Taco Bell’s bland Cantina Bowl a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’

Taco Bell sign

FILE-This Wednesday, June 6, 2012, file photo shows a Taco Bell restaurant in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

When I hear the word “Cantina,” I often think back to the Mos Eisley cantina scene in “Star Wars.” In the case of Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell™ menu, the comparison is apt because I also think of Obi-Wan Kenobi describing the town of Mos Eisley as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” (it’s the town’s motto!).

That’s the most positive endorsement I can give Taco Bell’s newest offering. Instead of trading on a snacky gimmick like the Doritos Locos Taco and its nacho cheese encrusted shell, Taco Bell appears to try something new … and fails miserably.

Up front, I will grant that we shouldn’t necessarily expect greatness from a fast-food menu — although the food should at least be somewhat enjoyable. And, unlike Taco Bell’s previous effort to add Fritos to burritos and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s effort to throw everything in a bowl and call it “Famous,” at least Taco Bell appears to make an effort for a more gourmet offering. Unfortunately, my expectations of the Cantina Bowl were buoyed by Taco Bell’s descriptions and they were ultimately and utterly dashed by the final, underwhelming product. The Cantina Bowl is neither enjoyable to eat nor very flavorful.

Taco Bell says the Cantina Bowl contains “citrus-herb marinated chicken [or steak or veggies], flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn and pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice.” Based on the description and photos, it sounds like something you might get from Chipotle (except if you didn’t have much say on the ingredients).

It would seem like there are a lot of flavors on that list — if only calling something flavorful would make it so. Unfortunately, the flavors never blended into a delicious melange. The end result was so bland, I was rushing for the Fire Sauce to make it palatable.

If the ingredients in the dish didn’t mesh well together, one may hope for some individual elements to stand out. Unfortunately, I opted for the “steak” instead of the chicken and it seemed like the only thing to stand out (and not for the right reasons).

After a few bites, it tasted like I was digging into the meat from a frozen dinner (specifically, the Marie Callender’s Old Fashioned Beef Pot Roast). Unfortunately, the frozen meal provides a better experience at about $3 than the bowl at $7 (including drink).

The similarities were uncanny — the chunks of beef in the bowl had a similar grain and texture and the gravy/sauce was practically identical. It is similar to the steak that Taco Bell uses in its regular burritos, but its flaws stood out more here because it could be isolated from other ingredients.

The rice merely reflected what little other flavors were in the bowl while contributing nothing more than the texture of watery grains to the dish. Again, this is very similar to the rice from a frozen dinner.

As I ate through the bowl, I pondered The Onion’s joking take on the five ingredients in the Taco Bell kitchen. Basically, the joke is that Taco Bell just remixes the same five or so ingredients and calls it something new. In the case of the Cantina Bowl, I believe they added some new items (like the corn salsa), but other ingredients — like rice, lettuce, steak and tomatoes — seemed like the same ones that Taco Bell uses in its everyday tacos and burritos. That’s a problem because the taste expectations were much higher for the bowl and entire Cantina Menu than the regular menu where we know what we’re getting … for better or worse.

The apparent use of stock ingredients plays into the presentation — it looked nothing like the promo photos (but what does?). It looked hastily assembled at the eatery at the Chico Mall and the plain ol’ ingredients were easily discernable. The photos and review from Brand Eating provide some good context.

The lettuce was the same light green shred that you might see in the chain’s tacos and just as paper-y bland. Most of the sauces and salsas glooped up into the lettuce, which could have been an opportunity to get enjoy the sauces on their own merits. Unfortunately, the only sauce that stood out was the creamy cilantro dressing. It had a thin consistency, but had added a little tang of flavor.

I couldn’t really get a taste of the guacamole. The corn salsa and “flavorful” beans added little more than the texture of corn kernels and tiny, firm black beans.

I prefer Mexican food (or Taco Bell’s version of it) to have some spice, but the Cantina Bowl had no heat at all. Reviewing the list of ingredients, there are only a few items that could really contribute spice (perhaps the salsas, the cilantro dressing and the beef) and they failed to deliver.

Adding the Fire Sauce helped perk things up, but it was still a slog getting through the rest of the meal and I was happy when it was done. I probably should’ve stopped eating it, but that’s a habit I need to get back into.

I must give Taco Bell some credit for trying something new to try to compete in a space normally held by Chipotle and similar restaurants. I also liked that they touted that if you don’t like it you can return it for something else (which really should be standard customer service, but is still appreciated).

I was so disappointed by this underwhelming offering that I strongly considered taking Taco Bell up on its offer for a new dish, but I was in a hurry that night (and I wasn’t in the mood for more food).

Ultimately, like the Mos Eisley cantina, Taco Bell’s Cantina Bowl is something that people should probably avoid.

Bottom line — Stay away from this uninspiring, flavorless Cantina Menu offering from Taco Bell that just never comes together. Although it may appear to be fresher and more “gourmet” than other offerings on the restaurant’s menu, appearances may be deceiving and more costly.