Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Review of the Taco Bell Cantina Menu!

Taco Bell rolls out its answer to Chipotle’s line-up of “gourmet” burritos and rice bowls, but do the “Cantina Bell” offerings really live up to all the hype? 

I’ve said this many, many times before, but it bears repeating: there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank the heavens above that Taco Bell exists.

At this point, I’m pretty much 99.8 percent certain that if the establishment wasn’t around, I probably would’ve starved to death halfway through my junior year. There were weeks - weeks, I say - when the franchises’ cheesy bean and rice burritos and potato tacos were the only form of warm food that entered my body, and only their seven layer burritos and Mountain Dew Baja Blast slurp cups stood between me and certain death (probably, from some Pop-Tart related illness.) As a vegetarian (the GOOD kind, not the kind that’s all preachy about it), it’s pretty much the only fast food eatery I can walk into and KNOW that I will walk away with something quasi-digestible - and since there’s at least one or two new products being unveiled every month or so, there’s ALWAYS a reason for me to stop by and check out their latest offerings.

Indeed, when Taco Bell unveils a new product, it’s something of a mini-holiday for my generation. And seeing as how the franchise has knocked it out of the park with its last few menu annexations, I definitely had high hopes when I heard about the chain’s new “cantina menu.”

Right off the bat, the big Internet hubbub is that the menu is nothing more than a rip-off of the Chipotle Mexican Grill line-up. The thing is (and man, am I going to be losing some street cred here), I’ve never actually had anything from Chipotle before, so whatever criticism you’ll hear from defenders of that chain, I just can’t respond to. Secondly, I don’t know a damn thing about Lorena Garcia (apparently, she’s some sort of TV chef that helped design the products), so I can’t really say anything about her or her influence on the new items, either.

For my trial run, I decided to pick up one of the Veggie Cantina Burritos and the Veggie Cantina Bowl. If I had known that the chain also offers Cantina Tacos, I would’ve picked up one of those as well, but alas…that’s just the way fate works itself out.

Both of the items were rather expensive for Taco Bell stand-alones (after taxes, you’ll be plopping down $5 for both offerings,) but you can vouch for a meal package that includes a soft drink and some nachos and guacamole that, I suppose, makes it a more frugal experience. For all of you health-conscious folks out there, take note  that these things are pretty damn heavy, calorie-wise; the Cantina Bowl will run you almost 600 calories, while the burrito is pushing about 800. And remember; these are the VEGGIE versions we are talking about here, so if you load your entrée with steak or chicken, you could easily be stretching this thing out to an easy 1,000 plus calorie meal.

There really isn’t too much to say about the Cantina Veggie Bowl. The rice is definitely richer than the stuff you’ll find in most Taco Bell items, and the corn and guacamole actually tasted flavorful (which is weird, because I’ve grown to sorta’ like that “thawed-out paste” flavor that most of the restaurant’s products have). The key variable in the bowl was the inclusion of a very nice chipotle sauce, which is totally different than the kind they use on their veggie burritos. There was some sour cream sauce in there too, but the thing was definitely lacking in cheese content. The lettuce tasted like, well, lettuce, and the Southwestern-style beans were had a nice, spicy texture to them, which is something you really don’t get with anything else on the Taco Bell menu. Overall, the dish reminded me a lot of a similar rice bowl item offered by Moe’s Southwest Grill - albeit, the chipotle sauce here makes this one a markedly superior item, in my humblest of opinions.

The Veggie Cantina Burrito, as expected, was pretty freaking huge. Clearly, the company is using a different formula for its tortillas, as it tasted like nothing I had ever had at a Taco Bell before. For those of you accustomed to the restaurant’s “Play-Doh” tortillas, this crisp, lightly roasted wrap will definitely prove something of a mini-surprise, although at the end of the day, I still think I prefer that old mushy tortillas to this variation.

The interior of the Veggie Cantina Burrito was pretty much everything you would find in one of the chain’s Veggie Cantina Bowls, only with a distinct lack of the chipotle sauce that made the latter product such a remarkable gustatory sensation. That’s not to say that the burrito is bad by any means - in fact, it’s a really, really damn good item, just one that I believe would be improved by the suggested addition.

As far as the other aspects of the menu goes, it’s sort of a mixed bag. Apparently, the “Cantina Bell” line-up is one that is drastically devoid of cheese, which is most definitely a bad, bad thing. In fact, the entire time I was chowing down on my meal, I couldn’t help but feel as if something very, very important was missing - and although the smokier rice and tastier produce is a nice addition, the subtraction here seems to have a heftier impact than any of the pros the items have going for them. And although I’m pretty sure it was just an isolated mix-up (or at least, I really hope it was), the “nachos” doled out at my visit seemed to have been the kind of the cinnamon variety. Needless to say, “cinnamon and guacamole” isn’t exactly the next “peanut butter and chocolate,” either.

All in all, it’s really hard to make a final verdict regarding the products. While they are definitely very good and flavorful (certainly, they taste unlike anything else you’ll find at the Bell), there are more than few marks against it, including some notable ingredient skimping (burritos should be required by law to be drowning in shredded Colby and green jalapeno sauce, as far as I am concerned) a pretty steep price and the positively absurd calorie-count entailed.

I guess my biggest complaint is a rather weird one: it just doesn’t taste enough LIKE Taco Bell for my liking. Maybe it’s because there’s a distinct lack of seasoning, or the texture of the tortillas is different, or perhaps something way more intricate and complex is going on, but I’m just not getting that “Taco Bell Taste” from the offerings. It’s no doubt a good line-up, but it’s not exactly what you’d expect out of a typical Taco Bell product. As before, that certainly has some good attached to it, but at the end of the day, I’d much, much rather have something a tad more Loco on my plate, wouldn’t you?


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