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Turning Up the Heat: The Chipotle Mexican Grill Menu

by Sherman Morrison on December 5, 2015

in Menu Reviews, Mexican Restaurant Franchise



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Chipotle Mexican Grill Photo by arlecoproducciones

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

Steve Ells sharpened his cooking skills at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. While he was a line cook in San Francisco, he couldn’t help but notice how popular Mexican food was becoming, especially burritos and tacos. In 1993 with a substantial loan from his father, he opened the first Chipotle Mexican Grill in Denver, Colorado. Chipotle is the Nahuatl name for a smoked and dried jalapeño chili pepper.

The store quickly became surprisingly profitable, selling more than 1,000 burritos per day, prompting Ells to open a second location in 1995. The company has made a name for itself with its mission of Food with Integrity, using organic produce, naturally raised meat, and dairy products without added hormones. It also pioneered the fast casual restaurant segment.

Today Chipotle has more than 1,700 locations in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Approximately 17 stores are outside the U.S. in Canada, the UK, France, and Germany. It employs more than 45,000 people in its operations. All locations are company-owned and not franchised.

The Chipotle Menu

Because Chipotle menu prices may vary by location, this article is going to focus on the quality of the offerings on the Chipotle menu, which is surprisingly simple. It consists of four main items, those being burritos, burrito bowls, tacos (either crispy or soft), and salads.

Chipotle’s focus on fresh, natural ingredients is evidenced by the fact that its stores lack any freezers, microwave ovens, or even can openers.

The choice of what goes into each “vehicle” of your meal includes the following:

  • Protein: The choices here include the following:
    • Braised carnitas. This is pork that is rubbed with spices, marinated overnight, and then braised for many hours until it is tender enough to be shredded by hand. It is the least spicy of all the meats.
    • Adobo-marinated and grilled chicken. This is the second least spicy meat offered.
    • Adobo-marinated and grilled steak. This is by far the spiciest meat offering.
    • Barbacoa consists of fresh whole cuts of beef shoulder rubbed with a seasoning blend and fresh chopped garlic, and braised for a full 8 hours until rich, tender, and juicy. It is the second-spiciest meat on the menu.
    • Sofritas. This is organic tofu from Hodo Soy that is shredded and braised with chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices. The result is a delicious, spicy tofu that packs quite a punch.
  • Rice: Your choice here is between brown or white cilantro-lime rice.
  • Beans: Choose between black beans or pinto beans.
  • Guacamole: Chipotle’s guacamole is made from ripe avocados, hand mashed with freshly diced onions and lime up to three times a day.
  • Salsa: There are four types of salsa to choose from, including fresh tomato salsa (mild), roasted chili-corn salsa (medium), tomatillo-green chili salsa (medium), and tomatillo-red chili salsa (hot).
  • Cheese or Sour Cream: Chipotle’s cheese is a blend of Monterey jack and white cheddar. Be forewarned that the sour cream is not thick like most of you are probably used to. It’s very liquidy.
  • Lettuce: You can have shredded romaine lettuce added if you want it.
  • Fajita Vegetable Mix. Made with bell peppers, onions, and fresh oregano, this veggie combo can be added to your dish with no extra charge. It’s not on the menu, but it’s right there on the assembly line, hiding in plain sight!

As you can see, those are the basic choices that can go into whatever vehicle you want – burrito, bowl, taco (crispy or soft), or salad. Now let’s see how Chipotle stacks up on the quality scale.

Burritos

I’m certainly not going to compare Chipotle burritos to something as low-grade as Taco Smell (woops, I mean Taco BELL). Chipotle’s clearest competitor in this regard is Qdoba, and it’s a good comparison because both chains are very focused on fresh, wholesome ingredients.

I’ll tell you up-front that Chipotle wins this contest, but not by a landslide. If you eat a Chipotle burrito, you’re not going to rave about the flour tortilla. It does its job, adding the bread factor if you like and holding everything together reasonably well.

It’s not until you have a burrito at Qdoba that you realize how much better the Chipotle tortilla is. The Qdoba burrito’s tortilla feels downright damp and sticky, giving it clear ick factor compared to Chipotle. Qdoba is obviously going for maximum adhesion with its tortilla, but it took that idea a bit too far.

Burritos always run the risk of becoming too mushy and moist overall. Both chains do a nice job of making sure their beans are fully drained, preventing bean juice from gooping things up too much, although the Chipotle beans do still tend to come out slightly mushier than I like.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find meats in burritos that exceed the quality of Chipotle’s offerings. If you stand around and watch people order, you’ll quickly ascertain that the chicken is the most popular choice among patrons, which I find astonishing.

Don’t get me wrong, the Chipotle chicken is really quite good, well-seasoned and properly grilled to give it a nice char on the outside, but to me it just doesn’t compare to what is probably the standout meat offering on the menu – the carnitas (braised pork). Its rich, porky flavor combines artfully with the pinto beans more than the black beans and is best appreciated with a medium salsa rather than the hottest.

The barbacoa beef is probably the second-best, although it approaches being too spicy hot for my personal taste. But they get just the right level of cumin and garlic in their spice mix – cumin done correctly is heavenly, and I’m already very partial towards garlic.

And as for the vegetarian/vegan offering of sofritas, it’s done really well. If you didn’t know it was tofu-based, you might think you were eating ground beef chili. That’s pretty amazing in my book. Again, it’s pretty darn spicy, but if you get it with guacamole, that helps temper the heat down quite a bit. Anytime a chain can pull off a dish with tofu during which you never think to yourself, “I’m eating tofu,” should be considered a major culinary feat.

My only real complaint about the Chipotle burrito is that the chain has really wimped out when it comes to their cilantro-lime rice. I love the refreshing zing of cilantro, but there’s so little of it in their rice that I wonder why they even bother. The stray fleck or two of green you get in the rice just doesn’t cut it for me. I have heard that some people out there actually don’t like cilantro, so perhaps it is a concession to that strange group of people. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste…

The other thing I should mention is that their burritos come out lukewarm at best. For me that’s fine because I think piping-hot food is highly overrated, but for those who like it that way, Chipotle might be a bit disappointing on that front.

Burrito Bowls

I love bread and I love sandwiches, so I will almost always opt for wrapping my burrito innards in an actual flour tortilla instead of just throwing it all into a bowl. Still, I get the concept of people who want to limit their intake of carbs, so it’s nice that Chipotle offers the bowl option for its burritos. It’s just not something that holds any interest for me personally.

Tacos (Crispy or Soft)

Personally, I would almost always choose a burrito over a taco, whether crispy or soft. Crispy tacos just get too messy as they crumble and fall apart. Either style of taco just gives less wrapping for your ingredients. Plus I’m just not a fan of corn, although I can take a good cheese enchilada on occasion.

The problem with tacos is that they’re like ordering a cheeseburger without the top bun. What’s the point of that? The Chipotle mix of ingredients that go into its tacos are fantastic, which means they’re a cut above any other Mexican fast food chain, but I just don’t like the whole taco concept to begin with.

Salad

The variation here is the removal of any rice and the addition of chopped romaine lettuce. Like the burrito bowl option, I’ll always take the carb wrapping when I can get it, so a Chipotle salad just doesn’t do much for me. Again, however, there are plenty of people out there who will greatly appreciate having this carb-less option available.

Chips & Guac

Chips are made fresh every day, with a squeeze of real lime and kosher salt. The guacamole deserves some attention here as well, as its most direct competitor, Qdoba, offers free guacamole whereas you pay premium prices for it at Chipotle. However, Qdoba’s version of the green stuff is really not very good at all – it’s surprisingly bland and on the pasty side. Chipotle’s is incredibly fresh and creamy.

My only complaint about it is the lack of garlic. I love both avocados and garlic, and like them both to be fully present in my guacamole. Granted, Chipotle had to come up with a guacamole that would work well as an added condiment to their burritos, and they wouldn’t want it to overpower everything else happening in there, so I can see why they would go mild on the spice factor. But when I’m having guacamole with chips, I want it to have a little more garlicky kick.

The final thing to investigate about the Chipotle menu overall is how healthy it is. With all the chain’s talk of organic produce, naturally raised meat, and hormone-free dairy products, you might think you’re in for some healthier-than-usual eating. That is definitely true in some respects (those just mentioned around more wholesome ingredients), but doesn’t pan out in other respects.

If you get a fully-loaded carnitas burrito, you’re looking at over 1,000 calories, 40 grams of both fat and cholesterol, and more than a day’s worth of sodium. Yikes! You can do much better health-wise by going with a burrito bowl with chicken, skip the sour cream and cheese, but do indulge in the guacamole. That’s only going to run you 510 calories and 17 grams of fat, but will give you a surprising 22 grams of fiber.

If you’d like to make Chipotle a regular part of your dining out program, take the time to study the nutrition information on its menu and make smarter, healthier choices.

Chipotle remains a fast-growing Mexican food chain that’s making waves in the fast casual restaurant segment – and that’s without any desserts on the menu at all! The one odd thing about the place, though, is that the namesake flavor of Chipotle (smoked jalapeños) is curiously absent except for the barbacoa option.

Because Chipotle stores are company-owned and not franchised, you can expect the same quality delivered consistently across all locations, which makes the Chipotle menu one to try out if you haven’t already.




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