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Feature: Taco Bell's Cantina Bell Preview

Taco Bell recently invited me to a dinner previewing their upcoming Cantina Bell menu (debutin...

Taco Bell recently invited me to a dinner previewing their upcoming Cantina Bell menu (debuting nationally on July 5) as well as to meet with celebrity chef Lorena Garcia (competing this summer on Top Chef Masters; no, she wouldn't say who won, but hopes you will cheer for her) who they partnered with to develop the recipes behind the new menu.

The dinner was at the Ritz Carlton peering below at downtown L.A. Not exactly the first, second, nor seventh place that makes you think of Taco Bell, but perhaps that's the point. Now I can finally say, "I went to the Ritz Carlton to eat Taco Bell." I'll just check that off the bucket list.

So basically, the new Cantina Bell menu is geared at people who wouldn't normally get something at Taco Bell. Specifically, it's what Chef Garcia would eat at Taco Bell at an affordable price point (under $5) while providing a good value (550 calories and a little less than a pound of food).

On showcase for h'orderves (and appetizers) were two new salsas (roasted corn and pico de gallo) and guacamole. All three are new or reformulated and are really good! I especially like the corn for its texture, sweetness, and novelty. It can be a little bit of a balancing act scooping up the corn though. I probably wouldn't mind just hovering over the table and dipping the day way. Currently, Taco Bell's pico de gallo contains a dressing, but Chef Garcia does away with that in the new iteration, opting for the less-is-more approach and paring down to the most basic ingredients for a fresher, more pure expression.

As Chef Garcia talked about herself and how the partnership and menu came about, her preference for the bowl became evident. Each bowl will come with a clear plastic lid so that customers can see the many different ingredients and colors. The burrito option is more there for portability. I got the feeling that given the choice, Chef Garcia would have everyone choosing the bowl option. It does make for a pleasing presentation (especially in a ceramic bowl at the Ritz):

Chef Garcia spoke of a "contrast in textures ad balance of flavors" and I think Taco Bell's Cantina Bowl achieves that pretty well with its blend of citrus-herb marinated chicken (slightly bigger than Taco Bell's current chicken), black beans, cilantro rice, pico de gallo, guacamole, romaine lettuce, fire roasted corn salsa, and creamy cilantro dressing. I was able to taste each individual ingredient clearly (not always the case in some Taco Bell menu items) as well as mix them together for a blend of flavors. I will point out that the chicken tastes good, but has the texture of pre-cooked supermarket chicken. Not a surprise, but it bears mentioning.

For those turned off by the inclusion of cilantro (apparently a varying degree of the population find that it tastes like soap; see this article concerning a study), I didn't find a strong cilantro undertone in the rice nor the dressing. Your fears might also be assuaged by the observation of one of Taco Bell's development team members: he hates cilantro (one of the taste-like-soapers), but still enjoyed the bowl, cilantro and all.

So even though it hasn't even arrived yet, what's in the future for the Cantina Bell menu? Nothing set in stone, but it is here to stay, so look for Taco Bell to try different proteins and different forms of the current ingredients (tacos and quesadillas are my guess). Taco Bell was a bit mum of what they've tested before arriving at the final menu (because those items might make it onto the menu later on), but they did say they tried various corn tortillas including a whole grain version. They ended up not going in that direction as there seems to be a significant difference in regional preference and palates across the U.S. for corn tortillas with some areas finding the tortillas tested as "raw."

When the Cantina Bell menu arrives, it will mean 8 new ingredients at your local Taco Bell. And, as Taco Bell fans know, as long as they have the ingredients on hand, your local Taco Bell will make whatever the heck you want as long as you're clear on what you want (I do wonder if Beefy Crunch fans can bring a bag of Flaming Hot Fritos in and have them make that though).

As the launch approaches, be on the look out for a Taco Bell Facebook promotion where they'll be offering a "buy, one, get one bowl free" coupon. Taco Bell is also launching the menu with a guarantee that if you don't like it, they'll replace it with something else on the menu of equal value.

For more details on the Cantina Bell menu, you can check out my previous post.

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