Sitting Down with Chef Lorena Garcia, the Mind Behind Taco Bell’s New Cantina Bell Menu
When you conjure up images of having dinner and sipping cocktails more than 40 stories up in the Ritz Carlton, all the while overlooking the sprawling landscape of downtown Los Angeles at sunset- your first thought probably wouldn’t be, “Will I be eating Taco Bell?”.
However, that is the exact situation I found myself in yesterday, and the experience was just as fun as it sounds. Only a few short weeks ago, Taco Bell announced the upcoming launch of their new Cantina Bell menu, and there has been quite a bit of buzz. Last night, I had the unique opportunity to try a sampling of the menu, hosted by the chef behind the creations herself, Lorena Garcia.
If you don’t know much about Chef Garcia, here is a little bit of info:
- Lorena is a Venezuelan-born chef, who has had experience traveling and working allover America, Asia, and Europe.
- She is best known throughout Latin America for her television shows, including Sazón con Lorena Garcia, and Lorena en su Salsa.
- You may have recognized her appearances on The Biggest Loser and America’s Next Great Restaurant, here in the United States. She will also be competing as a cheftestant on Top Chef Masters, this summer.
- She is extremely passionate, enthusiastic, and excited about her collaboration with Taco Bell and the development of the Cantina Bell menu.
So after many introductions, and lot of mingling, it was finally time to sit down and taste what Taco Bell had to offer.
The approach with the new Cantina Bell menu items was to create different options for Taco Bell’s customers that would be exciting, modern, and fresh, while being well-balanced and conscious of the ingredients being used. Sticking to Taco Bell’s theme of portability and a friendly price-point- Chef Garcia was still able to utilize her principles of showcasing the ingredients for what they are, focusing on simplicity, and actually being able to SEE what you’re eating- one bite, and you can tell they have achieved their goal.
As an appetizer we were served crunchy tortilla chips, and a trio of guacamole and salsas.
The tortilla chips were light and crisp, they did not taste overly salted, or greasy and the crunch stood up to the test of scooping the 8 pounds of guacamole I consumed over the course of the evening.
The guacamole itself is a new recipe using smooth, creamy Hass avocados, tomato, jalapeño, and just a bit of an acidic kick from some lemon juice. Previously, Taco Bell had developed a tool, known as the guacamole gun (who knew?), specifically to distribute equal portions of their guacamole on every dish, so this home-made style was a big departure.
A fresh take on pico de gallo was also on the plate, and you can tell how tasty and simplified the recipe was- juicy tomatoes, onion, garlic, tangy dressing and a bit of cilantro. Why mess with a good thing?
The star of the dish for me though was the fire-roasted corn salsa- and it really did taste roasted! Grilled corn, and mixed peppers with a little more cilantro made for a sweet and crunchy combination with a kick of spice. I would have put it all in my purse if no one was looking.
All of these items will be available as individual sides at $1.49 each.
(chips + a choice of salsa/guac)
My personal recommendation, however- take a chip as your scooping vessel, load up on the guacamole first, followed by the pico, then invite the corn salsa to the party. The guac serves as base for all of the other goodies to cling to, giving you the ability to inhale mass quantities of each, all at the same time. I swear. I eat like a lady in public.
After the dishes were cleared, Chef Garcia walked us through the process of building the highly anticipated Cantina Bowl.
The bottom layer of the Cantina Bowl is covered with hot cilantro rice (you might be noticing a cilantro theme here- I’ll get to that later), featuring onions, garlic, and parsley.
On top of that went the layer of spice blended black beans- no fried beans here people.
Following that was the citrus and herb marinated chicken. This chicken is different than Taco Bell’s standard chicken, in that it was specifically cut larger so that you could taste the flavors and see the grill marks- and I definitely could.
Next up is a bed of romaine lettuce which delivers a welcome crunch without the addition of tortilla strips or chips. It was crisp and cool, and a bit different than their normal iceberg lettuce.
My personal favorite (and I think a lot of others’), was next: the creamy cilantro dressing (aka an adaptation of her ‘Green Goddess’ dressing). Let me interject by saying I realize there is a large amount of people out there who do not like cilantro flavored anything, so all of this cilantro talk is probably terrifying. Although I am not one of those aforementioned people, I like to ask the hard-hitting questions. What happens if you hate cilantro, what are your options?? Don’t worry, Cantina Bowls are customizable, so if you hate cilantro- they won’t put it on there! Or if you’re unsure and just want to try it out- they will put it on the side for you.
After expressing my concerns to the table, a member of the development team with a severe cilantro aversion (it tastes like soap!) explained he too, was worried about the cilantro overload- but he LOVES the dressing, so there is hope yet!
Okay, are you still following along? We’re almost to the finish line. No rice bowl would be complete without some accessories, so it is topped with a dollop of guacamole, pico, and more corn salsa. Voila!
So what did it all taste like together? It was delicious. I was surprised. I could taste every component individually, and with all of the forces combined like a giant Captain Planet of tastiness, it all melded together seamlessly. I noticed that even during the lengthy presentation, the food remained warm and not mushy at all- which is good because there was SO much of it, that leftovers would be inevitable.
The 560 calorie Cantina Bowl is a bargain at less than $5 each, and you can certainly get two meals out of it if you’re not completely ravished. Other options will include steak or veggie, and you can even get it wrapped as a burrito.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Chef Garcia after the meal, and throughout our conversation I could tell she was sincerely excited about working with Taco Bell. She mentioned she wanted to be respectful in sharing her opinions with the team and in turn they were equally excited to have her on board. Her toughest task was narrowing down the over 120 ingredient options she presented to them- to Taco Bell’s choice of just 8 final picks, so with that many ideas, you know this will not be the last we see from the chef. When I asked her which of the final 8 ingredient additions was her favorite, it was a tough call for her- but she eventually settled on the cilantro dressing. It really is that good.
So what’s on the horizon for the Cantina Bell menu? It’s not going away, I can tell you that. Although they were keeping some secrets to themselves, you can expect to see more salsas and sauces, different proteins, and an array of even more new ingredients.
During the meal Chef Garcia explained, “We are Latinos, and we are very passionate, you see it on the telenovelas!” And you can certainly see it in her food.
Taco Bell will be launching the Cantina Bell menu nationwide on July 5th with a special Buy 1 Get 1 Free promo for their Facebook fans, so keep an eye out!
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