Americans’ love for Taco Bell, the nation’s large Tex-Mex fast-food chain, must be vexing for Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has long prided itself on its whole and responsibly sourced ingredients. I can imagine Chipotle leaders asking themselves, “Why would people prefer the spectacle that is Taco Bell over the higher-quality food we provide?” One reason might be a series of debacles at Chipotle over the past few years, such as foodborne illnesses, pest invasions and a derided attempt at the Tex-Mex cheese dip known as chile con queso, all of which have taken their toll on the fast-casual chain’s brand and fortunes. At Taco Bell, meanwhile, gimmicky product launches, such as nacho fries and Dorito-shell tacos, became wildly successful.
Chipotle’s response: to poach Brian Niccol, who’s been credited with much of Taco Bell’s success, as its new CEO.
Now, Chipotle plans to serve quesadillas and nachos, longtime staples of those in pursuit of an afternoon snack, a quick meal or a late-night bite. Also on the menu: a guacamole tostada, an avocado vinaigrette for its salad and a Mexican chocolate shake. In other words, the kind of flashier, looser cuisine for which Taco Bell is known. For now, these items are being served only at the company’s public-facing test site, Chipotle NEXT Kitchen in Manhattan. So on a recent late weekday morning, I paid a visit and ordered everything on the new menu.
First, I told the worker behind the counter how I wanted my quesadilla. While the menu board listed all of Chipotle’s signature proteins, such as steak, chicken, barbacoa, carnitas and a chile-soaked tofu it calls sofritas, the staffer told me I could only get a quesadilla made with steak or chicken, as the other proteins were too wet for proper preparation. I decided to get one of each and watched him take a large flour tortilla, top it with shredded cheese and meat, fold it, then place it under the griddle press.
While the quesadillas cooked, the staffer asked what I wanted on the side: I could choose three from an array of beans, starches, roasted vegetables and pico de gallo. The usual quesadilla accompaniments — sour cream, salsa or guacamole — would cost extra. When I asked why, since those items are included in burritos, which cost the same as quesadillas, he shrugged.
Next on the line were my nachos. For these, Chipotle takes a pile of tortilla chips, then tops them with its queso, beans, sour cream, a choice of salsas, and the protein of your choice. I also ordered the guacamole tostada, salad and shake. Here’s how the dishes stacked up:
Quesadilla: Sadly, on their own they were both dry and slightly rubbery. The filling of cheese and meat was bland and needed pico de gallo or salsa. A shower of chopped cilantro inside could have helped create flavor, as well. The tortilla was crisp, but missing the flaky shell it gets when a quesadilla is cooked in oil or butter. Though I did have some pico for dipping, beans and rice on the side offered little enhancement. Since quesadillas are so easy to make, I was surprised at how mediocre these were.
Nachos: Because I’m a Texan, I’m partial to the proper nacho style, in which individual tortilla chips are layered with ingredients before the whole thing is baked. This makes for an elegant presentation, and nobody must fight over toppings, since each chip is a self-contained bite. Chipotle’s nachos instead fell into the more popular pile style, which are easier to prepare but can be lower in satisfaction. Indeed, in the few minutes it took to carry the bowl of nachos from the counter to my table, everything had congealed into a soggy mess, and when I lifted a chip it fell limp under the weight of a smattering of beans, queso and sour cream. I needed a fork, which isn’t how nachos are meant to be eaten at all.
Salad with avocado vinaigrette: As I drizzled the dressing over my salad, I took a taste and loved its refreshingly tangy flavor. The salad was balanced and fresh, and after a spell I mixed some of it with the nachos for a successful taco salad effect.
Avocado tostada: This was easily the best bite. The fried corn tortilla had managed to maintain its structure and stay crunchy, the generous slathering of guacamole was creamy and bright, and the additions of corn salsa, cheese and a drizzle of sour cream provided tang and pop. At $3.15, this plus a side of rice and beans would be an inexpensive yet delicious meal.
Mexican chocolate milkshake: Because I don’t normally drink shakes with my meals, I saved this for dessert. That was a wise decision, as it was rich, smooth and spiced with a heavy shake of cinnamon and a jolt of cayenne. I loved it, and would easily return to Chipotle for it — and the tostada.
With these new dishes, Chipotle seems to be trying to appeal to the Taco Bell crowd. Customers may have requested the items, perhaps to have their fast-food Mexican favorites prepared with Chipotle’s signature healthier ingredients. But the execution leaves so much to be desired, I can’t see the traditional Taco Bell customer ponying up bigger bucks for Chipotle’s offerings when they can stick with what they know — and are perfectly happy with.
What Chipotle does well are healthier items such as the salads, bowls and its new tostada. Perhaps Chipotle should add a Tex-Mex-style salad option topped with a handful of chips, to approximate a taco salad. And since Chipotle has created a fried corn tortilla that maintains its crispness, even under a heaping serving of guacamole, why not offer toppings of meat on it, for the growing number of protein-conscious consumers?
Instead of trying to appeal to those who crave cheap and easy Mexican food, Chipotle could be better served by focusing on its strengths. Why tout its pasty queso when it could celebrate its excellent guacamole? It could offer a creamy, luscious bean dip that could get extra oomph from shredded cheese, salsa and pico de gallo. I would much rather dip my chips into both. An outstanding nondairy queso instead of its current offering could also work, and it could draw the vegan crowd in addition while (if done well enough) appealing to carnivores.
These are not insurmountable challenges, but if Chipotle continues to try to be something it’s not while using a test kitchen that can’t seem to get the basics of Mexican American cuisine correct, I think it will continue to flounder. Most people I speak to about Chipotle agree that they go for the salads and such. Why not focus on this market and make the company into the go-to place for healthy Mexican? It’s better to do a few things brilliantly than many things not well at all.
Fain is the writer behind the regional food blog Homesick Texan and the author of three cookbooks.
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