Chipotle's challenge: Conscientious chain still struggles in the land of 1,000 carnitas

Foiled again: Chipotle's chicken burrito - Chuck Kerr
Chuck Kerr
Foiled again: Chipotle's chicken burrito

In a supplement to a recent issue of Esquire, there was an article titled "America's Most Inspiring CEOs." Among the titans of industry touted was Steve Ells, not yet a name with the recognition of a Jobs or a Gates. And yet Ells is the honcho of 1,300 seemingly very successful restaurants. Give up? Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The elegiac article quotes the CIA-trained Ells as saying "I'm not a vegetarian, but I am a meat reducer," and notes that "Most Chipotle meat is now from smaller farms with more open space for animals … chickens are free of antibiotics, and its dairy is from cows given no hormones… " Sounds good. More mass-market chains should pay this kind of attention to thoughtful sourcing. The made-in-front-of-you production process is another potential plus. And so is the hip hardware store décor.

So what of the food? Chipotle, which launched in Denver (and had a brief fling with McDonald's) is certainly working at a disadvantage in a city with serious Mexican roots. But that it's modestly Mexican at best (and that only two items on the menu appear to see any grill time — or chipotle) appears not to be of real concern. We're distracted, instead, by nutrition facts, and those facts alone would suggest that the burrito bowl is a better option than the wrapped burrito: that tortilla counts for 290 calories and more sodium than anything else on the menu. It also tastes floury and lacks the blistery bravado of one of San Antonio's own.

As for fillings, the cilantro-lime brown rice is marginally better for you than the white version, but the seasonings work better in the white; the vegetarian black beans are boring and unnecessarily al-dente; the hottest sauce option is decently picante; we aren't told what kind of cheese is used, but we do know that an ounce is 100 calories; sour cream adds another 120 — but counts for more taste. Note that if you want to forgo the cheese and cream, adding the healthier guacamole will cost you $1.80; there's no credit for omitting anything. I had the burrito with Chipotle's signature carnitas, said to be "rubbed with black pepper and juniper and braised for about six hours" before being shredded. Not a bad product, but nothing like the chunky-lusty pork we know here. Conclusion? Give me El Chilaquil and some corn tortillas any day.

The bowl with romaine and braised, beef barbacoa, though, might bear repeating. That this isn't classic barbacoa seems to matter less here, and the flavor is really pretty good. I felt both vaguely virtuous and reasonably satisfied when finished. And, apart from the guac gouge, left feeling that the base price of $6.65 was fair. The cheery service was another plus. Maybe the staff feels inspired.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

3928 Broadway (multiple locations)
(210) 832-9812

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