Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Burrito Chain Wars, Part II: Chipotle is in your mind

Of the entries in the Burrito Chain war, Chipotle (chi-POHT-lay) is the newest in Eugene and probably the best known. Chipotle fans are, admit it, cultish about the big burritos and small tacos that can be found at every one of these fast-casual "Mexican" grills. (A quick side note: Though once a member of the McDonald's family, Chipotle has been independent since 2006). I, myself, am a Chipotle fan, someone who saw the "Coming Soon" sign in the window on Coburg two years ago and nearly spit up my coffee in glee. A Chipotle! In Eugene! It made so much sense.

Now that the chain has landed, though, I seem to want it less. This makes a certain amount of sense: the memory of Chipotle is always better than the experience of Chipotle. That's not to say the experience isn't good -- it generally is. Of the three chain burrito places in Eugene, Chipotle wins in several substantial taste categories, including spiciness (try the Barbacoa), rice (cilantro-lime-magic), and guacamole (them there are real avocados, friend). They also serve with efficient speed and surprising friendliness, and $10 will always carry you out the door with a more-than-stomach-sized burrito and a soda of your choice.

Yet I really think that most people enjoy Chipotle in the abstract as much as they enjoy actual Chipotle.
Just knowing that you can go to Chipotle whenever the craving for a fajita chicken burrito and a bag of lime-and-salt chips hits you seems to bring a shade more happiness to the Eugene universe. This says more about the consumer experience at Chipotle than the actual ingredients. They've managed to do something that makes you feel not only good when you're eating the food but also good about wanting the food. People buy and wear Chipotle T-shirts; they tack their college-newspaper ads on their walls. They become Chipotle fans on Facebook and dress up on Halloween to get free gear. That's more than an admiration of food happening; it's an embrace of culture.

What culture, exactly? Well, Chipotle tries -- and tells you over and over again about how it tries -- to be different. They want to create a fast food experience that doesn't leave you feeling greasy (a la, ahem, McDonald's). They want to support local and organic agriculture. They want to pay decent wages to their workers. They want to serve "food with integrity," as they've written about. This is an admirable goal, and one that does make me want to eat at Chipotle more.  Humanely raised meat? Organic veggies and beans? And it's still under $10? Yes!

So the taste at Chipotle is at least half in your head. That's good. The head is what decides that it's worth an extra dollar, or an extra five minutes in line, to get a burrito made from ingredients that won't leave you with a guilt hangover. It's what makes the Chipotle memory stronger than the Chipotle experience -- it's food you feel good about.

As for choices, there are just four: burrito, burrito bowl, taco, or quesadilla (not on the menu). There are four kinds of meat: "braised carnitas or barbacoa, adobo-marinated and grilled chicken or steak." Carnitas is the spiciest; chicken is the least spicy. If you're a vegetarian, you must first skip the pinto beans (bacon) in favor of the black beans. You must also accept that the only substitute to meat at Chipotle is guacamole. (Yes, there are fajita vegetables, and no, I don't particularly recommend them, as the onion-to-pepper ratio is about 6:1, and the peppers will be undercooked, bitter green peppers next to strong, charred onions). Your vegetarian burrito experience at Chipotle will be an embrace of everything you've ever dreamed of as a condiment, wrapped up in a soft shell: soft black beans, salsa, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. I get the corn salsa just so something breaks the texture mold, but it's still an ooey, gooey mess of toppings. Order it in a burrito bowl and splash out for a bag of chips and you've got one of the best dips imaginable. As a meal, it's not something that can be done every day.

That's because, of the three burrito places I'll discuss, Chipotle is both the most ingredient-focused and the most meat-focused. Everything they do surrounds those four types of meat. For instance: the heat lives in the meat. No amount of spicy red salsa can make up for the fire you'll miss the first time you don't order protein in your burrito.

That probably adds to its cultishness for Eugenians. Think of it: a place that's fast, that's cheap, and that doesn't make you feel bad for eating meat (and lots of it). That, my friends, is brilliance, wrapped up in a 13" flour shell, and served to you, any day of the week, at Chipotle.

Location: Coburg Station (460 Coburg Rd.)

Hours: Mon-Sun 11am-10pm
Notes: Online orders accepted

Chipotle on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. i just ate Chipotle for first time today. DAMN IT'S GOOD.