Downscale Chipotle with Latina-chef branding: That’s my takeaway after sampling Taco Bell’s Cantina Bell menu, which launched today. The compact line of burrito bowls, cheeseless burritos, and chips and guacamole has been called “gourmet Mexican,” but it definitely has aspirations more along the lines of Chipotle than of Rick Bayless, even though the menu was “created” by a chef (and future Top Chef Masters contestant), Miami’s Lorena Garcia.
Photographer Chris Rochelle and I swooped down on the Taco Bell in San Francisco’s semigritty Tenderloin neighborhood (the Cantina Bell source closest to the CHOW offices) for a taste. What we ordered: one chicken burrito bowl (pictured above) and one steak burrito (pictured below). Both cost just under $5 (similar items at Chipotle are two bucks more). Both were filled with a handful of apparently fresh ingredients previously unknown in Taco Bell’s assembly kitchens: grilled corn salsa, cilantro rice, guacamole in which the avocado variety (Hass) is called out by name. That's nice, right?
But did they taste good? The answer depends on your fast-food tolerance. Fond of the salt bomb in a stretchy wrapper known as the Taco Bell Bean Burrito? You'll probably think the Cantina Bell steak burrito free of starch and industrial cheese is pretty nice. But if you've ever "Liked" Chipotle on Facebook, or regularly drunk-scarfed San Francisco's Mission burrito at its source, you’re probably going to think this dressed-up fast-food version is really rather shitty. In other words, it’s a 32-ounce cup half-empty/32-ounce cup half-full sort of thing.
Me, I thought both were pretty bad. The chicken—labeled “100% citrus-herb marinated all-white-meat" in the well-hyphenated wrapper copy—seemed so loaded up with saline injections it practically dissolved under plastic-fork pressure. The “fresh” corn had the watery texture of freezer corn, and Hass avocados apparently couldn't save the guacamole from being weak and dribbly. Plus the rice had that weirdly plasticized texture of Uncle Ben’s Original Converted.
I could go on (watch Supertaster Daily for an extended video review next week). Overall, the thing that makes Cantina Bell a weak Chipotle wannabe is Taco Bell itself. Under yellowy fluorescents, with some dude nursing a coffee in the corner like he’s got nowhere else to go for the rest of the day, the Cantina can't ever have the mall-grade luster of a Chipotle, despite Chef Garcia’s commanding signature on the burrito wrapper. But nice try, guys.
Photographs by Chris Rochelle / CHOW