Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A New Competitor For My Heart (Or Stomach) When I'm On The Road: Chipotle Grill!

The Good: Good tasting food, Relatively nutritious, Inexpensive, Good corporate philosophy
The Bad: Drinks are a bit pricey, Light on side dishes/choices
The Basics: A surprisingly good chain, Chipotle Grill offers affordable Mexican food assembled while one watches. Decent, if limited, options.

I travel a lot. I used to travel more for business, but now, I've started making sure I have fun when I travel so I'm not just miserable, regardless of what the business is doing. The thing about eating on the road is it's often a crapshoot. You never know where you're going to end up or what is there unless you've thoroughly researched your destination or you've been there before. There are a surprisingly high number of places in the United States that when I find myself there, I hunt for chain restaurants. Say what you will about chains, but they do tend to offer a pretty consistent level of quality.

And when it comes to chains, I tend not to go for easy and crappy, either. Sure, I like Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast sandwiches and coffee and am a bit disappointed as I head West when they drop off the face of the earth. And in the last year, I must have dropped at least five hundred dollars eating at various Panera Bread restaurants around the country because the food there is so good and when I can find them, I like supporting them. So, it is a rare thing for me to take a risk on somewhere I have never eaten before when on the road.

As luck would have it, though, I found myself flirting at one of the last Star Trek conventions I was working at as a dealer and I was given a pretty strong recommendation for Chipotle Grill. So, being the tool that I am, I decided to forego my usual soup and sandwich at Panera (which was in the same plaza as the Chipotle) and risk a burrito at Chipotle instead. Perhaps the best endorsement I can give of Chipotle, then, is that the next weekend when I was doing a show in Florida, I hunted down a Chipotle so I could have a meal at the Chipotle Grill in Orlando, as well as the Panera there.


Chipotle Grill - now that I know they exist - seem to be sprouting up everywhere. My experiences so far with the chain have been in Maryland and Florida and I have had multiple meals at both locations I have dined at.

Chipotle seems to be a reasonably fast food establishment that is catering to the conscientious carnivores of the United States. The dining rooms tend to have a very trendy, modern look to them with white tables and high lights. Both establishments I visited had artwork on the walls. They were kept exceptionally clean, especially for weekends.


Chipotle Grill - at least the ones I have been to - do not exactly have waiters and waitresses. Patrons line up at a cafeteria-style assembly station and place their order with two to three different cooks who assemble the meal for them. These stations are very sleek, clean stainless steel hotpads where all of the fillings for the possible dishes are kept warm.

Between the two establishments I have been to, the drill seems to be that when one reaches the front of the line, one tells the initial cook what one wants and they prepare the shell (burrito or taco or salad bowl) that is appropriate. The shell is slid to the first filler who prepares the basic fillings usually up to the meat. The dish is then slid to the finisher who garnishes the dish and wraps it up, if it is being taken to go.

At the locations I have been a patron at, the servers were friendly, clean and easily executed all of my wishes. The staff seemed to be quite content with their jobs and had no problems meeting my specific (occasionally picky) requests.


Chipotle Grill is essentially a Mexican food establishment. The dishes include burritos, fajita burritos, a burrito bowl, tacos and salads. The selection for these items is differentiated by the meat one chooses to add to the dish and it is the price of the meat that determines the price of the dish. As a result, a salad with steak is the same price as a burrito with steak.

The "gimmick" or factor that makes Chipotle unique or appealing to its niche is that all of the meats Chipotle Grill uses are advertised as being all-natural. There are no hormones added to the animals and they are fed using a vegetarian diet. As well, according to their menu, Chipotle Grill inspects along the supply chain for quality assurance, working with farmers and ranchers to insure that their corporate philosophy is being met. I have to say I respect this and it makes me pleased to spend my money here.

Over the course of my visits, I sampled the following main courses: Burrito, soft tacos, and crispy tacos. I have yet to try the salads and I did not try the vegetarian option for any of the main courses because my feeling (honestly) was "What's the point?!" I completely respect that Chipotle is trying to attract vegetarians into the restaurant, but it seems silly to me to have a grill and not expect there to be meat. And truthfully, any vegetarians who are on the fence about eating meat, it seems like Chipotle Grill would be one of the decent places to fall off the wagon given their corporate philosophy. That said, it's nice to know they offer vegetarian options because with my track record, when I start dating my next vegetarian, it will be nice to know there's a place we can both eat at.

The burrito is what sold me on going in to Chipotle Grill and it is what will keep me coming back. The burrito is assembled to order with a warmed flour shell, at least half a pound of white rice, bean options (I chose a little bit of both the black beans and the white beans), at least a half pound of steak, and mild tomato salsa. As well, the workers there were quite friendly about loading the burrito up with cheese. I love cheese and they were kind enough - at both establishments - to ask "Is this enough cheese?" and not balk when I said, "Could you throw in a little more?" I suspect I had about a third of a cup of shredded cheese (at least) on both burritos. The burritos were then wrapped up. The steak burrito I had was quite good. The meat was well cooked, the proportions of steak, rice, beans, salsa and cheese were well mixed and so long as the person preparing it rolls it the right way, it is possible to get a little bit of everything in one bite. My only complaint with the burrito was is was not as (physically, temperature-wise) hot as I like my food. While one of my burritos was being assembled, I watched fresh ingredients swapped in from the cook behind the serving line and I have no doubt the ingredients were fresh. But they were not steaming hot, which is how I like my food.

The three soft taco option was assembled in the same manner as the burrito, save that I had chicken. The soft taco is given meat, salsa, cheese (some would have sour cream, but I would have none of that!), and lettuce. The lettuce was cool and crisp and with the salsa left the meat and cheese pretty cool, making it less delicious to me (temperature is a big part of taste for me). They were good, but not great.

I had my hard tacos made with carnitas, which is seasoned grilled pork. Surprisingly, this was something that I enjoyed quite a bit more than I thought I would. The pork was fresh off the grill when I ordered it and as a result, the cheese melted some and the corn shell of the taco warmed up a bit and the lettuce and salsa heated up a little, too. This was good by my standards, as I like food hot. Interestingly, because I consumed these so quickly, the lettuce did not wilt. The flavors of the lettuce, pork, cheese and salsa were not overwhelmed by the taco shell (which has been known to happen at some establishments).

All three of these main courses are a bit messy with juices that leaked. That's fine so long as one knows it is coming and goes into the experience expecting it. The various flavors are quite good and nothing was greasy or otherwise unpleasant.

In addition to the main courses, there are remarkably limited side dishes offered, mostly involving chips (white corn nachos). There are chips: with salsa, with guacamole or plain. I shall confess that I bought some of the chips (they were decent, though I tend to like mine with a little more salt) and took them somewhere else where I could smother them in a far, far less nutritious cheese sauce and that was pretty delicious.

Drinks vary based on location. For example the Maryland location did not offer beer, but the Florida one did. Both locations featured bottled water and Nantucket Nectars fruit juices, which is what I went for each time. They were $2.25/ea. and that seemed a little pricey to me, but the fruit drinks complimented the meat quite well.


Considering it is pretty easy to get filled up on any one meal with a drink for less than $10, Chipotle Grill represents a fairly ethical, delicious dining option and truth be told, I'm going to look around now that I'm back home to see if I can find one closer to me. This does not mean I've turned my back on Panera Bread . . . but, hey, variety is the spice of life. And with Chipotle Grill, I've more options for the type of life I want to live.

For other restaurants, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Dunkin' Donuts
Hard Rock Cafe Times Square


For other restaurant reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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