Just the Way You Are: On Taco Bell’s Cantina Bell Menu

Don’t go trying some new fashion
Don’t change the color of your hair
You always have my unspoken passion
Although I might not seem to care

I don’t want clever conversation
I never want to work that hard
I just want someone that I can talk to
I want you just the way you are.

Last week we visited Taco Bell for the first time since it introduced its new Cantina Bell menu, a shameless pandering to the Chipotle burrito bowl crowd, a citrus-herb-marinated-chicken-fisted attempt to appeal to those who prefer a “gourmet, healthier, fresher” option. First of all, those words should never, ever appear in the same sentence with Taco Bell, unless you were listing  antonyms for Taco Bell.  And while we’d go under oath professing that avocado is one of our three favorite foods (along with bacon and cheese, creating the Holy Trinity of food, the A-B-Cs of eating), at Taco Bell we don’t want our guac coming from anywhere other than a caulk gun. If we wanted fresh guacamole not the consistency of toothpaste we wouldn’t go to Taco Bell, we’d make it ourselves (and we make a pretty mean guac, ask around). It’s pretty simple. We know what you are Taco Bell (at least we thought we did), and we were happy with you. Billy Joel pretty much says it exactly right. Don’t go changing to try and please me. I’ll take you just the way you are.

We admit that we came to Taco Bell somewhat late in life. The Border was a little too aggressive for the rather bland palate of my household, a wee bit too exotic. We only recall going once as a child, brought there by our much more adventurous and much older brother, who quickly grew incensed at our refusal to order anything more than a Pepsi and our steadfast resistance to taking just one, single, solitary bite of his taco. Yes, we want to punch our seven-year-old self too. It was no one’s loss but our own, and our brother was perfectly right in his boiling rage at our stubbornness. We just didn’t know any better and we were worse for it. However, we did, thank heavens, wise up in adulthood and discover the taste sensations that Taco Bell offers, the endless permutations of tortilla, ground “beef,” cheese, beans and sauce. They’ve gotten more out of so few ingredients than Green Day has gotten out of three chords (music reference!). It’s fast, cheap and delicious, and now that we live two blocks from a Taco Bell-KFC, it’s part of our balanced diet (balanced on the other side of the scale by fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs that don’t come in a nacho cheesier Doritos shell).  When the “scandal” broke that not all of Taco Bell’s ground beef could technically be considered meat we did not bat an eye. We assumed that to be the case all along; to presume otherwise felt foolish. And we didn’t care. We’d get farm fresh, grade-A meat and locally sourced organic tomatoes elsewhere. Taco Bell, we’d take you just the way you are.

Don’t go changing, to try and please me
You never let me down before

But now there’s this new Cantina Bell menu,  crafted by chef Lorena Garcia, who is neither Nina Garcia nor Andy Garcia and thus has not earned our confidence or our admiration. There’s the Cantina Bowl, the Cantina Burrito, cirtus-herb marinated chicken, corn and chile salsa, now on the menu next to my Mexi-Melt, my Cheesy Gordita Crunch, my Enchirito (which we’ve yet to actually try, but since it’s made of tortilla, cheese, beef, beans and sauce, we have no doubt we’ll love it*). Corn has as much place at Taco Bell as French fries (unless you’re at a Taco Bell in Aruba). But now we walk in and there’s the new menu, front and center, and we can’t help but feel betrayed.

Imagine for a second that we’ve been dating for a long time, maybe a few years. Perhaps we even live together. And we love you. We really do. For all your imperfections, we love you. We don’t mind that you’re a few pounds overweight, or that you insist on burping in our face, or that you sleep in while we procure bagels, or that you’re an awful cook, or that sometimes you drink a little too much.** That’s what we love about you. But we come home one day and you’ve changed your hair color, and you dropped ten pounds using P90X, and you made a delicious seafood paella without burning a thing. Why did you do that? You didn’t have to go and try to impress us. We liked your curves and your few gray hairs and your complete lack of skill in the kitchen. That’s who you are. If we didn’t like you the way you were, we’d be with someone else. And, Taco Bell, if we didn’t want your cheap, greasy, borderline-safe-to-ingest “Mexican” food, we go somewhere else. Maybe shame on us for not showing you enough appreciation, but, maybe, shame on you for not recognizing how much you are adored, how beautiful you really are.

And then we got to thinking: well, maybe it wasn’t us Taco Bell was trying to impress. At first, we felt bad that Taco Bell was trying to better itself for our sake, as if we thought it needed any bettering. But then it occurred to use that Taco Bell was trying to appeal to someone else. Maybe, all of a sudden, we weren’t good enough anymore. Now our girlfriend is putting highlights in her hair and applying mascara for that smokey eye effect and buying new, sexier clothes in hopes of catching a different class of guy, someone who doesn’t spend their days writing long essays about fast food trends. Someone who isn’t driving their ’93 Maxima until it either completely breaks down or spontaneously combusts. Someone who doesn’t DVR Fashion Police, as if that’s some sorta crime.*** Now, out of nowhere, we’re not handsome enough, or cool enough, or refined enough. And it’s same thing with Taco Bell. After all this time, after everything we’ve had together, Taco Bell decides we’re not the kind of guy it wants. It’s not personal, and Taco Bell hopes we can still be friends, it never meant to hurt us. But we’re just at different places in our lives right now and Taco Bell just wants something different. Not better or worse, Taco Bell says, just different. And, well, it hurts.

Taco Bell, we’ve given you some of the best years of our life. And we hope you realize that we like who you are, that we like you for you. And we’re not going to give up on you. Not as long as the Cool Ranch Doritos Taco is on its way.

I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
What will it take ’till you believe in me
The way that I believe in you.
I said I love you and that’s forever
And this I promise from my heart
I couldn’t love you any better
I love you just the way you are.

*Since the writing of this post we have tried the Enchrito and we do, in fact, love it. Fyi, additional options are the chicken Enchirito and the steak Enchirito, which respectively substitute chicken or steak for the ground beef, as per the Enchirito Wiki (Enchiwiki?), and meal does, as promised, come with a spork.
**This is not an actual woman, nor it is a composite. Any similarities are purely coincidental.
***This person is not fictional.

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Filed under It's gross., Local Flavor, The Sixth Taste

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