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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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.