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Some Like It Hot: The Qdoba Mexican Grill Menu

by Sherman Morrison on January 12, 2015

in Menu Reviews, Mexican Restaurant Franchise



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This Franchise Chatter guide on the Qdoba Mexican Grill menu was written by Sherman Morrison.

Although now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Jack in the Box after being purchased from investors in 2003, Qdoba first got its start in 1995 as the independent Zuma Fresh Mexican Grill in Denver. It was opened by partners Anthony Miller and Robert Hauser.

After several name changes due to similarities with other establishments, the name Qdoba was finally settled upon in 1999.

The chain’s focus on higher quality food made from fresher ingredients places it squarely in the realm of fast-casual restaurants.

Now headed up by Gary J. Beisler as CEO, Qdoba boasts more than 600 locations across 47 states, Washington DC, and Canada.

In October 2014, Qdoba rolled out an innovative menu pricing overhaul in that it no longer makes customers pay for extras like guacamole or chips with queso. The idea is that fans can customize their entrées but still only pay a fixed price. Qdoba menu prices still vary by location, however, so the focus of this article is going to be on the quality of the food.

Here are the basic offerings on the Qdoba Mexican Grill menu (note that any of the main menu offerings can be made into smaller-sized Kids Meals):

Burritos and Bowls

The staple of any American-Mexican restaurant, at Qdoba you choose from among various options to create your large, mission-style burrito or bowl (fixings without the tortilla). Your choices for the vehicle of your entrée include a regular flour tortilla, a whole wheat flour tortilla, or a bowl with no tortilla.

Your next set of choices has to do with rice and beans, with choices of cilantro-lime rice, brown rice, black beans, or pinto beans.

Then you can make a choice of what meat goes into your burrito or bowl, selecting from among grilled chicken, grilled steak, pulled pork, shredded beef, or seasoned ground beef.

Next comes the choice of cheese sauce, which can be either the chain’s signature 3-Cheese Queso or Queso Diablo (on the spicier side).

After that you can choose from among many different salsas to go inside your entrée, including the mild Pico de Gallo, a mild Roasted Chile Corn, a medium Salsa Verde, a hot Salsa Roja, or an extra-hot Fiery Habanero Salsa. There is also a seasonally offered Mango Salsa.

Additional topping choices (free-of-charge) include lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and fajita vegetables.

Qdoba’s clear competitor in its segment is the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain, with the main difference in the business model being that Chipotle doesn’t franchise whereas Qdoba does. Comparisons between the two chains are inevitable when it comes to Mexican food, and what better place to start than a basic burrito?

What you’ll find is that Chipotle slightly edges out Qdoba in terms of overall burrito quality. Both chains have the freshness factor going for their ingredients, which is an important quality consideration.

The Qdoba tortilla comes out a little too damp and sticky, and while that provides the needed adhesion to keep the burrito firmly closed, it feels a little icky.

Chipotle meats also seem to be of a slightly higher quality – for example, the Qdoba chicken is a bit on the too-tender side, nearly mushy, which makes you wonder if it’s some kind of “meat product” rather than real chicken breast. The Chipotle chicken has a higher grilled-quality that makes the texture much better, although flavor is comparable between the two.

Both chains are careful to make sure their beans are adequately drained so you don’t get a lot of sloshy bean juice complicating the experience, but the Qdoba beans come out nicely firm whereas the Chipotle beans are a bit too mushy.

And then there’s the guacamole – for which you pay quite a bit extra at Chipotle and which is free at Qdoba. But the Chipotle guacamole edges out Qdoba’s on the quality scale, with the latter tasting a bit bland.

Qdoba does get extra points, however, for having classy little chunks of lemon and lime slices at the condiments station.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that this is Mexican food served up for an American audience, which means the spice factor in the salsas and sauces is nowhere near where it should be if you’re looking for real Mexican spiciness. If that’s what you’re looking for, expect to add plenty of real Tabasco to get the kick you may be looking for.

In the final analysis, Chipotle burritos have the lead over Qdoba for overall quality, but not by much.

Smothered Burritos

In December 2014, Qdoba added three smothering options to its permanent menu, the first big menu addition since the “all-inclusive” pricing overhaul in October. With all the same choices as listed above, you can also decide to have your burritos smothered (both inside and out) in one of three styles, including a Smoky Chipotle Cream sauce (the spiciest of the three), the Bold Red Chile Smother (medium), or the Tangy Verde Smother (mild to medium).

Recalling that even the spiciest of dishes in a chain like Qdoba are still geared toward the timid American palate, if you want some authentic Mexican kick, you’re going to have to get it by adding some Tabasco on your own.

If smoky flavor is your thing, then you’ll definitely want to go with the Smoky Chipotle Cream sauce, which is my choice for sure as anything smoked is better than non-smoked. The Bold Red Chile Smother is really so mild that it comes off as just more red salsa, making the “bold” part of its name a misnomer. I’m also a big fan of salsa verde, and Qdoba definitely has a good thing going with its tangy version smothering sauce.

Other than that, all the same burrito analysis from above, both good and bad, applies to the smothered burritos.

Mexican Gumbo

This unique menu offering has as its base a tortilla soup with cilantro-lime rice. From there you have your choice of meat (grilled chicken, grilled steak, pulled pork, shredded beef, or seasoned ground beef), your choice of the chain’s six salsas, and a final choice of extras such as crispy corn tortilla strips, shredded cheese, sour cream, and fajita vegetables.

There’s really no point of comparison with this dish – it’s that unique among Mexican fast-casual joints. As it turns out, it is also uniquely delicious. The tortilla soup base has a kind of smoky flavorful quality that blends nicely with everything else in the dish.

Although the chicken is nothing to crow about, you can set your level of heat by your choice of salsa. I would recommend going towards the spicier end of the spectrum with either the Salsa Roja or the Fiery Habanero – the cheese and rice tone it down enough that you won’t break into a sweat or find your eyes watering (this is American Mexican food, after all).

All-in-all, there’s an amazing combination of flavors that all work really well together to make this offering one that is sure to please the most demanding of palates.

3-Cheese Nachos

This entrée begins with a pile of handmade tortilla chips and the chain’s signature 3-Cheese Queso, to which you can add your choice of either black beans or pinto beans, your choice of meat (grilled chicken, grilled steak, pulled pork, shredded beef, or seasoned ground beef), choice of salsa from the usual six offerings, and finally any extras you want (lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and fajita vegetables).

The handmade tortilla chips at Qdoba are definitely of a higher quality than anything you’ll get for free at any other Mexican restaurant, and be forewarned that a regular order will get you a pile of chips that threatens to fill you up so much you won’t be able to finish your entrée.

This is actually hard to resist because the dipping sauces are tempting. The 3-Cheese Queso is fine but nothing special (still a lot better than the jars of cheese dip you find at grocery stores in the chips aisle), and the Queso Diablo ratchets up the spice factor to almost where it should be in a Mexican restaurant.

Tacos

A taco entrée at Qdoba includes three tacos, each of which may be customized as you desire. Tacos at Qdoba begin with a choice between flour tortilla or a crisp taco shell. From there you choose from among the chain’s five meats, its six salsas, and the usual five extras (lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and fajita vegetables).

The main thing to note here is that although the crispy shells are great, if you add much in the way of juicy extras, that shell won’t stay crispy for long, so if you have multiple dishes to eat, always start with the crispy taco before it loses its structural integrity.

Despite that one caveat, Qdoba tacos, whether soft or crispy, are a solid menu offering for those who prefer the taco-style method of delivery.

Grilled Quesadilla

This entrée at Qdoba begins with your choice between the regular flour tortilla or the whole wheat flour tortilla, either of which will come with a round of shredded cheese. From there you choose between the chain’s five meats and six salsas as well as add in extras such as additional shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and/or fajita vegetables.

Besides the obvious “extras that don’t nickel-and-dime you” and the unique Mexican Gumbo edge that Qdoba has over Chipotle, Qdoba also gets points for having quesadillas on the menu. Yes, you can get a quesadilla at Chipotle if you ask, but the fact that it’s not on the menu makes it feel like it’s an afterthought rather than a specialty (although a very small one is available on the kids menu).

Qdoba has the grilled quesadilla assembly down to a science, so it all holds together really well no matter how much you stuff into it. Even with lots of choices put in, you can eat each piece easily with your hands, or go the knife-and-fork route if you want.

Taco Salads

This salad entrée can be served in your choice of a crunchy flour tortilla bowl or a regular bowl with no tortilla. The base will be lettuce with a seasoned black bean corn salsa and a fat-free Picante Ranch Dressing. From there, you customize it with your choice of the usual five meats and six salsas, along with such extras as shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and/or fajita vegetables. In the summer, you can have the mango salsa with a cilantro-lime dressing.

Healthy eaters take note: The bowl by itself is 390 calories and 22 grams of fat! To make these taco salads more health-conscious, you need to either skip the bowl entirely and go with a non-edible bowl, or enjoy only a few pieces of the edible bowl (the crunch is kind of nice).

Past that, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tastier salad offering in the world of fast-casual dining than the taco salads at Qdoba. Qdoba uses just the right amounts of cilantro and lime in their cooking, unlike many chains that tend to go way overboard with the cilantro.

Note that Qdoba’s Craft 2 menu option allows you to choose two different entrées that are sized smaller than usual so you can get some extra variety in your meal.

On a final note, if you’re a health-conscious eater, the range of choices you’re given at Qdoba is both your greatest opportunity and your greatest threat. When you start piling on the cheese, sour cream, and guacamole (free of charge, which makes it very tempting), then the calories, fat, and sodium all skyrocket into the stratosphere. But with a little self-control and wise choices, you can also eat some very healthy meals at this chain.

While the Qdoba menu is otherwise comparable to Chipotle’s, there’s also a greater degree of variation from location to location with Qdoba, which can probably be chalked up to the fact that Qdoba franchises whereas Chipotle does not.

If what you’re looking for is Mexican flavor that’s not entirely Americanized beyond recognition, the Qdoba Mexian Grill menu is a great alternative.




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