Fast, fresh and tasty | January 27, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - January 27, 2012

Fast, fresh and tasty

Chipotle Mexican Grill's pared-down menu offers good-quality fare

by Sheila Himmel

Why go to a Chipotle Mexican Grill when there are excellent taquerias all over the place? You can get crispier carnitas at La Bamba, for example, as well as pupusas and horchata. Chipotle has other virtues.

My fear was that this national chain would be another World Wrapps, where burrito-like items often are soggy or dry. But while World Wrapps' ambitious menu hopscotches the world to fill tortillas with Bombay Curry and Samurai Salmon, Chipotle focuses on four menu items and five proteins. The price depends on the protein, from $6.10 for vegetarian or chicken to $6.50 for barbacoa (braised beef), grilled steak or carnitas (braised pork).

Chicken is marinated in chipotle adobo, grilled and cubed for easy assembly. It is the spiciest of the meats. The barbacoa and carnitas melt in your mouth. Beans are black or pinto, which are very tasty and not mushy. Turns out the pintos are cooked with bacon.

Chipotle offers brown rice, but the textural difference is slight. White rice has hints of cilantro and lime.

Caloric and other nutritional facts abound. Do you need to know that roasted chili-corn salsa has four times the calories of fresh-tomato salsa, and that tomatillo-red is way higher than tomatillo-green? Maybe, if you plan to make a meal of salsa.

My other fear had to do with Chipotle's being owned by McDonald's. In fact, McDonald's did invest in Chipotle in 1998, and divested in 2006. The stores are not franchised. Founder Steve Ells owns 1.25 percent of the publicly held chain, with 1,100 stores in 41 states.

Ells got the idea watching the crowds at taquerias in San Francisco's Mission District. He figured out how to speed it up, ensure freshness and offer a place to sit down amid stainless steel, warm wood and exposed ductwork. He brought the prep work out front for customers to see. And he provided detailed information about the food, including easy-to-spot calorie counts and grams of dietary fiber in each serving.

Got special dietary needs? Check the website, which assures us that everything is gluten-free except flour tortillas and possibly the red tomatillo salsa. Also: "If you are highly sensitive and would like us to change our gloves, we would be happy to do that at your request."

Got kids? Four children's menu items include chips and a drink (juice or organic milk) for $2.95 for the cheese quesadilla; and $3.95 for the build-your-own taco kit ("Served on a tray for easy building").

The newest local Chipotle, in Mountain View on El Monte and El Camino, exemplifies a big change in consumer tastes. This store used to be a Boston Market, a chain that grew rapidly as the homey supplier of meals that Mom didn't have time to make anymore. Chipotle exploded this niche, often called "home-meal replacement," and put it back together in a very focused way.

Among few missteps, Chipotle got embroiled in an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit filed by a customer in a wheelchair who was unable to see the food preparation, denying him the "Chipotle Experience." New restaurants have changed the counter design.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

2675 El Camino Real, Palo Alto


1039 A El Monte Ave., Mountain View


2400 Charleston Road, Mountain View


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

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: parking lot in front

Alcohol: Beer

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Catering: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Noise level: fine

Wheelchair access: yes

Bathroom cleanliness: good