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

Chef Lorena Garcia presents Taco Bell's Cantina items.
Chef Lorena Garcia presents Taco Bell's Cantina items.
All photos by Laine Doss

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.

Taco Bell. With wine. On China.
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.

Here's how it's really served. In plastic.
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.

Garcia and guacamole gun!
Garcia and guacamole gun!

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