A little introduction: In this town, we have three of the major national contenders for Best Burrito Chain (Baja Fresh, Chipotle, and Qdoba). All three function on largely the same business model: feed people huge burritos at mid-sized prices with recognizable vegetables and absolutely nothing "refried," and they will want more. All three inspire rather rabid devotion from fans. All three also have substantial differences, and as someone who's a regular eater at all three establishments in Eugene, I thought I'd line them up for a three-part comparison. Why not? It's winter; it's foggy; who doesn't want a spicy burrito show-down right now?
So, to be as fair as possible, I'm doing this in alphabetical order -- and also, it turns out, starting with the chain that has the oldest presence in Eugene, Baja Fresh. This restaurant out on Coburg road is located in the tiny complex that also houses a Ben and Jerry's and a Newman's Fish Market -- and, oh yeah, it's directly across the street from a shiny new Chipotle.
That's OK. The folks who come to Baja Fresh probably want two things that Chiptole can't provide: a more familiar fast-food ordering experience, and a bit more choice. The key ingredient to every Baja Fresh burrito, taco, or quesadilla is the sheer number of choices one has in ordering it. Unlike Chipotle and Qdoba, there's no line down which you travel, directing and observing the assembly of your dish at all points. Rather, you walk up to the counter and order from a large, posted overhead menu. Your options include five kinds of meats: shrimp, charbroiled chicken or steak, carnitas, or mahi-mahi, plus any specials (right now, they're offering langostino lobster). These are pre-set into certain kinds of burritos, like the Ultimo Burrito (Spanish rice, black or pinto beans, steak or fish, grilled peppers, pico) or the Nacho Burrito, but some mixing and matching is allowed. Cheese sauce? Sure, add that in. Want it "enchilada style," with red sauce over the top? No problem. Afraid of large tortillas? These same meats are available in a variety of soft taco combinations that include sides of beans and rice. Vegetarian? There's a bean-and-cheese option and a grilled veggie option, and you can go with pinto or black beans safely, as neither has any meat component (unlike at Chipotle). The rice is also animal-product free, but the soup -- of course, there's soup! -- is not.
Your choice is not over once your order is placed, though. There is a thing of beauty at Baja Fresh that's called "the salsa bar," and it's exactly as advertised. Six salsas await you, along with a few canisters that hold peperonicni, jalapenos, and chopped cilantro. Bottles of hot sauce linger near by. My personal favorite at the moment is the mahi mahi burrito with a generous helping of the mango salsa. There are two hot options (though neither is so hot that my weak palette finds them dangerous), two medium options, and two mild: pico de gallo and mango. The mango is very sweet, but adding your own cilantro and a bit of pico can bring it into the realm of savory.
You should also visit that salsa bar because, with your order, there will most likely be chips. Yes! Chips! For free! They hand them out in little paper baskets, and you can get refills for no charge so long as you dine in. For $.99, you can add a "pronto" appetizer: a little dish of smoked nacho cheese or guacamole. The guac is heavy on the onion powder; the nacho dip isn't the stuff of legend, but it's also not baseball-game neon orange.
This brings us to another key point of comparison: price. All three chains have similar price scales, but Baja Fresh uses the most standard means of reducing that: it offers coupons like crazy. If you live in Eugene and get your mail with any regularity, you'll have noticed the coupon flyer. In between the oil changes and the BK Fish deals, you'll find a flyer just about twice a month that offers $5 off a $15 purchase (or $2 off $8) or a buy-one, get-one free taco combo at Baja Fresh. That's not a bad deal at all, and it's not too hard to reach the $15 threshold if you have two people who want drinks and burritos.
At my house, there are nearly always two people who want drinks and burritos, and the short jaunt to Baja Fresh is never too far to drive. They take call ahead orders (though not yet online orders), but to take full advantage of the place, it's best to eat in. The interior is strangely diner-esque in its black-and-white tiling, but one advantage it does boast over other chain competitors is the ease with which you can move furniture to accompany a group larger than four. In better weather, the restaurant's outside deck offers a little extra seating, complete with a burbling fountain and a view of the parking lot.
All-in-all, Baja Fresh serves a population that wants both a more standard restaurant experience from their big burrito and also more chances to mess with the creation themselves. It's a strange mix -- less choice at the window (as you're not directing the process in person), more choice at the table (thanks to the salsa bar) -- but it feels familiar. It's not a bad place to land for a sizable burrito.
Location: 463 Coburg Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily