Taco Bell is in the midst of a five-city U.S. tour introducing Cantina Bell, the new line of menu items at Taco Bell inspired by chef Lorena Garcia, to franchise managers and local media. The line, which tested very positively in Bakersfield, Calif., and Louisville, KY, launches nationwide on July 5th. I was invited to last week’s event in Chicago.
When I arrived at the address given to me by Taco Bell’s PR firm, I found myself in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Lincoln Park. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Maybe they messed up a digit or I’m the victim of some elaborate prank.” Luckily, an event worker arrived about 30 seconds after me and reassured me that I was in fact in the correct location and that it would be a cozy, family-style dinner with various Chicago press members and Taco Bell advertising executives.
After about 45 minutes of introductions and cocktails, we were joined at the dinner table by chef Lorena Garcia, who spoke eloquently and passionately for a half-hour about her background and the processes which led to the creation and consummation of her upcoming line.
For an appetizer, we were served tortilla chips with three dips: pico de gallo, guacamole, and roasted corn and pepper. These chips and dips will be offered at Taco Bell as individual sides for $1.49.
All three dips were great; the pico de gallo and guacamole were as good as Chipotle and Qdoba’s, while the corn salsa — which was absolutely phenomenal—and tortilla chips were both better than either chain’s. Where the chips at Chipotle are too salty and thick, these had a more subtle flavor and tasted like the fresh chips you’d get at a high-end Mexican restaurant.
Garcia has had quite the journey. After touring Asia and South America and spending a year training in Southern Italy and at the Ritz-Carlton in Paris, she opened her first restaurant in Miami with $40,000. “I was the cook, the prep cook, and the dishwasher,” she said emphatically, "If I’m putting in 18 to 20 hours of work, I want to do it for me."
She’s had television shows distributed throughout Latin America on Telemundo and Univision, has appeared on America’s Next Top Restaurant and TODAY on NBC, and will be a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters beginning July 25. Garcia was shocked in the best way possible when Taco Bell came calling in late 2010.
“Do you ever sleep?” I asked.
“When I’m on the plane,” she laughed.