Chipotle does a lot with a small menu

Creative options from Mexican cuisine basics

Eats: Dining Reviews, Hot Stuff

August 19, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chipotle Mexican Grill has a limited menu. It sells burritos (tortillas stuffed with meat, beans, salsa, cheese and sour cream), fajita burritos (same thing but with peppers and onions instead of beans), burrito salads (same thing, but without the tortilla), and tacos (smaller flour or corn tortillas, stuffed with meat, salsa, sour cream and lettuce). For sides, there are chips, salsa and guacamole.

I've got nothing against a restaurant that focuses on a few items, as long as every item is really, really good. While most of the food at Chipotle's is hearty and tasty, I was put off by the chips, which were soggy and chewy, with no snap at all. In fact, they were so bad that my husband requested a replacement serving. That was stale, too. So was a third serving.

Manager Frank Finn said the chips, seasoned with lime and kosher salt, are prepared at the start of each shift. Maybe I just hit a bad moment.

I hope so, because the chain restaurant occupies a prime piece of real estate in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, near some of the city's most touristy attractions: the aquarium, the Hard Rock Cafe, ESPN Zone and the Passport Voyages of Discovery.

Chipotle opened in Denver in 1993, and its growth has been partially bankrolled by McDonald's Corp. Now, there are about 350 Chipotle restaurants nationwide, including the Inner Harbor location, which opened in December, and one in Columbia.

The concept, as described by Finn, sounds appealing enough. Founder and CEO Steve Ells wanted to apply gourmet standards to a burrito joint, using ingredients such as free-range pork and preparing everything fresh daily.

Even though the menu is short, the variety of toppings makes for plenty of options. Customers build their meals with the help of servers behind the counter by deciding if they want a burrito, fajita or taco, and then choosing the filling (pork, beef, chicken, steak or guac and black beans) and toppings, which include pinto beans, rice, cheese, sour cream and a choice of four salsas. The very rich and citrusy guacamole can be added for an additional $1.50.

Beverages are soft drinks and bottled juices. A liquor license is pending.

As promised on the menu, servers will do their best to accommodate requests. I asked for a cheese quesadilla and received it without fuss. It was tiny and on the greasy side, but it is hard to complain because it cost only 55 cents.

The burritos do deliver a lot of tasty food for their low $5.50 price tag. I got mine stuffed with the chicken, which was in the form of nicely seared chunks, plus white rice flavored with lime and cilantro, savory pinto beans and the tomatillo-green chili salsa, described as medium hot and actually quite spicy.

The music at Chipotle is a mix of techno, rock and funk, played a little too loud, according to the company Web site, to create a certain Chipotle "buzz."

Maybe I'm just not cool enough to get it, but loud music seems like a mistake when you need to tell the servers every detail of the meal they're making for you. The woman taking my order spoke so softly I had to ask her to repeat herself several times as she tried to walk me through my various topping options.

All Chipotle restaurants have the same basic decor, a sort of industrial look with lots of metal surfaces and exposed ductwork at the ceiling, but there is room to customize. The Inner Harbor location has nautical signal flags that spell out "chipotle," as well as outdoor seating overlooking the harbor. You pick up food at the counter and bus your own table.

With a few improvements, it could be a nice spot for a quick, inexpensive meal while visiting the Inner Harbor.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Where: 621 E. Pratt St.

Call: 410-837-8353

Open: Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. except major holidays

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Prices: $4.95-$5.60

Food: **1/2

Service: **

Atmosphere:**

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