Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Burrito Chain Wars, Part III: Qdoba is Cheesy (cheesy goodness)

There are two major differences between Qdoba and its closest competitor, Chipotle: cheese sauce and breakfast. Qdoba offers both; Chipotle offers neither. This may not be a point in Qdoba's favor, if you're some kind of chain burrito purist (and if you are: WTF?), but for me, it's often the winning move in an otherwise even chess match.

Part of my affection for Qdoba comes from one simple fact: I've eaten a lot of it, and I've paid almost nothing for it. Just over two years ago, I entered one of those drop-your-name-in-a-fishbowl contests at Qdoba and, soon after, won a year's worth of free burritos. That's 52 free burritos, credited to one of their Qdoba loyalty cards. C and I have eaten out on that card ever since -- not every week, clearly, but often enough.

Qdoba was always my second choice before I got The Free Burrito card. However, with that in hand, I've felt free to try more things -- and among these things, I've found some I really enjoy. Take, for instance, Qdoba's "Mexican Gumbo." Set aside the ridiculousness of the name and focus on what this is: rice and beans with a tomato-broth soup poured over, with cheese, crispy chip bits, salsa, and sour cream. It's the best burrito-like bowl that I have ever had, and on a mildly cool day, it's pretty much the perfect lunch. Pair it with an order of chips and cheese dip -- there's almost always a coupon for a free serving of this in those Student Coupon books they hand out at the bookstore every start of term -- and you've got a perfectly over-satisfying meal that's made for you in less than five minutes and costs about $8.

Yes, this is a place that serves nacho cheese sauce. Why not? The authenticity that any chain burrito restaurant aspires to is only a very commercialized, American version of fast Mexican cuisine, anyway, and, well, Americans love their processed cheese. Qdoba goes two better, making a "three cheese queso" (I know, that's "three cheese cheese," but this is the level of cultural knowledge we're dealing with). What are those three cheeses? I have no idea, nor do I particularly care. They make an orange sauce that's absolutely pleasing on chips and, better than that, makes a welcome, tangy addition to one of their signature burritos: The Queso Burrito. That one, which is cheese sauce and meat of choice, is neighbors to another Qdoba signature, the Ancho Chile BBQ Burrito, a dish that C is generally pleased with. "It's a nice smokey tangy barbecue sauce that goes over pork well for that kind of thing," he says. "It's something I can eat fairly often."

That kind of describes everything at Qdoba: nothing will burn you, or overexcite you, or bring you to some kind of burrito epiphany, but it's good. It's fine. None of the food at Qdoba is particularly challenging. It's plain chain burrito fare: meats, sauces, rice, two kinds of beans (both vegetarian), four kinds of salsa, and a few special features like the queso, the bbq sauce, the soup, and, hey! Breakfast.

Breakfast has been the main way I've experienced Qdoba for the last year. It is, to my knowledge, the only of the three chains in town that even bothers with the breakfast burrito. You have only a few choices: 10" or 13" flour tortilla? (10 for me; 13 for C). Egg, spiced potatoes, and cheese? (Yes). Meat? (No for me; sausage for C). Salsa? (Depends on the day). Coffee? It's Allan Bros. (No thanks -- coffee + burrito = disaster).

You can get a breakfast quesadilla with eggs and cheese, too, or substitute shredded chicken for the sausage, but these are your options. Breakfast burritos are served until noon on weekends, which is absolutely perfect (when does McDonald's stop serving? 10:30? That's practically dawn). Matched to a Coke product of your choice and scarfed down while sitting at a could-be-ripped-from-Chipotle wooden bench seat over a shiny metal table, it's exactly the breakfast one needs before wandering to the bookstore for a re-up on homework materials.

Location: 13th and Kincaid

Hours: Monday-Wednesday 8 a.m. to midnight; Thursday-Friday 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Notes: The Qdoba loyalty card, in combination with a coupon book you can pick up at the bookstore for free, will generally supply you with a free burrito, chips, or drink every couple of visits, even if you don't win the contest that I did.

Qdoba Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

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