In the interest of full disclosure, let me start off with this: I worked for Taco Bell for several years in the late 90s, moving up from cash register jockey all the way to assistant manager. I know a little something about the Bell, and while I don’t have any horror stories for you (we were a very clean store), I will say that Taco Bell food when I was there was, in large part, pre-cooked and reheated — almost nothing was made fresh. This wasn’t always the case with Taco Bell; at one time, chicken, steak, beans, and ground beef were prepared in the restaurants, and while it was never haute cuisine, it was once a little better than what it became in later years. One piece of advice I’ll give you about the Bell before we go forward: don’t eat there before about 11:30, or you’re probably going to get stuff recooked from the night before.
After a lawsuit last year alleging that Taco Bell’s beef was less than pure (which was later dropped after a massive and expensive PR campaign), the Bell brand needed a little revamping. In addition to the rumors that the fast food chain was using sub-par taco filling, the rising popularity of chains like Chipotle also took their toll on the Bell’s consumer base. Step one in battling these setbacks was to come up with an “extreme food” menu item, a tactic that worked well for KFC with the Double Down and Wendy’s with the Baconator. That item, of course, was the Doritos Locos taco, a wildly successful menu item I refuse to try due mostly to my sheer hatred of Doritos. Step two in the battle to repair the brand was to go the opposite direction and try to compete directly with Chipotle: the Cantina Bell menu.
The Cantina menu even comes with a celebrity name: Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan-born chef most famous for her appearance on the dreadful America’s Next Top Restaurant. Garcia (all by herself, I’m sure) developed a Cantina Burrito and a Cantina Bowl, which the Cantina Bell website says contains “citrus-herb marinated chicken, flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn & pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice.” Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? I went down to the Benton Taco Bell today to try one, so let’s take a look:
At first glance, the Cantina Bowl doesn’t look that bad. There’s some “roasted corn” salsa (delivered most likely pre-made in bags), some pico de gallo (which when I worked there was made by dumping mushy tomatoes, white onions, dry cilantro, and packets of unidentifiable goop into a bucket and stirring), and the lettuce actually looks like real lettuce instead of the half-rotten shredded iceberg that appears on most TB items. The green glop in the middle I’m guessing is the guacamole made from “real Hass avocados,” but it could have been Elmer’s glue dyed green for all the taste it added to the dish. Looking at the dish again, it struck me that something was missing, and it took me a second to realize what it was — oh, yeah, THE CHICKEN. Let’s stir this thing around a bit and see if we can find any.
Still having trouble seeing the chicken? That’s because there isn’t very much of it there, and what little chicken there is doesn’t quite meet my expectations of what grilled “citrus herb marinated” chicken ought to look like. As a matter of fact, it tasted exactly like the same old spongy, bland chicken that Taco Bell has been using for years in their chicken soft tacos and quesadillas. The recipe for that chicken went something like this: take a bag of pre-cooked chicken, wedge it into a contraption that looked like two grill grates that locked together, submerge in 200 degree water for 15 minutes, dump into a pan and serve. If that’s the kind of advice Chef Garcia was giving the folks on America’s Next Top Restaurant, it’s no wonder the show was canceled and the winning restaurants all closed within two months of opening.
As an afterthought (both in the dish and in this review) there was also an ample amount of bland, mushy rice and about two dozen flavorless black beans. Taco Bell has NEVER been able to cook rice correctly, mostly because their idea of cooking rice is dumping rice and water into a pan and letting it gestate on the back of a steam table for half an hour before slopping it onto things like the Cantina Bowl. I don’t know how they’re doing the black beans, because when I worked there, the only beans we had were dried bean flakes that were mixed with hot water to form a refried bean sludge.
The real kicker to all of this is that the Cantina Bowl isn’t really that cheap. At $4.99 for the bowl and $1.89 for my drink, my bill was $7.50 after taxes. For $7.50, I can go to an authentic Mexican taqueria in Benton and get more food, and it will be food that’s cooked fresh daily on a real grill. In Little Rock, I can visit my favorite taco truck and wind up with twice the food of this sad little Cantina Bowl — and it’s food prepared fresh and quick right on the spot. Or just drive right down the road from the Benton Taco Bell itself and you’ll find not one, but two awesome taco trucks that will be better than this swill on their worst day.
The Cantina Bowl isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten at Taco Bell (that would be the Chili-Cheese Burrito), but its sheer audacity in using the word “gourmet” and promoting it like some sort of new cuisine is insulting. In a day and age where good cheap eats are literally all around, the continued popularity of places like Taco Bell is a mystery that ranks on up there for me with the Loch Ness Monster and who built Stonehenge. Be nice to yourself: don’t eat this garbage. Cheers.