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Taco Bell's Cantina Bell menu needs Lorena Garcia in the kitchen

Taco Bell's Cantina Bowl with chicken -- as it appears in the ads.
Taco Bell's Cantina Bowl with chicken -- as it appears in the ads.

I was as surprised as everyone else when Taco Bell announced that it was going fast-cazh with the new Cantina Bell menu -- a blatant rip-off of Chipotle's signature healthy, fresh Mexican-inspired burritos and bowls, albeit at slightly slower prices. I even attended a Taco Bell rollout dinner, hosted by chef Lorena Garcia, where we sampled the new menu items, and I was again surprised by how tasty -- and cost-effective -- they turned out to be.

But after a reader wondered how these same items would look/taste when prepared by an average Taco Bell employee, I decided to find out. And so I went to the Taco Bell at 1775 East Colfax Avenue, to suss out whether the Cantina Bell items needed Garcia around to appear just as lovely and appetizing.

The Cantina Bowl with steak IRL -- not pretty.
The Cantina Bowl with steak IRL -- not pretty.
J. Wohletz

And they really, really did.

I ordered all three of the new Cantina Bowls -- with steak, chicken and veggies only -- and compared them to the delicious, carefully prepared bowl I'd had at the rollout dinner. The same ingredients were used; the major difference was how those ingredients were put together. The demo bowl was tidy, with cilantro rice on the bottom, seasoned black beans gently ladled across that; and other toppings carefully laid out next to each other, a la a Cobb salad, with creamy cilantro sauce peeping out here and there. The guacamole, roasted corn salsa and pico de gallo created a pleasing color contrast.

The Cantina Bowl with chicken IRL -- equally not pretty.
The Cantina Bowl with chicken IRL -- equally not pretty.
J. Wohletz

All of the bowls I got at this Taco Bell looked like messy chopped salads, with lettuce, beans, bits of chicken or steak, and the occasional kernel of corn thrown around willy-nilly in the containers, with no attention to presentation.

The citrus grilled chicken tasted basically the same, but wasn't as good cold and smeared with beans. The steak was the usual jerk-i-fied, beef-like substance that Taco Bell uses in its other "steak" items -- blarf. And the vegetarian bowl had way too many beans, which were also chilly.

And none of the bowls had anywhere near enough cilantro sauce, an absolute necessity to keep all the ingredients from being unpalatably dry.

I didn't expect the Cantina Bell dishes at the stores to be exactly the same as the demo bowl, but I also didn't expect the regular bowls to be quite so disappointing. I suppose that without Garcia around to shake her wooden spoon at them -- she's funny, but also firm -- employees just don't have the the proper motivation to make the Cantina items resemble their pictures. Or even make them look remotely appetizing.



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