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A couple of months ago we (re-)discovered Frontera Foods, the food line from Chef Rick Bayless. The taco bowls we tested were impressive, with not only great flavors but also pretty darn good nutrition: one meal actually had 9 grams of fiber, which if you've been reading our reviews for a while, you probably know is easily twice what we typically get in other frozen meals, if not more.
After two such surprisingly good dishes, and facing two more bowls, we prepared for the worst. So often the first couple of items we test show promise, but that isn't borne out in subsequent dishes. Could lightning strike twice more?
Both of today's meals have a bit more sodium than those in our last tasting, so we chose the one with the least sodium to begin our tasting.
This is the Three Bean Taco Bowl (350 calories, 550mg sodium, 15g fiber - let me repeat that: FIFTEEN).
This dish "definitely smells roasted," with a "strong hit of chipotle" in the scent. You'd expect that this would translate to a spicier dish, but it doesn't: it's labeled "mild" and is indeed only "very mildly" spicy according to our panelists.
The three beans of the name are black beans, pinto beans, and white kidney beans, and all are present in abundance. More importantly, they're not undercooked, having a meaty, chewy texture and fine, savory flavor. The rice blend, identical to the other two meals we've reviewed, includes both red and white rice as well as amaranth, and this led to the only slightly down note of the dish: the rice blend might be a little underdone. We thought that overall this bowl lacked some essential liquid that might have helped the rice's texture and the dish's overall slight dryness.
That said, the flavor is excellent, with a smokey, savory tone gently punctuated with the only moderate sweetness of the plantains. In addition to the texture provided by the beans, the sweet and tart onions and red bell peppers also provide a bit of a crunch. Overall, still head and shoulders above other "bowls" we've reviewed in the past.
The Veggie Taco Bowl is a real eye-opener and has only 250 calories to go with its 630 milligrams of sodium ("okay, ouch," remarked a panelist), but also 11 grams of fiber. It's labeled "vegan," and our panelists agreed that this sort of meal would give veganism a good name (as opposed to so many things that give veganism a reputation for being flavorless and boring).
Here Chef Bayless gives you roasted zucchini, corn, and poblano and yellow bell peppers over the standard rice/amaranth mix and adds a bright, tart tomatillo and lime sauce that, quite frankly, we'd be more than happy to see in a Mexican restaurant.
Add savory, chewy white kidney beans to the roasting-marked zukes and sweet corn and you have a "pretty and colorful" dish. As opposed to the Three Bean Taco Bowl, this one has plenty of liquid, yielding perfectly cooked rice. The onions are crunchy, sweet, and tart, and there's even plenty of crunch to the diced poblanos in the dish.
Let this stand for our overall review: one of our panelists had to stop himself from eating the whole thing. As of this writing these are on sale at our local (New Orleans) Whole Foods Market for $3.99. We advise you to stock up.
Reviewed: May 11, 2018