Big burritos a fast-food hit

Chipotle: The growing chain restaurant that offers customized meals opens in Columbia.

Restaurant profile

July 29, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like an alien invasion in paperback sci-fi, a Chipotle Mexican Grill could be dropping down in your neighborhood. Instead of running away from this fast-growing chain, people are flocking to it. There are 350 locations in the United States, with new ones opening each month.

Landing recently in the Columbia Crossing shopping center, the fast, fresh Mexican burrito stop offers customers a mix-and-match selection of spicy fillings to suit individual tastes.

Even if you walk in at 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening and the line stops at the door, in 10 minutes the serving crew will be warming up your tortilla for an oversized, overstuffed burrito or fajita that you'll be hard-pressed to finish in one sitting. In fact, an entertaining surf on Chipotle's Web site - just click "Play" - offers an assortment of clever metaphors celebrating just how big the burritos can be.

When founder Steve Ells created Chipotle (pronounced "chi-POAT-lay") in 1993, he wanted people to get a gourmet-tasting meal in minutes. The attention is on the ingredients. The company's philosophy is to use the best-quality, highest-grade food available. Chipotle uses fresh herbs and spices and authentic cooking methods.

"No freezers, no can openers, no microwaves," manager Maricela Small said. "We don't have any of that here." Ingredients are chopped, sliced, fried, marinated and grilled each day.

The customer walks along the plastic-shielded food bar and gives instructions to several food servers on how to customize the meal. Choices are a burrito, a fajita burrito with peppers and onions, a burrito bol (no tortilla), and three soft or four crispy tacos.

Prices are based on the grilled meat filling, either carnitas (free-range pork), barbacoa (spicy shredded beef), chicken or steak, priced at $5.50 or $5.60. A vegetarian filling of guacamole and black beans is $4.95. The burrito filling includes rice flavored with cilantro and lime. A sign over the food bar encourages customers to ask for combinations if they don't see what they want on the menu.

Toppings include shredded romaine lettuce, a blend of white cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, sour cream and a choice of four salsas: the mild fresh tomato, the medium roasted chili-corn or tomatillo-green chili, or the hot tomatillo-red chili. Extras include chips seasoned with kosher salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice that are served with guacamole or salsa. The entree is wrapped in foil and put in a red basket. The chips come in a brown paper bag.

A self-serve beverage bar has standard soft drinks. Bottled water and Nantucket juices can be ordered at the register.

The Columbia location is waiting for its liquor license. When approved, the restaurant will offer margaritas and domestic and specialty beers.

Although its warm chili salsas might open the tear ducts, Chipotle's decor offers cool contrast in its austerity. Is there such a thing as industrial chic? Plenty of sheet metal and stainless steel make the restaurant light, sleek and noisy. Walls are white. The wooden chairs are blond. The concrete floor is red, as is the ceiling.

Bare-bulbed, skinny steel lights reach down from tunnels of silver ductwork. A few black-and-white framed prints of the restaurant's interior hang along the wall of entry. Customers can sit at booths, tables for two - which have plenty of room to push together for a group - or on leather-covered stools at a long bar facing the window. Four tables under red umbrellas provide al fresco dining.

Chipotle is at 6181 Old Dobbin Lane in the newest section of Columbia Crossing. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cash, checks, VISA and MasterCard are accepted. Orders can be sent by fax (410-872-8697) and picked up at the register. Go to www.chipotle.com for a downloadable order form. To confirm the order and pickup time: 410-872-8688.

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