An Honest Review Of Taco Bell's Cantina Chicken Menu

Taco Bell's latest menu innovations aim to draw in the lunch crowd. Will they succeed?

When Taco Bell dropped its entire menu plan for 2024 at a first-time launch event in Las Vegas, the chain created lots of buzz for the brand's newest menu innovations. The first in this slew of planned drops has finally hit menus nationwide: the Cantina Chicken Menu.

This spread of five items on this special menu include a soft taco, crispy taco, burrito, quesadilla, and bowl, all of which feature the new Cantina Chicken and are served with the brand-new Avocado Verde Salsa. The chicken is described as oven-roasted, shredded, and seasoned with a blend of savory Mexican spices including pasilla, a dried chili pepper used in many traditional Mexican dishes.

When the new menu was first announced, Taco Bell noted the menu items were meant to have "bold and intentionally Mexican-inspired flavors." Nation's Restaurant News also reports that the company's leadership announced the Cantina Chicken menu is intended to dispel the misconception that Taco Bell is strictly a late-night brand and draw in more lunch customers.

We tasted everything on Taco Bell's new Cantina Chicken menu to see whether the Tex-Mex chain hit the mark with this more heavily "Mex" emphasis.

Cantina Chicken Soft Taco

This taco doesn't scream "Taco Bell," but I guess that's the point—and it's certainly the closest that the Cantina Chicken Menu comes to showing off a higher level of quality and evoking lunch vibes. The soft taco consists of the Cantina Chicken, Avocado Ranch Sauce, iceberg lettuce, shredded purple cabbage, cheddar cheese, and pico de gallo, served with a packet of the Avocado Verde Salsa.

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The fresh ingredients, including the lettuce, cabbage, and pico de gallo, make this taco as enjoyable as it could be. The Avocado Ranch Sauce and pico de gallo give the lightest kick; I would hesitate to call it spice, but the combo is still more distinguishable than any flavor that could be found on this chicken.

Even with the sauce sort of weighing the taco down, the fresh ingredients add a nice texture to the experience and manage not to make things soggy. Maybe I let my hunger get the best of me, but before I knew it I had eaten the whole taco.

Being that each menu item is served with the new Avocado Verde Salsa, I drizzled a little onto the taco to see how it enhanced the experience. Unfortunately, the salsa itself doesn't pack a lot of flavor, and with the Avocado Ranch Sauce already overwhelming the taco, all this added salsa managed to do was create an even softer bite.

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If you go to any halfway decent Mexican restaurant, you usually have the option of either a red or a green salsa. This is not an exact science, but I've found in my 27 years of eating Mexican food that nine times out of 10 the green salsa is the less spicy of the two. I have a fairly low tolerance for spice, so I opt for the verde every time, and as an avid consumer, I have to say this one does not live up to its name. The "salsa" is really just oily, with the faintest hint of avocado and a light bit of tang.

The soft taco costs $3.69 in downtown Chicago.

Cantina Chicken Crispy Taco

The crispy taco is made by filling a taco shell with Cantina Chicken, a creamy Jalapeño Sauce, and a 3-cheese blend which is then coated with a layer of grilled cheese on the outside and served with a packet of the Avocado Verde Salsa.

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This taco was extra greasy and not so crispy, far from the crunch of Doritos Locos Tacos, for example—but it was also exactly what I would expect from a Taco Bell menu item. This taco is where the Cantina Chicken and the Avocado Verde Salsa have the best chance to shine, because they're not competing with as much creamy sauce as is in the other menu items.

Although I'm not a big fan of the extra grease from frying and grilling that outer layer of cheese, there's a little bit of crunch to the taco shell that complements the filling and the verde salsa. That added layer of cheese on the outside fits Taco Bell's personality more than the addition of cabbage.

The Crispy Taco cost $3.69 in downtown Chicago.

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Cantina Chicken Burrito

The burrito contains a double serving of Cantina Chicken as well as iceberg lettuce, shredded purple cabbage, Avocado Ranch Sauce, Creamy Chipotle Sauce, cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, and Avocado Verde Salsa.

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What actually surprises me here, and could even be seen as a misstep, is the lack of beans in the burrito.The Cantina Chicken Bowl (see below) is the only item on this new menu that contains beans. Along with rice and tortillas, beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine and an ingredient that Taco Bell already has in other burritos. If the brand is looking to create "intentionally Mexican-inspired flavors," it could start by paying more attention to how beans can play a role.

Aside from the lack of beans, the burrito is a fair size and is definitely packed with enough ingredients to make it a satisfying meal. All the ingredients combined make for a sort of mushy bite, but that's true of most burritos. What's unfortunate is that much like the soft taco, most of what I taste in each bite is the creamy sauce and not really any input from the protein, which is meant to be the star of this whole menu.

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The burrito cost $5.69 in downtown Chicago.

Cantina Chicken Quesadilla

The Cantina Chicken Quesadilla doesn't deviate too much from any standard quesadilla: It contains the Cantina Chicken, a 3-cheese blend, and Creamy Chipotle Sauce, with a layer of cheese grilled on the outside and both guacamole and reduced-fat sour cream on the side.

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This one is pretty similar to the crispy taco in terms of grease (because of that extra cheese on the outside), but the serving size is much larger and more worth its price tag. Even though the chicken doesn't have a lot of flavor on its own, I still wish there wwere more of it in the quesadilla; some bites are just cheese blend with barely any shredded chicken at all. With the guacamole, sour cream, and a drizzle of the salsa verde there's a lot for this quesadilla to mesh with, but altogether it makes for a satisfying menu item.

The chicken quesadilla cost $6.69 in downtown Chicago.

Cantina Chicken Bowl

This Cantina Chicken Bowl is what I was most interested in trying, and it turned out to be the biggest disappointment. The bowl contains the Cantina Chicken, seasoned rice, black beans, iceberg lettuce, shredded purple cabbage, Avocado Ranch Sauce, reduced-fat sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole, cheddar cheese, and Avocado Verde Salsa.

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The rice is what irritates me the most about this bowl. After trying the other items, I can live with the fact that the chicken is just all right. But to place that chicken on an insultingly thin bed of what looks like Mexican rice but is actually just some bland, orange-tinted, slightly burnt-tasting rice is just wrong. I genuinely thought this combination was going to be Taco Bell's moment to make Chipotle a little nervous, but Chipotle can sleep soundly tonight.

The Cantina Chicken Bowl cost $8.29 in downtown Chicago, which makes me think even more about the days when a Chipotle bowl cost about the same and the serving size was much more substantial. 

Overall, Taco Bell's new chicken-centric, lunch-forward menu is so close yet so far from what it wants to be. The Cantina Bowl captures this perfectly: Everything appears to be promising, but upon further inspection it falls short of expectations and fails to justify its price. Despite the disappointment, though, I see some potential for Taco Bell here. If the chain figures out how to enhance the quality of its most Mex-forward Tex-Mex items, it could project a whole new and exciting brand identity.

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For now, I will continue to drool at the thought of a Crunchwrap at 2 a.m. before I'dconsider picking up a Cantina Chicken Bowl at 2 p.m.

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