Thursday, January 8, 2004

Metal arches

Posted on Thu, Jan 8, 2004 at 4:00 AM

As any MTV-er can attest, award-winning Chipotle is Ozzy Osbourne's favorite burrito haunt. And now the Denver-based chain (there are more than 300 across the country) of sorta Tex-Mex food has moved into the area, one that already has quite a few competitors. So the Ozzy endorsement sure doesn't hurt.

The stand-alone structure at the corner of Fairbanks and Orlando avenues has an industrial look, with rusted iron plates adorning the outside walls and lots of chrome and halogen lighting inside. The front door (in the back by the parking lot) leads directly to the pickup stations where ordering and paying occurs, and then you get to drag your humongous burrito to a table.

Did I mention the food is enormous? We're talking 20-ounce burritos, ranging from $4.95 to $5.50, also available in a "bol" without flour wrapping.

Good thing the website (www.chipotle.com) offers an interactive depiction of what they call "the line," where you pick salsas, meats and toppings, because once you're in front of the sneezeguard, there aren't any labels on things, and the constant cry of, "What's that?" gets annoying.

"That" is a choice of grilled steak, marinated in the namesake pepper (a chipotle is a smoked and dried jalape'o); hotter shredded "barbacoa" beef; braised "carnitas" (pork); or grilled chicken.

Of the filling choices that we sampled, the chicken was the worst. The all dark-meat pieces are too small to stay in the tortilla wrap for long, and so salt-laden it's hard to tell if the meat is spicy or not. Not to mention the rather high rice-to-meat ratio. A better bet is the steak, medium rare and a bit less salty, allowing the spices to take their rightful place.

The carnitas -- a version unique to Chipotle -- comes from free-range pigs, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and is worth ordering for its blend of thyme, bay and cracked pepper.

Vegetarians can have a nice meal, as the salsas, black beans, fajita veggies and guacamole are all meat-free. The guac is too smooth to make a real impression on me, but the roasted chili-corn salsa is crisp and fresh-tasting and there's a nice garlic bite to the beans.

One would think that the Mexican "McPollo" sandwich is as close as McDonald's would get to Tex-Mex, and it turns out that Chipotle is another offshoot of those burger folks, as is Boston Market.

All in all, I'd rather go to Chipotle than a McD any day, but unless the Tex-Mex outlets start popping up on every corner, they probably won't replace the burrito spots you've already adopted as your favorite.

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