There’s a guy in a salsa squeeze-pack suit at the drive-through lane. It’s red and shiny, his wrists stick out awkwardly, and it’s printed with a double imperative: Pick me! Pick me! I feel sorry for him, but hey, dude’s getting paid to pace in front of a Taco Bell, waving at towering SUVs and low-slung beaters. It’s probably better than being inside, bussing tables or picking gum out of the urinals, even if he does have to eat some pride.
I’ve been invited to San Leandro, a San Francisco suburb with a Walmart and a cap of rusty smog. Taco Bell’s rolling out a steak burrito in the top-shelf Cantina Bell line, the chain’s play to siphon off the Chipotle market. I sure as hell wouldn’t drive to San Leandro for that, but they’ve promised me a star: Miami’s Lorena Garcia, a season 4 contestant on Top Chef Masters and Cantina Bell’s creative partner. Last July on CHOW, I basically called her a sellout. Taco Bell noticed. And just last week, a very nice-sounding PR rep asked if I’d want to meet Lorena, to ask her anything I wanted. Anything.
FACE LA MUSICA
I publicly declared last summer that I did not like Cantina Bell, and its “premium” chicken burritos and wrapless burrito bowls. They were better than the salty bean mush and dribbly guacamole of regular Taco Bell, but the flavorless chicken had a corpse’s pallor, and the grilled corn was icy from the freezer: You’d expect food like that on a plastic tray in a cafeteria at a public hospital. “Downscale Chipotle with Latina-chef branding,” I wrote.
But look who’s facing me across a table amid the maize and blue and dried-chile red of probably the nicest Taco Bell in the Bay Area. Actually, Lorena’s here to talk up the burrito to store managers, do a little brand cheerleading—she spent the morning doing a thing called “team member engagement.” When she’s finished getting Team Bay Area good and pumped, she moves on to Boston.
I expected to see other food media here, maybe bloggers, Taco Bell contest winners—hell, anybody—but I’m the only one. Except, that is, for the cluster of PR hands, and Taco Bell’s communications director (he’s flown up from Irvine), and Lorena’s lanky personal assistant, a guy seated at a table in the corner, looking patient.
I think, Shit: I’m being ambushed. Lorena’s going to charm me into liking this new steak burrito, as the PR team and about a dozen Taco Bell workers, in logo polos and caps, look on, hoisting camera phones and smiling. My armpits feel sweaty.
Of course, Lorena is charming. Also beautiful: ash-blond wash, wearing expensive-looking cosmetics, and in a sweater— let’s say it’s cashmere—the exact shade of coffee ice cream. The Cantina Bell ingredients are all heaped in a neat arrangement of bowls at the next table. She takes me through each one. “The romaine lettuce,” she says in that charming Venezuelan accent of hers, “it gives the crispy-ness I love.” Only it comes out creespy-ness, which is totally charming.
“This is the cilantro dressing,” Lorena says, pointing to a bowl filled with thick, pale-green liquid. She calls it a quote-unquote bestseller in her restaurants, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't mean the nation's 6,000 Taco Bell locations, but her Lorena Garcia Cocina and LorenaGARCIA Tapas airport restaurants. I’m not even questioning whether something as pedestrian as cilantro dressing could ever even be a bestseller. At that moment I’m just thinking, Yeah, absolutely: cilantro dressing—nice.
The thing about Lorena, and more broadly about Cantina Bell, is this: There is nothing too modest to show off as a major accomplishment. Cilantro dressing? Hell yes! Guacamole that holds its shape? Amazing. Fresh cilantro? Way to push boundaries.
THE PREMIUM RACKET
Call it the reality of fast food in our time, as it builds higher-priced market niches and calls them “premium.” The quality for fast food is so low, anything that’s even slightly less manipulated than your baseline Big Mac or Burrito Supreme—something not totally a sad little lump of protein fibers stuck together with corn-derived food glues and blast-sprayed with high-fructose glaze—looks like fucking triumph. I think Lorena gets that. Lorena’s talent, ultimately, isn’t somewhere in her recipe for cilantro dressing, but in the ability to make it smell like victory.
Look at the steak in that bowl, she says. You’re looking at a year of work—or more—a long, hard back-and-forth with Taco Bell’s product developers. “I didn’t want it to look like stew meat,” Lorena says, “or have it be so thin it couldn’t retain the marinade. I tried to push the envelope as much as possible.”
Lorena leads me back to the kitchen, or whatever you call a fast-food production zone, but first she gives me a Taco Bell logo cap to jam on my bald head (health regulations). “Get a picture of him in the cap,” I hear a PR rep say. Suddenly, Lorena’s sweater has been replaced by a black chef’s coat with a svelte fit, embroidered with pink and lavender leaves and tendrils like an expensive tattoo. The PR people, managers, and employees taking iPhone videos, they’re all in there with us.
“Hello, everybody,” Lorena says. “Happy to be here.” A shy-looking worker named Luz makes the new steak burrito for me to try. “That’s right, honey, fold it,” Lorena says, looking over her shoulder. “Let’s do it!”
FIND ME A TRUCK!
Next, Luz makes a steak quesadilla—it isn’t even on the menu yet—warms a huge tortilla on a surface Lorena calls a plancha, covers it in shredded pepper Jack and a cupful of the envelope-pushing steak that took months and months to get right. Luz folds it in quarters, shoves it in a dull metal drawer that looks like something on an airplane’s galley, and hits a button to activate the timer. “Come on, honey!”
Back at the table, I have to admit: The steak burrito isn’t bad. I mean, it’s Taco Bell, but it has texture, and flavor, and it isn’t a salt bomb, and it costs $4.99, which seems pretty affordable. The grilled corn salad wrapped up inside, that’s as icy as I remember it, and the rice has the plasticized texture of Uncle Ben's. But with Lorena looking on—she’s calling me honey now, too—it seems pretty damn good. I nibble a quarter of the quesadilla, which seems tasty, too. And as I rise to leave, Lorena tells me to take it home. Gracious to the end.
Back in the car, I eat another quarter of the quesadilla and decide it’s not so good as when the air throbbed with Lorena's charisma. The pepper Jack is bland. And there’s something just a little wrong about that beef: Every third or fourth bite I hit a textural land mine, a piece that seems weirdly spongy, as if the processing is bleeding through. The taste: too manipulated, as if I'm somehow tasting the lab engineering. I drive out of the lot, past the salsa guy, and home to Oakland.
But it’s lunchtime and I’m still hungry. I pull off the freeway, onto the frontage road where there’s a truck I like, El Taco Oaxaco. I order a gordita filled with carne asada (pictured above) and eat it off the roof of the car. The masa shell is brown and crunchy from the flattop grill, there’s tangy crema and snarly salsa, and the beef tastes real. It costs a third less than the Cantina Bell steak burrito, does not push any envelopes, and nobody had to dress up in a salsa suit to sell it.
I can live with that.
Top photo by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com; other photos by John Birdsall