Fast Food

Taco Bell's "Cantina Bell" menu may make Chipotle a little nervous

Taco Bell is going upscale? When I heard this, I thought it was a joke -- and the Demolition Man lines were coming hard and fast.

Still, it's true: Taco Bell has officially announced that it's taking on fast-casual Mexican food chains like our own Chipotle with the July 5 rollout of its "Cantina Bell" menu. The Bell recruited America's Next Great Restaurant chef Lorena Garcia to create new menu items like the Cantina Burrito Bowl and Cantina Burrito, which will be made with never-before-Belled ingredients like black beans, fire-roasted corn salsa, cilantro rice, pico de gallo and citrus- and herb-marinated chicken.

Should the folks at Chipotle be worried?

Taco Bell not only recruited Garcia, it's plunking down $20 million for TV and digital marketing in the first month alone. The company obviously wants -- and needs -- this to work.

But there are two gigantic questions. Will Taco Bell customers -- those they already have in their grasp, like me, and the ones they want, folks who put more value on fresh and healthy than cheap and calorie-laden -- take this new menu seriously? And are the new menu items good enough to tempt people away from already-established fresh, fast-casual Mexican spots like Chipotle?

The proof is in the pintos, in this case.

While the new ingredients for the Cantina menu fare are not really innovative, they are new to Taco Bell, and signal an obviously well-researched leap from fast, cheap and portable to fast, slightly less cheap, significantly more healthy and portable. The new burritos will be a little larger and a little more expensive than the regular burritos at around $5 each, and both these and the new salads will come with a choice of chicken or beef, or a vegetarian option for the same price -- with no meat and extra black beans. New side dishes will include chips and pico, and black beans and rice for $1.49 each.

At a menu rollout dinner for the Cantina Bell menu last night with chef Garcia at Gourmet Fine Catering, I sampled the new sides and the Cantina Burrito Bowl. It was an evening with a few surprises.

There was mingling over chef Garcia's cocktail creations, and there was Garcia herself. I could see why the Bell chose her to steer this ship: She is charismatic, intense, business-minded and extremely passionate about her cooking.

She prepared a chicken Cantina Burrito Bowl tableside while guests dug into tortilla chips, guacamole, pico de gallo and the new corn salsa. The pico was pretty standard -- diced tomatoes, onion and plenty of cilantro (which I was quickly discovering is Garcia's favorite seasoning) -- and the corn salsa was sweet, lightly roasty, and had mild, diced red and green bell peppers. Neither was spicy, but I didn't expect them to be; Bell still wants to appeal to a broad range of tastes.

And then came the first surprise of the evening.

Someone brought out a guacamole gun from one of the stores, and I practically jumped up and down in my seat with delight, because I go way back with the Taco Bell guac-gun. I worked at a Bell in high school, and my teen years would not have been the same without employee-on-employee guac-gun violence. Shooting wads of avocado paste from a big caulking gun never got old.

But chef Garcia has mandated that there will be no more guacamole guns at Taco Bell.

Her reasoning behind this banhammer is that the white, cardboard tubes of guac are institutional, and she likes to see the actual product. Her logic is sound, but I actually got a bit misty as the gun was taken away.

The next big surprise came when I noticed that Garcia prepared the Cantina Burrito Bowl using hearts of romaine lettuce. Taco Bell, which has always been slavishly loyal to iceberg lettuce?

Each of the guests was served their own bowl of salad, and that provided the biggest surprise of the night: it was delicious. The cilantro rice was far superior to Bell's regular Mexican rice, the black beans were toothsome and well-seasoned, and the chicken was edible. This citrus-marinated chicken bird is a vast improvement on Taco Bell's current cache of salty, chewy, poultry scraps -- it's moist, tangy, less salinated and, provided the store employees prepare it properly, definitely worth ordering. And I haven't touched Taco Bell chicken in any form in well over a decade.

Topped with Garcia's signature cilantro sauce, the bowl is a medley of textures and flavors, with a total calorie count of 550 -- impressive, for more than a pound of food.

I went into dinner doubting Taco Bell's sanity, but I'm now convinced that even if the Bell can't straight-up raid Chipotle's customer demographic, it could certainly take a chunk of its business.

Never ask for whom the Bell toils...

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz