Yet another national chain restaurant has popped up along Fast Food Row on outer Arsenal Street.
Chipotle Mexican Grill opened recently in the space between Stateway Plaza and Hilton Garden Inn, joining Ruby Tuesday, Buffalo Wild Wings and Ponderosa, and directly adjoining Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells of Colorado studied at the Culinary Institute of America and regards himself as a chef first and a CEO second.
His first job was at a high-end restaurant in San Francisco. After work, he’d frequent the many Mexican taquerias in the city, taking mental notes on the burritos and tacos being made with fresh ingredients and assembled to order.
In 1993 he opened a restaurant in Denver. Chipotle Mexican Grill was intended to be his only restaurant, but by 1999 he had 16 restaurants in Colorado. Today, there are more than 1,200 Chipotles throughout the U.S. and Canada with additional locations in England and France.
We visited the Watertown Chipotle just before noon, in an effort to avoid the lunch rush. Several patrons were already eating on the outside patio shared with Five Guys next door.
The layout is a mirror image of Five Guys’. A counter to order your food, a place to pay at the end of the line, a small self-serve soft drink area offering Coke products and juices farther along. A decent amount of clean tables for those eating in. Subdued wall colors gave the room a warm feeling.
An unfinished ceiling with exposed trusses and rafters made it look as if the carpenters hadn’t finished the job. But they had! An employee told us that’s the look they were going for. A 21st century version of the Mexican adobe hut, we figured.
It took a few minutes to read the menu signs above the service area. That also gave us a moment to ask some questions from one of the employees, a woman at the register who was dressed in a managerial-looking uniform. She was very accommodating and kind enough to give us a quick two-minute tutorial.
The menu is simple, really. It consists of four items: burritos, burrito bowls, tacos and salads. With each item you have your choice of chicken, carnitas, barbacoa or steak. The price of the items is based on the type of meat chosen.
Carnitas, we learned, is braised pork seasoned with thyme, bay leaves and juniper berries. Barbacoa is shredded beef braised with chipotle peppers, cumin, cloves, garlic and oregano. The chicken is marinated with smoky chipotle peppers, then grilled and diced uniformly small. Steak is similarly marinated, cooked to medium-rare and diced.
Now for the ordering process. You get in line and call your order out to workers who assemble your meal. In addition to the four meat choices, you also need to decide on adding cilantro-lime rice, beans (pinto or vegetarian black), chopped romaine, shredded cheese, sour cream and salsa (fresh tomato, roasted chili-corn, tomatillo-green chili or tomatillo-red chili).
It’s a little confusing the first time, but not much different from ordering a sub at Subway.
There are several extras available for purchase at reasonable prices: chips ($1.25), guacamole ($1.95), chips and salsa for two ($2) or chips and guacamole for two ($3.15). The chips had a subtle lime flavor. Salsas and guacamole were excellent.
Chipotle is famous for burritos, so let’s start there. We ordered our flour tortilla with barbacoa ($6.85) “loaded” (even though we were advised otherwise). The staff filled the extra-large tortilla with the meat and a little of everything from their food-filled compartments, rolled it up in deli paper and foil, cut it in half and sent it down the line to the cash register.
Next, we tried a burrito bowl with chicken ($6.45). It’s the same as a burrito, but without the tortilla! The bowl is made of sturdy cardboard. I asked if it was edible but was advised against it. We dressed the seasoned chicken up with lettuce, pintos (nonvegetarian because they’re cooked with bacon), tomato salsa, sour cream and cheese.
Tacos were fun. You get three of them and can really abuse the help by getting different stuff in each one! For $6.85 we had what amounted to a small taco buffet on a plate. They even let us get two crispy corn tacos and one soft flour taco.
We also got a salad, served in one of those nice cardboard bowls. Like the other “meals,” the meat dictates the price. We ordered a steak salad ($6.85). They put chopped romaine in the oval-shaped bowl, asked if we wanted chipotle-honey vinaigrette, then we specified our choice of ingredients as we proceeded down the cafeteria line.
Adding to the ambience, there was a staff member behind the counter chopping up grilled meat on a cutting board — maybe for practice, because it didn’t look uniformly cubed or nicely shredded like the meat on the line.
You could also peer into the kitchen and see a worker scooping avocados from their shells in preparation for the guacamole they proclaim on the Chipotle website is made fresh at each location multiple times a day.
As we arrived at the register, I asked the nice woman at the register (and the only adult behind the counter) how much of the food is made right there an how much of it is made at a central corporate kitchen and shipped in. She told us it was all made there, even though on the Chipotle website is says that several of the meats are cooked in a Midwest facility and shipped in.
Regardless, this is some of the best “fast food” we’ve had in a long time. The meats are perfectly seasoned, the various ingredients that go into the burritos, tacos and salads fresh as can be.
Lunch for four totaled $44.39. Portions were substantial, almost more than one person could comfortably eat. We chose to eat in at one of the high-top tables, but a good number of the customers were taking bags of food to go. There’s a kids menu, which not all Chipotle restaurants offer.
Some may say this is not authentic Mexican food because it’s not spicy enough. That problem is easily overcome with three different Tabasco sauces in bottles on each table.
One thing that was disappointing, but not their fault: New York state, in its infinite wisdom, has not granted the restaurant its liquor license yet. While we probably wouldn’t have had one for lunch (probably being the key word here) it sure would have been nice to enjoy a cold beer or a tangy margarita with the Mexican food. Most Chipotles serve beer and margaritas, as will this one. A sign board is already up with “coming soon” taped over it.
In any case, the food here is downright good, I dare say excellent. Maybe it’s the fact that they use natural meats and organic vegetables wherever possible? Maybe it’s the fact that a chef is the founder of the chain? Maybe it’s the fact that a mega food corporation doesn’t own Chipotle?
Whatever it is, we’ll be back again for more real soon.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
1290 Arsenal St.
(adjacent to Stateway Plaza)
Fast and fresh burritos and tacos, made with “natural” meats and organic vegetables. A small, efficient menu done right.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday
We enjoyed everything: the burritos, the tacos, all the meat fillings and various ingredients.