1733 N. Damen
Chicken Tacos ("Soft Shell")
3 tacos, $5.60 (no extras)
I've probably eaten at Chipotle more often than any other restaurant in my life.
This isn't that remarkable a claim if you stop to think about it. I've had 10 or so different residences in my lifetime, which is enough to rule out any non-chain restaurants. My parents would not take me to McDonald's or Burger King nearly as often as I wanted when I was a kid. Taco Bell surely rates highly on the list -- the Bailey Street and Grand River location served me well in my youth -- but I've hardly eaten there for the past five or six years.
Still, this is an impressive number of meals to have had at Chipotle. I ate there probably an average of 5 times a month in the seven years I spent living in Lakeview and Lincoln Park. That works out to 420 experiences at Chipotle. It got so bad at one point during my Lakeview days that I actually started going to the second- and third-closest Chipotle locations on occasion so that the clerks didn't make some comment about how often I was eating there.
But the thing is that since I moved to Wicker Park I haven't eaten at Chipotle at all. Partly, that's because I'm no longer all that close to one. But mostly it's because there are just many better options for Mexican Food in this neck of the woods. In wide swaths of Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and pretty much the entirety of the Loop, Chipotle is a godsend. In Wicker Park/Bucktown, it's mostly superfluous, although I will say that this link in the chain is located fairly well: there's a region of about 20 square blocks (see map below) in which Chipotle is probably the closest reasonable fast Mexican alternative, Flash Taco explicitly not being a reasonable alternative. If you live in the green shaded area, you may eat at Chipotle without feeling guilty about it. Otherwise, get out and live a little.
The Food: Among the several hundred times that I've eaten at Chipotle, I've never had the "soft" tacos, always opting instead for the hard-shell variety. For this week's competition, however, I went with the soft varietal for purposes of keeping the competition on an apples-to-apples basis. (Picante Taquiera, Chipotle's opponent this week, does serve a hard-shell taco dish that they call the "White Boy Tacos", but they only serve them Taco Bell style with ground beef; no substitutions). I also refrained from getting guacamole ("Guacamole sir is dollar twenty five extra?") but did load up on sour cream, cheese, and both the corn and the red tomatillo salsas, figuring that when in Gringoville, do as the Gringos do, provided that I don't have to pay anything extra for the privilege.
I've confirmed now that keeping it hard is the right way to go at Chipotle, because the tortillas are almost certainly the weakest part of their offering. The central problem is that they're made out of flour rather than corn. Flour tortillas are a necessary evil when you're eating a burrito, since they tend to be a bit more hearty and elastic than their corn brethren, and therefore do a better job of securing the contents inside. For tacos, however, where structural integrity is not such a problem, corn should be de rigueur. Flour tortillas sacrifice a lot of flavor. They also present disadvantages from a textural standpoint, as they tend to be thicker than corn. With a burrito, you don't mind encountering a little bit of resistance as you sink your teeth into the thing. With tacos, you'd prefer something more supple, which means a corn tortilla (or preferably two). And Chipotle's tortillas seem to be particuarly thick and impermeable, failing to soak up any juices, which results in all the flavors sort of keeping to themselves rather than mingling with one another.
Another issue with the soft tacos is that they get the short end of Chipotle's one-size-fits-all pricing scheme. Nobody who has ordered a burrito or fajita from Chipotle can rightly claim that they're ripping people off; the problem is that the tacos are the same price, and contain perhaps 60% as much material. The problem is particuarly acute with the soft tacos; for whatever reason Chipotle treats three soft tacos as equivalent to four hardshell, but the ratio of ingredients:tacos is about the same in either case.
So why have I eaten at Chipotle 420 times? Well, because I know better than to order the soft tacos. But of course Chipotle does a lot of things right. First and foremost is the quality of their meat -- ironic for a restaurant that was once affiliated with McDonald's. Chipotle is quite green in its product sourcing, and that makes a difference in the taste. On occasions, the meat can become dry if left in the vat too long, but Chipotle usually does enough volume that you're getting a fresh batch grilled up for you. And the chicken, which is a weakness at so many mom-and-pop taquerias, is a real strength at Chipotle with its grilled flavor and consistent texture.
The cornucopia of salsas and garnishes is another major plus. Chipotle's salsa doesn't have quite as much sex appeal as what you'll find at De Pasada, but it almost always tastes fresh, and it's nice to be able to mix-and-match the salsas to suit your mood. The only problem really is the irresistible temptation to overload your taco with too many add-ons, as inevitably the ratio of meat to condiments will vary from server to server. Today I did not get enough meat and felt like all I was tasting was lettuce and salsa.
The Experience: Well, it's Chipotle. And that's generally a good thing. The single factor that is most underrated in Chipotle's success is how unbelievably efficient it is in turning out its food. The burrito assembly line moves very quickly. I haven't timed it, but I'd guess that if there isn't a queue, you can be eating your food within about 90 seconds of having walked inside. It's not McDonald's fast -- it's like vending machine fast. This makes a huge difference for someone like me. I tend to procrastinate on lunch until I'm basically starving myself, so once I finally decide to eat, I'm really fucking hungry, and even an extra 60 seconds of time savings is a pretty big deal. Of course, Chipotle has to make some sacrifices to achieve this efficiency -- not having corn tortillas for their tacos, for example. But generally speaking, the trade-off is worth it; there are a million other restaurants you can eat at if you don't like their product offerings.
The service is usually as hospitable as it is efficient, although today was a slight exception. I've gotten to the point where I'm not very self-conscious about taking pictures of my food; it's just not uncommon these days for some scrappy looking kid to be walking around with a digital camera, and the worst case scenario is that you might get branded as a tourist. Nobody has ever said anything when I was taking pictures of their tacos ... until today, when the owner saw me from behind the counter and said "those are some nice looking tacos, bro!". Okay, so he didn't say "bro", but he did say "those are some nice looking tacos!". I don't think the comment was intended to be rude; in fact, I'm pretty well convinced that this dude thinks that his tacos are the bestest-looking tacos in the whole wide world, and was proud that I was taking pictures of them. Still, my attitude is that once I've paid for the food, it's my right to do pretty much whatever I want with it without having to hear any play-by-play.
Posted by Nate Silver at 5:48 PM