Last week I gave my money to McDonald’s for the first time in ten years. I bought a steak burrito. Is Ronaldo McDonald Gonzalez going to start appearing on billboards? Has the McTaco finally arrived? No. But Chipotle has.
Chipotle, which opened April 14, on Gilman and San Pablo is the first Berkeley outpost of a Denver-based chain that has exploded nationwide. According to a 2000 interview in the Cincinnati Enquirer, owner Steve Ells moved to Denver and founded the first Chipotle in 1993 after cooking at Stars in San Francisco. He decided to re-create the taquerias he had visited in the Bay Area, lightening up the ingredients and calling his fare “quick food.”
In this new brand of fast-food restaurant, everything is made in-house according to Ells’ recipes. A plus for conscious consumers: Chipotle is the first large chain restaurant to use pork and beef from Niman Ranch, which supplies antibiotic- and hormone-free meat to many of the Bay Area’s top restaurants. In 1997, McDonald’s bought into the chain, recognizing that the US fast-food market is all but saturated and looking for growth opportunities. In 1999 it purchased a majority share. Since then Chipotle has expanded from almost twenty restaurants to more than 150, eighteen of which are in Northern California.
Chipotle is the new dining trend sweeping the nation: the fast-food restaurant for Food Network viewers. The menu reads “Chi*pot*le: 1) A fully ripened and smoked jalapeño pepper; 2) A new grill in town that prepares fresh gourmet burritos and tacos at great prices.” The restaurant’s setup is familiar to anyone who’s lived in California for more than a couple weeks. You choose your meat, beans, salsa, and extra fixins and then watch the counterperson assemble your dinner right in front of your eyes.
Here’s the gourmet part: The Chipotle burrito is filled with cilantro-lime rice instead of the fried, messy Mexican variety. Diners can choose a mild, tomato-heavy salsa cruda, a zippy, crunchy corn-chile salsa, or a fiery roasted-chile salsa. But is the new-school “gourmet” burrito really better than the old-school one?
I took a panel of independent burrito investigators to Chipotle several weeks ago and ordered nonstandard fare: a barbacoa burrito, a steak fajita burrito, and a crispy carnitas taco. Chips and guacamole came separately. Instead of aguas frescas, Chipotle sells bottled fruit juices, but it does carry Mexican beers and margaritas.
Ells’ gourmet approach succeeds in the braised and roasted meats. My carnitas, torn into shreds, had been softly braised in their own juices until all the fat melted off, with the meaty flavors concentrated in each strand. They were neither overfried nor overly fatty. Chipotle — the smoked jalapeño — and other spices perfumed the stewed and finely shredded beef in the barbacoa.
Otherwise the food resembled an IKEA room: clean, cheap, pleasant, and anonymous. It tasted light and bright, not like gut-busting, soul-satisfying simple fare. The corn-chile salsa wasn’t quite punchy enough to brighten the rich, dense barbacoa burrito. Without beans, the steak fajita burrito relied on the lightly sautéed red onions and green peppers for flavor, undergirded by the garlic-cilantro aroma of the rice. My thin, crispy taco shells held a little meat, a little salsa, and a lot of chopped lettuce. The premixed margarita would have made Chevy’s proud. The chips tasted like white-corn Restaurant-Style Tostitos.
IKEA could also have had a hand in the restaurant’s design. Stainless-steel tables and square plastic-backed chairs echoed the spare, industrial feel of the poured concrete floors, crimped steel wainscoting, and large exposed ventilation pipes crisscrossing the ceiling. For character, blond-wood Aztec faces and large black-and-white photographs of Chipotle tables, walls, and signs decorated the burgundy walls.
Tasting number two took the panel to International Boulevard. I randomly picked Taqueria El Farolito, one of the taquerias on my master list, for the comparison tasting. It certainly looked old-school — a dingy storefront with booths in front and a counter in back. We placed our orders and crowded into our booth, sipping Negra Modelos and watching a soccer match on the television blaring at us from overhead.
The antojitos didn’t stand out from the half-billion or so I ate in my youth. Our steak burrito was heavy on the rice, with a few pinto beans, chunks of chewy steak, and a nondescript tomato-onion salsa. A vegetarian burrito substituted iceberg lettuce for steak, and doubled the amount of beans. One nice touch was that the burritos were wrapped in griddled — not steamed — flour tortillas, which gives them a little char and crispness to offset the creamy, crumbly interior. El Farolito didn’t offer crispy tacos, so I substituted a carnitas taco and a chicken tostada. Though the shredded chicken was tender, the carnitas had spent a little too long in the pan. All the dishes relied on avocados and heavy dollops of sour cream for richness, however, which cooled the ensemble down to lukewarm. I finished my chips.
There was something bigger and richer — probably fattier — about the antojitos at Taqueria El Farolito, but the quality and complexity of Chipotle’s food topped the little taqueria’s. Like a gambler who’d stacked the decks and managed to lose, I gritted my teeth and decided to fight really dirty. The next stop: Taqueria Gordo — the truck with the longest line outside — at 42nd Avenue and International. The food: $3 burritos, $3 tortas, $1 tacos and not much more.
Hunching over our paper plates in my car, my friend Joe and I scarfed down Mexican food that finally matched my gourmet expectations. Small tacos piled high with soft, meaty strands of poached chicken and vermillion, sweetly spicy chunks of roasted pork al pastor. Each had a drizzle of a tart salsa verde, a smattering of chopped white onion, and a shower of cilantro. Our carne asada burrito didn’t have a tomato in it, but generous doses of onions and cilantro contributed a bright, sharp crunchiness, enough to set off the perfectly seasoned pinto beans, Spanish rice, and grilled steak inside.
Restaurant chains like Chipotle can only improve the culinary landscape of the strip-mall territories. Its burritos even beat out those wrapped by any number of second-rate taquerias in the East Bay. But in a region blessed with Berkeley’s Cactus and Picante and Oakland’s International Boulevard, why settle for a skillful imitation when you can have the real thing?