Trying Chef Lorena Garcia's Cantina Bell Dishes From Taco Bell

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.

If Taco Bell was creating the face of this line in a lab, it would not come up with a better spokeswoman than Garcia. Her ebullience, passion, and credibility shine through immediately when she flashes her wide, sincere grin.

As she was speaking, the anticipation for the main course mounted across the table. When the main course arrived, it did not disappoint. We were served a chicken burrito bowl that came with cilantro-infused rice, cilantro dressing, black beans, lettuce, and the corn, pico de gallo, and guacamole that we were served as an appetizer. This will cost $4.79, contains 550 calories, and the guacamole comes standard.

The flavors played off each other fantastically, the chicken was tender, and the overall texture was the ultimate combination of chewy and crunchy. Garcia looked on pridefully and beamed when the dish was met with universal acclaim and satisfaction. The biggest differentiator was the cilantro dressing, which several people at the table wanted to bottle up and take home with them.

The dish was quite filling and could definitely serve as a stand-alone meal, but did not provide that knot in the stomach that is borne equally out of the physiological effects of eating fast food and the emotional regret that coincides with such indulgence.

The biggest challenge for Taco Bell, as Garcia alluded to, will be maintaining the consistency of these products throughout the country. You would expect Taco Bell to put up a flawless showing in a small room filled with influential media members (and me) and it has set a bar that, if lived up to, would completely reinvent the Taco Bell brand. I look forward to seeing if it can do so, but have to remain a little bit skeptical until I see it executed on a wholesale basis.

Furthermore, while Garcia completely revamped Taco Bell's chicken recipe for the Cantina Bell line, the steak will remain the same. I don't think I've ever tried Taco Bell's steak — a glaring omission in my glorious fast-food eating career — but my educated guess is that you might want to stick with the chicken.

Some other interesting tidbits from the event:

The Cantina Bell line is the first time that Taco Bell has ever advertised a product satisfaction guarantee.

Taco Bell sold more than 100 million Doritos Locos Tacos in 10 weeks.

More than 40 percent of the U.S. population eats at Taco Bell.

75 percent of Taco Bell's sales come from drive-thru orders.

Overall, it was a great pleasure to meet chef Lorena Garcia and try her creation. I am excited to see how the launch goes and would bet on its ultimate success.