Serious Mexican-food folk talk mostly about tacos these days, which is cool, except that tacos are sorta bullshit. I mean, there's nothing wrong with a taco, other than the fact that it's just a miniature open-faced burrito, i.e., a lesser burrito. Disdaining the burrito—it's not even authentic Mexican food! It's fit only for abject gluttons and niche perverts who get off on the agony of biting into tinfoil!—is like passing up a regulation-sized cheeseburger in favor of a slider missing its top bun. Tacos are very tasty, but they are also for cowards.
Which is why we're gathered here today to talk about burritos. Electric word, burrito; it means… well, shit, this is where it all breaks down. Even though I've eaten 1,000 burritos in my happy days, I am not qualified to discuss burritos on a grand scale, because I have never had a real burrito, which is to say one from the right truck parked under the right bridge on the wrong side of the exact and only street in California where one can obtain an official burrito.
You see, I have spent most of my life in Boston and the rest of it in New York, which means I don't know anything about Mexican food in general and even less about burritos in particular. Glad we got that out of the way before the burrito truthers had to school us, AGAIN. Yes, we know, San Wherever's burritos are the best. We heard you. And hell, we even believe you. But what are the rest of us supposed to do? So the 275 million-odd Americans who don't live in California have been banned from even talking about higher-order burritology—now what?
Fuck it, let's go to Chipotle. And Qdoba. (But not Taco Bell. That stuff's for amateurs who don't even aspire to someday learn the West Coast Secret.) Let's address this matter on our own shoddy terms by determining which nationally omnipresent quick-Mex chain offers the better burrito. A couple days ago, I ate grilled-chicken burritos with black beans, cilantro-lime rice, guacamole, and hot salsa from both Chipotle and Qdoba, and I took notes.
I realize that staff demeanor and competence are highly variable, but the Chipotle gang was so pleasant and professional on my visit that it bears mentioning. So consider it mentioned. Good work, Chipotle in Central Square, Cambridge. Sorry about that whole "Fuck Chipotle" thing.
One of the pleasant and professional things my burritsta said to me was, "It costs extra—is that okay?" when I asked for guacamole. I said, "No problem, my good man, for my wife works, plus I deduct this stuff on my taxes. I've got it made." Then he said, "Cool," and proceeded to dump a little bit of guacamole into the middle of my burrito. Another thing he might have said was, "Yeah, but is your wife like a doctor or a highly paid magician or some shit? Because this guacamole costs $1.95, which is quite some little bit of a surcharge for a fast-food condiment."
It's good guacamole: creamy and fresh, not heavily seasoned beyond a little salt and lime, but that's appropriate given the context. There's plenty of other action in a burrito, so the guacamole doesn't need to get pushy. But you can't talk about Chipotle without talking about the guacamole shake-down. It's an eye-opener. Is a small scoop of pretty good guacamole worth nearly a Jefferson? That's the sort of thing you have to decide for yourself. I think I'll pass next time, but I'm not an avocado groupie to begin with.
The tortilla did its job of holding everything together without imparting any real flavor. The chicken was quite good, moist and tender underneath a charred, carbon-tasting grilled exterior. The rice had a nice, firm texture, though it was almost completely devoid of the advertised cilantro and lime; there were a couple stray flecks of green that didn't come through at all on the tongue. Chipotle might keep it intentionally weak as a concession to the savage beasts among us who don't like cilantro, but in that case, there's no reason to bother at all.
The beans were a little mushier than ideal, but they were well-drained, so there wasn't bean juice sloshing around all over the place, as can happen when you deal with a less conscientious burrito-maker. I got the tomatillo and red chili salsa, their hottest. It wasn't bad: a little sweeter than I would have guessed, and there wasn't enough of it to really impact the operation from bite to bite. Chipotle thoughtfully provides three kinds of Tabasco—regular, jalapeno, and chipotle—though, which can be cocktailed into all the heat a reasonable person requires.
We have never run a post headlined "Fuck Qdoba," and my interaction with the staff was pleasant but unremarkable, so instead let's start with the tortilla, which was damp and sticky: Not bad per se, but clearly engineered for maximum adhesion. The rice was similar to the Chipotle rice in that it existed; the chicken wasn't quite as good. It lacked the Chipotle bird's second-level grilled character, so it was just, you know, chopped-up chicken breast. It was also a little too tender, almost suspiciously so. It cleaved neatly in half when bitten, reminiscent of the shitty, industrial, glued-together chicken-scrap packages at bad sub shops, though it tasted pretty real.
Qdoba only has about a third as many shops as does Chipotle, and they're smart enough to know that if you're going to come at the king, you best do so with free guacamole. Trouble is, the guacamole isn't very good, and it also isn't all that free. It's pasty and gummy and bland, and a Qdoba burrito sets you back a mighty rich $7.80, so my free guacamole only saved me 60 cents over the price of the Chipotle joint con guac. Quality aside, I think retaining your free condiment will is worth more than 60 cents. I don't like the idea of a Jack in the Box subsidiary with a terrible name making important financial decisions for me, you know what I'm saying?
Good news: The plump, firm black beans were fucking fantastic! Bad news: I got the Salsa Roja, which is advertised as merely "hot" compared to the "extra-hot" Fiery Habanero Salsa; it was worthless. I had to add a lot of Jalapeno Tabasco and a couple shakes of Cholula just to feel alive. Which reminds me that the condiment station also had little chunks of lemon and lime. I don't know what on earth I was expected to do with them, but it's a classy touch.
Look, Chipotle is better than Qdoba. It's closer than reputation had led me to believe; a Qdoba burrito is not a bad thing. But Chipotle has superior chicken and a slightly better tortilla, which is enough for a definitive if narrow victory. You know how the most maddening part of college basketball is when they review a play and refuse to overturn it if the refs clearly got it wrong but were almost right? And the announcers buy into that asininity: "Well, from this angle, it's pretty clear that he just barely touched the ball as it was sailing out of bounds. I mean, he came so incredibly close to not touching it. I can't imagine touching the ball any less than he did while still actually touching the ball. So I agree with the decision to uphold the original call that he didn't touch the ball—the refs had it so close to correct that you can't overturn it." Same deal with these burritos. Qdoba is very nearly as good as Chipotle. If you told me you preferred it, though, I'd have to overrule you based on the evidence. Qdoba is so, so close to being as good as Chipotle, which means it's not as good as Chipotle.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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