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Mexican food, fast and from scratch

Chipotle Mexican Grill isn't your typical fast-food joint; this is real cooking, with authentic spices and taste.

Published April 14, 2005

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Chipotle Mexican Grill, in a partnership with McDonald’s, is building at a pace of two units a week.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Chipotle’s Burrito Bol can be served as a salad, as shown, or with rice. This bol is topped with grilled steak marinated in chipotle adobo. Chipotle’s burritos come with a choice of meat or vegetables, cilantro-lime rice and a variety of toppings.

I gave Chipotle Mexican Grill, the hip MexDonald's for the new millennium, a tough test. Some might say unfair.

I stopped into its first Tampa Bay location the morning after dinner at El Taconazo, better known as the beloved taco bus in Seminole Heights. It is, or was, a rolling taqueria until it came to a dead and lively stop in a crummy parking lot made into a punk art patio with outdoor lights, bamboo walls and paper streamers. El Taconazo serves classic tacos, burritos and tortas made by hand, real food at unreal prices of $1.50 a taco and $5.75 for a whole meal you can't finish.

A standard too high for fast-food chain Mexican and most new generation wrap traps, yes. But it is my standard, and thankfully it's met at tiendas and taquerias from Clearwater to Wimauma.

Chipotle Mexican Grill had me at the bay leaf, an actual herb floating in the carnitas, proof that the pork had indeed simmered in its juices and real spices. Not "our special herbs and spices," as packaged and bland as a vegetable medley, but lovely thyme, juniper and fresh pepper. Bits of the pork still have crisp seared skin, too.

Guess what I found in the barbacoa beef, besides a punch of cumin and clove? Fat. Just a little piece of the kind you'd find in pot roast that had been braised for hours.

That's real cooking, not what I expect in a place with 430 outlets in the heart of shopping mall America. And it shows in most of the short menu, tacos and burritos, in thousands of ways (without tortillas or rice for carbophobes).

By now, burritos and wraps are a major food group of Generation iPod. They are sloppy, supersized and mildly ethnic any time eating with more choices than TiVo and no silly encumbrances such as knives and forks. While some Tampa Bay diners buzz about new offerings at Pane Rustica and Restaurant B.T., many others are fighting for parking spaces at Chipotle.

New burrito purveyors are cleverly advertised, smartly decorated and rapidly established. Chipotle is building two new units a week. Rival Moe's Southwest Grill, barely 3 years old, builds three a week. And there are more, such as Tijuana Flats from Orlando, on St. Petersburg's Fourth Street N, two blocks from where Chipotle will open its first Pinellas location.

Chipotle draws crowds with its industrial, sheet metal look, both futuristic and retro industrial, like a spaceship in a 1930s movie. Forget fiesta and reggae colorations, this is painfully honest gray and paper bag brown; the only color allowed is the Cherokee red of Frank Lloyd Wright. Music, however, is a mad global mix you rarely hear on radio, from blues to skirling sets from the Middle East.

The important distinction, however, is food. Chipotle was started in 1993 by Steve Ells, a young chef who was trying to raise money for a high-end restaurant. His best lessons for Chipotle came not from his training at the Culinary Institute of America, but from attentive eating with the taco masters in San Francisco's Mission District, where cheap, authentic food was a hit with chefs and foodies as much as homesick Mexicans.

When Chipotle succeeded in Denver and started to grow, McDonald's scouts spotted it and bought a minority interest that has grown to more than 90 percent. Even so, Chipotle is run out of Denver and wants to be seen as a partner of McDonald's, not a subsidiary.

It should, for Chipotle can teach fast-food giants - and those they feed - the taste of onsite, from-scratch cooking that goes beyond slicing and dicing hard tomatoes.

Diners get a choice of black beans or rich, creamy pintos, one of the salsas is roasted corn kernels with chili, and the lettuce is dark, leafy green. The guacamole is fresh, and even the rice is tossed with lime and cilantro. That will disappoint those used to a peppery Spanish rice, but I like the idea; indeed, I'd crank up the cilantro and maybe add a little heat. I'd also up the chipotle pepper quotient and vinegar in the tomatillo salsas.

Meat, however, shows the way. Few other places offer the option of pork, and it is the shredded pork and beef that are the best choices. Chicken and even chunks of pinkish grilled steak don't compare.

The flaw in new burritos, as with wraps, is that they are, in culinary terms, slop-gorgeous messes and embarrassingly proportioned. When they rode out of the West 10 years ago, wraps (and smoothies) were pitched as healthful. Packing rice plus all the goodies into a 10-inch tortilla is a gluttonous carb overload; Chipotle will dump it all on rice or lettuce, but it's not the same.

I also wish the tortillas had more flavor, not spinach and sundried tomato, just a coarser flour, cornmeal or longer toasting. For now, I'll stick with tacos; I can pretend they're smaller.

Still, there's clearly new flavor in chains, here and at places like Moe's sister Mama Fu, where it's worth bumping the price of lunch above five bucks, yet another threat to struggling independents.

I'll stick to real taquerias, where I can get chorizo sausage, barbecued lamb and sweet pork al pastor in my tacos, and change back from a five. But I can taste why Chipotle's version has lines out the door.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. He can be reached at 727 893-8585 or

Chipotle Mexican Grill

309 N West Shore Blvd.


Phone: (813) 289-9820

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Details: Credit cards, beer license pending, smoking outdoors only

Price: $4.95 to $5.50

[Last modified April 13, 2005, 10:29:10]

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