Shortly after the wider rollout of their highly anticipated FirstMeal offerings, the new Cantina Bell menu from Yum Brand Inc’s Taco Bell has some people saying, "Yo queiro… Chipotle?" The Irvine-based chain’s chief marketing and innovation officer, Brian Niccol, claims otherwise, but the newly introduced menu is already drawing comparisons to its fresh-Mex competitor, Chipotle Mexican Grill.
Cantina Bell, which began testing in the Bakersfield, Calif., and Louisville, Ky., markets Jan. 26, focuses on higher quality ingredients. The new burritos, bowls, and soft tacos are stuffed with seasoned white rice, black beans, corn salsa, romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, cilantro dressing, and a choice of chicken, steak, or veggies.
Developed with the help of Miami-based chef Lorena Garcia, the Cantina Bell line focuses on fewer, fresher ingredients. Garcia, the chef on NBC’s The Biggest Loser, is a proponent of healthy but tasty dishes. The cilantro dressing (the clear winner in this taste test) is a version of a recipe Garcia has made since childhood.
The prices for Cantina Bell offerings ranged from $1.49 to $3.99 (with other locations reporting prices closer to $5). This is higher than Taco Bell’s average price point, but cheaper than comparable items at Chipotle, where the items range from $7 to $9 at most locations. If the menu proves popular in the test markets, Cantina Bell could be rolled out nationwide by the end of 2012.
So how do the new items taste? We sent a crack team to the suburbs of Los Angeles — where the new menu is available at select stores under the guise "Taco Bell Signatures" — to test it out. Judge #1 is an avid Taco Bell eater; he begins his day with FirstMeal and ends it with FourthMeal. Judge #2, an average Chipotle customer, is used to reading about the company’s ethically farmed meat while she waits in line for her made-to-order burrito. Judge #3 is a health nut and usually avoids fast food altogether, but she’s a good sport.
Nutritional facts (as reported at the Taco Bell in West Covina, Calif.) are included for each menu item, but the reviews are based mainly on taste. Each item was tasted including all possible toppings; however, the menu is fully customizable.