I like Taco Bell. I like food by famous chefs, like Lorena Garcia of Top Chef Masters fame. I like fresh and healthy food. So, I should love Taco Bell’s new “Cantina Bell” menu, right? Wrong. Maybe the other options are better, but I found the vegetarian option sloppy, bland, and uninspiring. It’s not that I don’t think Taco Bell can “do gourmet” — I’m sure it’s possible in theory — it’s that this particular attempt was poorly executed.
As many of you probably know, vegetarians (myself included) really do like Taco Bell. Virtually anything on the regular menu can be made with beans instead of beef. This means that, as a vegetarian, you can basically order anything on the menu. As a result, Taco Bell is one of the very few fast food chains that is vegetarian-friendly. Given this backdrop — which I’m sure Taco Bell is aware of — I had high hopes for the Cantina Bell’s “veggie” option. Alas, the reality fell far short.
First of all, there is not much of a “menu”. You can get chicken, steak, or veggies, either in a burrito or in a bowl. Contrast this with Chipotle, the chain I assume Taco Bell is targeting with this new menu. At Chipotle you can get your veggies in a burrito or a bowl — or hard tacos, soft tacos, or a salad (they also have several more non-vegetarian options). Either Taco Bell rushed this concept, or they are half-assing the “gourmet” menu. Either way, it’s disappointing.
I got the veggie burrito, with a side of guacamole. The burrito is pictured above. If nothing else, it’s pretty big, so I guess that’s a plus. For the unfamiliar, Taco Bell’s regular bean burrito is not grilled, and probably half the width of this thing. I suppose what they lack in quality they make up in quantity.
I ordered the burrito with a side of guacamole. Pictured above is the substance that Taco Bell claims is that guacamole. This misses the mark in so many ways I don’t know where to start. First of all, would it have bankrupted you to fill up the little plastic cup? I know the economy is still tepid, but let’s not cut corners like this. Second, this is your idea of gourmet? The Cantina Bell website proudly posts a guacamole recipe using real Haas avocados. If that’s the recipe, this location (I’m deliberately not saying where, by the way) didn’t get a copy.
Okay, but we didn’t come for the sides. Let’s return to the main event, that enormous burrito:
There, in all their glory, are the innards of the Cantina Bell veggie burrito. Let’s see, we have beans, and rice… and that’s about it. Some limp lettuce, maybe some tomato and onion purporting to be “pico de gallo”. No peppers? No onions? Corn? Broccoli? In fact, the veggie burrito is nothing more than the chicken or steak burrito… without the chicken or steak. There are no real “veggies” that are part of the recipe! For a so-called “gourmet” menu, this was really inadequate. Both Baja Fresh (see “veggie”) and Chipotle (see “fajita vegetables”) include peppers and onions in their veggie option, both with a bit of a unique kick (chilis and oregano, respectively).
By the way, I don’t have some sort of great love for peppers and onions. Sauteed peppers and onions are at the absolute bottom of the vegetable totem pole; it’s the bare minimum you can serve and still claim to serve a “veggie burrito” (or taco, or whatever). My point is that Cantina Bell falls short of even this low standard.
It’s probably implicit, but I should also make clear that the beans and rice were nothing spectacular. I guess in theory they could be so good that the burrito needs nothing else, but whatever that hypothetical standard is, this didn’t come close.
Of course, the one consistent bright spot at Taco Bell is the hot sauce — a good dose of this stuff and even the bland Cantina Burrito gets spiced up a little. But overall, this was a really disappointing experience.
Taco Bell is really uniquely positioned for us vegetarians: it’s the only fast food chain with lots of vegetarian options, and it’s ubiquitous. If you’re in the United States, there is probably a Taco Bell within 10 minutes of you right now. Baja Fresh and Chipotle are great, but they’re nowhere near as common. So Taco Bell really had a great opportunity to raise the bar, and maybe even do something interesting with its vegetarian option. Instead, the effort fell flat.
The funny thing is, I still go to Taco Bell. I just stay away from the “gourmet” menu. Why get the bland “veggie” burrito when you can just get the old classic, the seven-layer burrito? Instead of chips and guacamole-from-a-squeeze-tube trying to look classy, just get the regular chips and cheese. Taco Bell made its mark with cheap, Mexican-ish food. They could just continue to play up that angle. I would love it if they went gourmet and did it successfully, but this opening move hit all the wrong notes. It’s sad when you try to class up your offerings and the old stuff looks better by comparison.
I haven’t lost all hope yet. Maybe one day, Cantina Bell will undergo a renaissance. But until then, I’m sticking to the classics.