Last week we tried Lorena Garcia's Cantina Bowl at her studio kitchen. On fine china. With some good wine.
The occasion was a media blitz before the official rollout of Taco Bell's new mini-line of chef-driven offerings. Lorena Garcia -- chef, author, television personality, and restaurateur -- was on hand to lead the dinner, offering animated descriptions of the bounty of Latin-inspired food we were about to eat. Loads of cilantro! Black beans taken from her mother's secret recipe! Citrus-marinated chicken with the grill marks still on them! Sweet fire-roasted corn salsa!
It all sounded wonderful and tasted, well, all right. But my concerns were if the dish could be prepared mass market. How would the Cantina Bowl look and taste in the hands of the assembly line workers who will prepare the bowl at my local Taco Bell? I headed there to see for myself.
As I drove up to the Coconut Grove location, there was no mistaking that Taco Bell is heavily pushing this new menu. Images of Lorena Garcia's ultra-airbrushed face cover the windows, with the promise "You'll love it. Or we'll replace it." Note to Taco Bell: You don't have to airbrush a woman who is naturally beautiful. Just saying.
Posted on the menu board are instructions on how to order your Cantina meal. Step 1: Choose bowl or burrito. Step 2: Choose your protein (chicken, steak, or veggie). Step 3: Make it a combo by adding chips and a choice of guacamole, corn salsa, or pico de gallo, and a soda. Bowl or burrito is priced at $4.79 for chicken or veggie, $4.99 for steak. For a combo, add $2 to either.
I ordered a steak Cantina Bowl and a chicken Cantina Bowl combo with guacamole. Here's what the Cantina Bowl looked like at the fancy media dinner:
Here's what it looked like at Taco Bell:
Which one is the chicken, and which is the steak? Good question. I had to dig deep to find either protein. When I did, I wished I hadn't.
The steak, which wasn't offered at the media dinner, certainly didn't taste like steak. But it did taste familiar. Then I got it. It tasted like Taco Bell ground beef -- only in chunks.
In her presentation, Chef Garcia told us about the chicken: "I want to see the grill marks!" There were grill marks, but the chicken was that processed kind. Made from parts unknown, shaped back into a breast, and then grilled. My take: You should have to chew chicken. When it's melt-in-your-mouth soft, there's a problem.
The guacamole, which was chunky, if a little bland, at the dinner, got the Taco Bell touch too. Meaning it looked and tasted the same as the Taco Bell guac you get with your regular food.
What held up to scrutiny? The lettuce was fresh and crisp, and the roasted corn salsa was still sweet with a hint of smokiness.
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What concerns me the most: Looking at the Taco Bell website's nutritional content, I couldn't help but notice these "healthier" versions aren't healthful at all. In fact, they're laden with sodium (which I could have told you by the headache I got about a half-hour after eating just parts of the meal). Here's the nutritional information, per Taco Bell:
Cantina Bowl (chicken) - 560 calories; 22g fat; 1560mg sodium; 64g carbs.
Cantina Bowl (steak) - 550 calories; 23g fat; 1600mg sodium; 64g carbs.
Cantina Bowl (veggie) - 540 calories; 31g fat; 1310mg sodium; 64g carbs.
Chips and Guacamole - 320 calories; 30g fat; 450mg sodium; 32g carbs.
In conclusion, the Taco Bell Cantina Menu is filled with sodium, empty calories, and processed foods. Fast-food chains can hire celebrity chefs to make a menu, but if they fall down in the everyday execution and cut corners with inferior and/or cheap product, even the best names in the culinary world can't help them. But don't take my word. Go try them. As Chef Garcia says: "You'll love it. Or we'll replace it."