While traipsing around New York last month, my wife and I seemingly passed one Chipotle Mexican Grill after another — some spaced just blocks apart. It reached a point when I wondered aloud: "Who do they think they are, Starbucks?" Curiosity compelled us to walk into one and take a look. The room was warmly appointed with woods, framed photos, and Mayan-inspired sculptures. Some of the multiethnic clientele dined at tables; others consumed their burritos while poring over laptops and newspapers at a long communal counter. It is only a slight stretch to suggest this particular Chipotle channeled more Kerouac than Kroc. Said burritos went untasted by my wife and I, though — we were, after all, in the nation's gastronomic capital, so I wasn't about to clutter precious stomach capacity with food that could be found anywhere. Or at least, according to current count, in 640 outlets stretched across 27 states.
The first Chipotle, situated near the University of Denver, was founded by CEO Steve Ells in 1993. Steve believed the fast-food concept could be tweaked to improve the quality of cuisine without sacrificing speed, convenience, or affordability. (Nowadays such places are labeled "fast-casual" and constitute the most rapidly growing segment of the restaurant industry.) McDonald's bought into the chain in 1998, the first time it had ever backed a business other than its own. There were only 15 stores then, but within three years Big Mac was Chipotle's largest investor, and helped grow the company to more than 500 units. Last October the burger baron fully divested its investment.
Interior design is intentionally varied among locations, but all are urban-industrial in style. Photos of 11 outlets are posted on the company Website, nine of which, like the one in New York, exhibit a good deal of architectural creativity. The other two look like North Miami Beach's branch — not nearly as nice as the rest. Some Chipotle properties are even green, and I'm not talking about the color of the walls. Ours, located in the same North Miami Beach strip mall as Total Wine superstore, is not (nor is the one getting set to open on South Dixie Highway). Still, the sleek, minimalist décor (brick-color walls, blond woods, corrugated aluminum wainscoting) conspires with storefront windows running around the room's perimeter to create a clean, airy ambiance.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
14776 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach; 305-947-2779. Open for lunch and dinner daily 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
The main focal point upon entering is the counter where orders are taken. "Two things, thousands of ways" reads one of Chipotle's superfluity of slogans. The menu system is so simplified you'd think even dull-witted devotees of Mickey D's would be able to decipher it quickly. Not quite. The "thousands of ways" part seems to trip up indecisive diners, which has the effect of considerably slowing the line.
The "two things" are tacos and burritos. The former comes via a trio of pliable flour tortillas or quartet of crackly corn tortillas (the sort that inevitably shatters into a nacho-esque mess). Better are burritos, modeled after the fat ones made famous at taquerias in San Francisco's Mission District — much more bang for the buck.
If you go the burrito route, a large, exceptionally soft tortilla will be heated in a press and await your selection of meat. Juicy shreds of cumin-heavy, chipotle-marinated barbacoa beef are the most potently flavored, thus least likely to be overwhelmed by add-ins. Braised, shredded pork carnitas — slow-cooked with thyme, bay leaf, and juniper berries — offer a milder but no less singular joy. Additional choices are grilled cubes of chipotle-marinated chicken or steak, both tender and slightly piquant, but not nearly up to par with the first two.
What sets Chipotle apart from other national chains is its commitment to "Food with Integrity." That might seem a big, boastful motto to run with, but Ells backs up his words. Animals raised for Chipotle's meats contain no antibiotics or growth hormones. They are given room to roam and a diet of vegetarian feed with no animal byproducts. Since 2001, all pork has derived from pigs ranched in a humane, ecologically sustainable way; those same practices likewise apply to nearly 60 percent of the chicken and more than 40 percent of the beef. The goal is for all meats to be similarly bred within the next few years.
Sources include, amazingly, Niman Ranch pork, Bell & Evans chicken, and Meyer Natural Angus beef. This is not the case at Taco Bell or at midscale Mexican eateries or at non-Mexican restaurants. You will not even find this quality of meat at most of our high-end establishments — the excuse generally given for eschewing such products being prohibitiveness of cost. Chipotle's prices top out at $6.10.
Next comes the salad station, where an amiable worker will stuff, and I mean stuff, your tortilla with whatever it is you tell him or her to (although less so for tacos, because garnishes are restricted to salsa, cheese or sour cream, and lettuce). The bulkier fillers are impeccably cooked cilantro-lime rice "made fresh every hour" and either vegetarian black beans bolstered with cumin and garlic, or bacon-accented pinto beans. Twenty-five percent of Chipotle's beans are organic, a number that will increase as growers catch up with demand.
If you forgo beans and instead select a sauté of green peppers and red onions, your burrito becomes a "fajita burrito." Shun the tortilla altogether and it's a "burrito bowl." Take that bowl, substitute lettuce for rice, and you've got a "Chipotle salad" (with chipotle-honey vinaigrette). A vegetarian burrito gets everything but the meat, plus guacamole. If this sounds at all confusing to you, please sort things out in your head before approaching the counter. The rest of us will be grateful.
Salad garnishes encompass a combo of jack and cheddar cheeses rendered from vegetable-based rennet (thus making it vegetarian), sour cream (free of synthetic growth hormones), and romaine lettuce (not fast-food iceberg). Four salsas include chopped tomatoes mildly mixed with red onions and cilantro (basic); corn salsa with poblano and jalapeño peppers, red onion, and cilantro (not so hot); medium tomatillo–green chili salsa with habañeros, red onion, cumin, and cilantro (zingy and delicious); and red-hot tomatillo-chili salsa sizzling with smoky chilies de arbol. Guacamole made from "freshly mashed Hass avocados," cilantro, red onion, and lime juice is $1.50 extra. A side of guac and brown paper bag of pale, crisp, somewhat-salty tortilla chips is $2.25.
Have you ever had a great dessert in a chain restaurant? Me neither, which is why Chipotle's not serving any dessert at all is brilliant.
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"Our food is the best we can find — for now," says Ells. "We are constantly searching to make it even better." Here are a few suggestions: Get rid of the Coke/Sprite dispenser. Without it patrons still have a choice among higher-end carbonated beverages, water, and four types of bottled Mexican beer ($3). It's admirable that napkins, bags, and bowls are made from recycled materials, but how about ditching the plastic Solo cups? And it would be groovy if whole-wheat tortillas were given as an option.
Such quibbles aside: Steve Ells is performing a noble deed. His company's provisions contain zero artificial colors or flavorings, zero trans fatty acids, zero sugar, zero nuts. Cheese and sour cream constitute the only dairy, and no eggs are used (absolutely the first vegan-friendly chain). And Ells's influence extends well beyond the integrity of his tacos. Chipotle buys more naturally raised meat than any restaurant business in America; its vast and growing purchasing power is providing a potent incentive for suppliers to shift toward humane and healthful farming practices. This might be occurring already: Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor, credited Chipotle for its decision last year to eliminate sow stalls. Ells's success is also sure to change the way future fast-food chains go about sourcing their ingredients, which in turn will lead to a more well-informed and salubrious citizenry.
All that and darn tasty burritos too.