So I finally had a chance to use my Chipotle Mexican Grill coupon, which I received the other week when I attended the free screening of the excellent documentary Food, Inc., paid for by the restaurant chain. I don't think I had ever eaten at a Chipotle before, so I eagerly ordered my free taco.
I was pleasantly surprised by the place, which I hadn't been particularly interested in trying before the company's promotion of Food, Inc. Like other progressives, I had heard rumors that the chain was owned by McDonald's (the Golden Arches divested itself of the company some time ago), and there is no shortage of fantastic Mexican places in NYC. But my recent visit did provide some insight into why Chipotle is billed as the fastest growing fast-food chain (I've also heard Panera Bread is in the running, and it's obvious that the two brands have some similarities, including a contemporary, Starbucks-like look and boho-inspired food).
My coupon from the film entitled me to one free taco. When I approached the counter in the midtown Manhattan joint, after spending just a short time in the efficient line, I showed it to the middle-aged Latin woman behind the grill. I asked for a chicken taco, since I was pleased to note the large sign on the wall advertising that all the meat Chipotle serves is hormone and antibiotic free, and that it is humanely raised. She quickly took out three soft shells, and began piling on the poultry.
It turned out that my coupon only covered one taco, though as far as I could tell three seems to be the standard order, so I was charged for the difference. I didn't mind however, since I liked the fact that I could customize with various salsas, toppings and options. The line was rapid-fire quick, and I really appreciated the fact that the shiny metal menu behind the grill listed the calorie count of every choice, in large lettering. Who knew that roasted corn salsa had so many calories? (I believe 100, though I can't find the info on their website now to confirm, which is disappointing.)
I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the tacos. They were a major step above T-Bell -- that old standard for many a college Saturday night -- and they did have a fresh, real food presence. Not quite what you'd get at a fine Mexican restaurant of course, but pretty refreshing for fast food.
All in all I was pretty impressed. It's clear from recent media reports that Chipotle has some explaining to do when it comes to how tomato pickers are treated in Florida, but it is encouraging to note that the next wave of hot fast food does seem to be better, and more respectful to the Earth, than the last wave. I don't expect green Brooklynites or fifth-level vegans to be flocking to it anytime soon, but if Chipotle can gently shift mainstream America to better food I think it's something to write home about. I think it's worth keeping an eye on the brand, and encouraging them to keep upping the amount of produce they do buy from local sources, and to commit to organics.
One of the places I lived in Southern Indiana had no restaurants at all except for a few new fast food establishments, so I know that as much as East and West Coast pundits like to bemoan them, the fact is they do feed a lot of people. So it's worth pointing out when a chain seems to be at least heading in a better direction.
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