanied by tortilla chips. Inside the little porcelain cups? Guacamole, pico de gallo, and fire-roastd corn salsa. This was no ordinary dinner by a celebrity chef. This was a first taste of the Taco Bell Cantina Menu.
The new menu, which launches nationwide on Thursday, July 5, consists of only two items. A Cantina bowl and a Cantina burrito. Each can be ordered with your choice of protein -- citrus-marinated chicken, vegetable, or steak. Either burrito or bowl is priced at $4.79 for chicken or veggie, $4.99 for steak.The Cantina items will be available only until 11 p.m. (probably because late-night bingers still prefer tacos).

Before we got down to eating, we were given the entire rundown by Ellie Doty, senior manager of marketing for Taco Bell. Out of a search for hundreds of chefs, they chose Garcia for her work with Latin flavors. No, they weren't concerned that Garcia, hailing from Venezuela, wasn't Mexican because, as Garcia put it, "all Latin foods speak to each other."

Doty also mentioned that every Taco Bell employee -- about 15,000 -- were trained on the new menu, using videos made by Garcia herself.

Indeed, Garcia does seem to have a great deal of interest in the project. She should be, because her name is already attached to it. She's the first celebrity chef to lend her name to a fast food menu item. I asked Garcia if this could be the start of a new trend, in much the same way fashion designers lend their name to lower price-point retailers like Jason Woo for Target and Nicole Miller for J.C. Penney. She said she didn't really know about that, but she did say she thought long and hard about working with Taco Bell and had some stipulations about the menu and ingredients.

For instance -- cilantro. According to a Taco Bell representative, the company literally had to contract farmers to plant an entire field of cilantro to meet the demands of the new menu, which features fresher flavors.

After much discussion, the food finally arrived in white bowls. We tasted a chicken Cantina bowl, which starts with cilantro rice and black beans riffed from Garcia's mother's recipe from Venezuela. The rice and beans are then topped with citrus-herb marinated chicken ("I wanted to see the chicken. I wanted to see the grill marks", explained Garcia). Instead of the usual tortilla chips, romaine lettuce is used for crunch. The bowl is then finished with pico de gallo, guacamole, fire-roasted corn salsa, and creamy cilantro dressing. A 16-ounce serving comes in at 550 calories. Though the sodium content wasn't available, the chicken bowl packs in 22 grams of fat and 26 grams of protein.

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Taco Bell. With wine. On China.
What wasn't there? That punch of sodium and chemically after-taste of overly processed foods. The lettuce was fresh and dark green. The corn salsa was sweet and tasty. a "miss" was the guacamole, made from Haas avocados, which didn't taste like much of anything at all.

In short? Taco bowls have been done before and Pollo Tropical has been doing their Tropi-Chop for ages. The idea -- and the food -- aren't exactly core shakers. But, as Doty explained, Taco Bell considers their competition to be that of the big boy fast-food chains like McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's. This is their first real answer to the other chains' salads and smoothies. And, at under five bucks, it could provide a more balanced meal to people who are used to eating solely from a drive-thru menu.

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Here's how it's really served. In plastic.
I'm still skeptical and I intend to try out the items when they come out next week. When they're not served in china bowls with a nice Pinot Gris. If you want to experience the new Cantina bowl, Taco Bell's Facebook page will be offering a BoGo special on July 3, good for one free bowl or burrito when you buy one on July 5-7.

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Garcia and guacamole gun!
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Ditch the cilantro and it may be edible.  I just didn't "get it".  How do you eat it?  What were the side of chips for?  Would have been better without the corn and avocado ( both of which I LOVE, but, not these flavors!).  Steak and rice...that would have been quite enough.  I will stick to the Steak Chalupa Supreme at the Bell.  I will get my salads elsewhere. 

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

 The chicken is pre-made and then heated up at the store.  Standard for fast food outlets.


How is the chicken cooked? Off site? Microwave? I am very skeptical of allowing others to cook chicken for me do you know if you can get this item well done?

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

 I completely plan to. In fact Taco Bell execs offered to bring one to the office, but I said I preferred to just go to a random Taco Bell and see what happens.  Will let you know next week, for sure.

Miguel Orizondo
Miguel Orizondo

Please complete this "tasting" by visiting an actual Taco Bell, without the valet parking and the South Beach hotel trimmings and tell us how the production model compares to what you ate at the press conference. 


He must have died from the real one.

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