Last week I rang the bell for the impending opening of the first Albany County Chipotle Mexican Grill. I am truly excited to have a fast-casual restaurant open up nearby that speaks my language. And by that I mean one that offers meat raised without hormones, antibiotics or cruelty; dairy without rBGH; supplemental produce from local family farmers.
They call it “food with integrity” and I am starting to believe them.
For the sake of full transparency, lest the U.S. Government think I was violating a cardinal rule of blogging, I will make the following disclosure:
The tasting tonight was not open to the public. I was invited to attend, and received a Brown’s Brewing Company Pale Ale, samples of each ingredient on the menu and two tacos. For this I received no bill. At the end of the night, I was given a gift bag with a Chipotle baseball cap and T-shirt compressed to look like a burrito. There were also two coupons to return for a free lunch (although I promised one to Mr. Dave.)
But let’s talk about the tasting, and what I learned about Chipotle’s ingredients. Some of it was better than I expected, but some of it did not live up to my lofty expectations.
In my mind, and the minds of burritoeater.com, the white rice found at Chipotle is the weak link in their flavor chain. Sure, some people like it. And according to their representative, they are not considering any traditional seasoned Spanish rice. So give up all hope.
That said, when prepared immediately before a tasting for members of the local media, it was pretty good on its own. Never before had I seen the individual grains of rice so well cooked and separated. Plus it was nicely salted and tossed with salad oil and lime juice.
Fresh, I think, is a relative term, and far too overused. I’m going to get more into that some other time. But to me, fresh lime juice only exists when it is squeezed to order. If you juice a lime, and use that juice an hour later, it’s not fresh.
Part of the mythology broke down early on in the evening. After seeing how food was being freshly prepared, and watching a pot of black beans cooking on the stove, we were shown the walk-in refrigerator. It was only there, after careful inspection, that I saw a giant bag of black beans.
So I asked about them, and received a fair response. That the founder insists the beans be soaked for 24 hours, but there is insufficient space for this process in the restaurant. So they are sent presoaked to the stores from a central location. Although I am guessing that the first restaurants probably handled that task in-store.
The beans themselves were again, probably the best incarnation I have experienced of the Chipotle black beans. Just recently I had a side order of these beans outside of D.C. and the sauce on the beans was thick and gummy. Not tonight. The sauce was light and flavorful, with a rich and warming adobo spiciness. Chipotle brought its A game tonight.
Undergo a similar process to the black beans. Except these have bacon.
Fajita Peppers & Onions
There is a little table in the way back of the restaurant where employees take big knives and slice up red onions and green peppers. I could imagine it would be a therapeutic station to work after dealing with customers for too long on the front line.
These get sautéed in a separate pan, to keep them away from any meat. But I think might be to their peril. I personally prefer my peppers a bit more cooked. Blistered and charred peppers are delicious. These were more fresh tasting and crisp. Still, I enjoyed the fresh oregano that was cooked in vegetables.
Fresh herbs. That’s crazy.
Braised Meats – Carnitas & Barbacoa
This may be part of my flawed mythology, or a false memory, but I really thought that Chipotle used to braise its own meats in each restaurant. But these come mostly prepared, only to be finished at the store.
That is not to say they aren’t tasty, and made with humanely raised and antibiotic-free meat. It is just mildly disappointing, and leads me to look towards other places on the menu for my choice in meat filling.
Which is the perfect segue into…
Grilled Meats – Chicken & Steak
This was exciting. I learned that Chipotle uses Bell & Evans chickens. And not only are they humanely raised, yada yada yada, but they are also air-chilled. Suffice it to say that meat processing is an ugly affair. Few poultry producers actually process their carcasses with cold air. But it yields a significantly better product than the ghastly alternative. Let’s leave it at that. K?
Oh yes, and also the chicken is the tastier and juicier meat from the thighs and legs. Regardless of the high quality ingredients, nobody should mistake this for health food.
The grilled steak was also exciting. In the past I had always avoided it, because out West, the restaurants only served conventionally raised beef. The steak generally comes from a cut called the ball tip, and is grilled to medium rare, and allowed to rest.
Resting meat is serious business. It’s a commitment to taste that takes precious time.
There can be some variety in cooking temperatures, and as the meat is held on the line, the internal temperature can increase to medium well. But what a treat to have these tasty medium rare morsels of beef that I can feel good about eating for well under $10.
Chipotle has switched from open grills to plancha-style griddles. I like the flavor a true grill brings when meat is licked by flame. But neither of the grilled meats are lacking in smokiness given that they are marinated in chipotle adobo.
Let me see if I can finish the rest of the tasting quickly, so I can wrap up my thoughts on “food with integrity.”
1) Fresh tomatoes arrive pre-chopped at the restaurant for the mild fresh tomato salsa.
2) The medium hot green tomatillo is plenty spicy, and my favorite of the bunch.
3) The corn salsa uses flash-frozen corn from the Midwest, even during the summer corn season, which seems like an opportunity for improvement.
4) Red tomatillo salsa is indeed hot, but with a round full-mouth spiciness. There were too many seeds to enjoy it on its own, but if you like it spicy, and don’t mind picking seeds out of your teeth, this is the salsa for you.
Finding a restaurant that sources cheese and sour cream without rBGH is huge. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chipotle was the only place in the area that does this. That said, their cheese could use a bit more oompf. The cheddar and jack blend isn’t entirely bland, and they grate the cheeses in-house, but it really works more as a textural element. And their whipped sour cream is more like crème fraiche in its sweet milky creaminess. Still, it goes a long way for quenching the burn.
It’s good stuff. Expensive, but it’s all fresh avocado, with a bit of lime, onion, cilantro and jalapeno for flavor.
I’m going to skip talking about the flour tortilla, the corn tortilla chips, the hard corn taco shell, the desire for a soft corn taco which isn’t on the menu yet, the salad dressing, and the lettuce. I have gone on far too long already. Likely you went back to work 300 words ago.
Here is the clincher.
Food with Integrity
I believe they are doing the best they can with 900 restaurants, and keep trying to do better. I am still not sure if all their happy meat lives up to my exacting standards, but through their marketing, they have given me the gift of plausible deniability.
So next time I’m there, I’m getting the steak burrito, dammit.
I just hope that the quality they presented tonight for a select audience is maintained in the days to come. We will see. Chipotle has the opportunity to do a whole lot of good around these parts. But there aren’t a lot of other people like me here who will choose a restaurant based on its philosophy. So the food will have to taste great. Tonight it certainly did.