Mouthful - A Chipotle on my shoulder

Why I like this McDonald's-owned chain without apologies

Confession time: You know Chipotle Mexican Grill, the burrito chain with the mod design that has branches popping up all over town? I eat there once a week. Sometimes more. Even food critics fall prey to the convenience of fast food.

Actually, Chipotle falls into the restaurant market's rapidly expanding category known as fast-casual, which aims to serve higher caliber (and slightly pricier) options than standard fast food joints.

And yes, the McDonald's connection is true: Chipotle founder Steve Ells sold 90 percent of Chipotle to the super-sized leviathan in 1998. But McDonald's continues to allow Ells and Chipotle to operate independently from their home base in Denver. Why wouldn't they? The chain has grown from one restaurant in 1993 to more than 350 in 2004, with more on the way.

But unlike most other fast-casual concepts that fall deliberately into my blind spot as I drive the streets of Atlanta, I genuinely enjoy the food at Chipotle. Ells is committed to serving high quality meats at his eateries, and area Chipotles have recently begun serving hormone-free Bell & Evans chicken, the same brand preferred by Whole Foods and sold at DeKalb Farmer's Market. But my thing at Chipotle is the slow-roasted, gently herbaceous carnitas made with free-range Niman Ranch pork.

I eat at this place so often, I anticipate all the questions the staff asks as they compile my order behind the counter. I'm not a big burrito fan (the shrimp burrito at still-missed Tortillas being the exception), so I get the tortilla-less Burrito Bol filled with cilantro-flecked rice, topped with carnitas, pinto beans, tomatillo salsa, a streak of sour cream, a judicious tuft of shredded cheese and a healthy wallop of guacamole. Then I plunk down at a table in the airy wood and chrome dining room and slowly mix the ingredients together into a gloppy, zesty hodge-podge of yum.

In a little over a year-and-a-half, nine Chipotles have sprung up around the metro ATL area. I've been frequenting the Chipotle near my house in Toco Hills for months, but it dawned on me recently that perhaps my Chipotle was somehow exceptional.

So this past week I visited three other locations — in Buckhead, Marietta and the newest one on Ponce — to get a feel for consistency among stores. I ordered my usual carnitas concoction as well as a burrito with barbacoa (spicy stewed beef), roasted chile-corn salsa, black beans and guac.

I'll admit — I was surprised. These folks have their system down pat. The preparations from place to place are remarkably similar. You can taste a trace of thyme in the carnitas; the barbacoa has been simmered to a dusky tenderness (though across the board I wish it had more of the smoky flavor of the restaurant's namesake dried jalapeño); the beans are soft but not mushy; and the sprightly guacamole always tastes fresh. If fact, Chipotle's guac surpasses most of the weak renditions served at the higher-end Mexican restaurants around town. And for a buck twenty-five per serving, it's a hell of a lot cheaper, too.

I found only two noteworthy variations at each restaurant: the portion size of the meat, and the friendliness of the staff. I ate at each place twice to be sure of my results (yeah, I'm kinda sick of Chipotle right now, but I'll bounce back). Here's the lowdown:

- Toco Hills: sweet staff with big smiles; rather skimpy with the meat, though.

- Buckhead: even skimpier with the meat portions, and grumpy employees. One defiant woman was eating her dinner at the cash register.

- Ponce: pouty employees on the line mixed with helpful folks working the floor. There are no limes available on the fixin's counter here, but a kind staffer volunteered to bring some for me without hesitation. Generous servings of meat.

- Marietta: By far the biggest servings of meat, and also the warmest staff. They look you in the eye when they ask you if it's OK that guac costs extra on your Bol.

The surly 'tude in Buckhead wasn't exactly a shocker. But to discover my spot served a stingy portion of carnitas? Bummer. I certainly can't justify trekking to Marietta for a meal-on-the-go, so I guess I'll be giving my business to the Ponce Chipotle now. Sorry, Toco Hills.


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