As Judith Viorst memorably said, it’s hard to be hip over thirty, and I passed that mark over two decades ago. Hip R Not Us. Too, I cook so much, writing cookbooks and all, that I rarely eat out, and I certainly don’t have a fast food habit. Every now and then, when I’m on the road or running errands and find myself ravenous I’ll stop and get a fast food grilled chicken salad, or possibly a bunless burger, but I eat fast food less than once a month, and think of it as better than nothing, but not much.
For these reasons, while I knew there was a restaurant called Chipotle in uptown Bloomington, Indiana (where I live), I had no clue it served fast food, or that it was part of a national chain, for that matter. I had, of course, assumed from the name that it served something Mexican or Tex-Mex, but other than that, it was just “that restaurant next to the uptown thrift shop.”
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in the salon with foil all over my head, and happened to pick up a recent issue of Time. It included an article about the Chipotle Mexican Grill food chain. Turns out the chain is growing rapidly, with restaurants popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain. I had missed a consumer phenomenon.
More interesting, it turns out that quite a lot of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s success is due to the fact that they have increasingly used superior ingredients — superior for health, the environment, and the animals, all three. They favor family farms. As much as they can, they serve meat raised with no hormones nor antibiotics, and from animals that are not raised in Confined Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs). They seek out locally raised produce. And 100% of their sour cream and 65% of their cheese comes from pastured cows.
This means better food for their customers, of course. More broadly, by creating a larger market for small, local family farms and their agricultural products, they are likely to increase the number and success of such farms, and, in the long run, make these foods more widely available and more affordable. Too, this means they are reducing the environmental impact of the food they sell. To my way of thinking, this is a win-win-win-win situation, those winners being the Chipotle corporation, their customers, the farmers they do business with, and the society (and planet) at large. Nicer for those pigs who are being raised outdoors instead of on concrete, and for the cows grazing in the sunshine, too.
All of which counts for naught if the food sucks. But the food most definitely does not suck.
I had to go uptown today anyway, to see the chiropractor and return my library books, and on the way into town I found myself hungry. Since Chipotle is all of a block from the library, I figured it was a good time to stop in and give the food a try.
Speaking of hip people under thirty, my local Chipotle is just a block off the Indiana University campus, and the freshmen moved in this week. The place was jammed with beautiful teenagers, along with a whole squad of campus security cadets. I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person in the place by at least two decades. While I waited in line I had plenty of time to peruse the menu options: burritos, burrito bowls, tacos both soft and crispy, and salads. The proteins offered were chicken, steak, barbacoa, or carnitas. They also had beans, both vegetarian and cooked with bacon, but I wasn’t interested in those. Other add-ins included fajita-style peppers and onions, tomatillo-and-chili salsa, fresh pico-de-gallo-style salsa, sour cream, shredded cheese, and guacamole.
I ordered a salad, of course, with a hefty whack of carnitas (Mexican braised pork). On it, I had tomatillo-and-red-chili salsa, pico, sour cream, and a very generous scoop of guac. And you know what? It was great. Really great. The romaine was super-fresh, and the pork was moist, flavorful, and meltingly tender. The salsa and guacamole were excellent as well. The whole thing cost less than $7. I could easily have ordered a similar salad at a sit-down Mexican restaurant and paid at least 50% more, and would have paid it gladly. This really was food worthy of a not-fast-food restaurant. The difference was not the quality of the food, but waiting in line and the utilitarian atmosphere of the place. Since when are fast food joints celebrated for their atmosphere, anyway?
The Chipotle website says that all of their food except the flour tortillas is wheat-free, although, of course, there is always the risk of trace cross-contamination. Too, the only soy in their food is in the form of soy oil — not a great ingredient, by any means, but at least not a source of soy isoflavones or phytates. Turns out the carnitas are the one meat on the menu with no soy oil added; I just happened to pick them because I love pork, but this would be enough reason for me to choose them again. However, Chiptole’s online nutrition calculator puts the total fat content of the chicken and steak at 6.5 grams per serving, and in the barbacoa at 7 grams per serving. This includes the naturally-occurring fat in meat, so not all of it is soy oil. This is not enough to keep me from eating these meats.
As for carb count, the chicken and carnitas tie for lowest carb, at 1 gram per serving, the steak and the barbacoa have 2 grams. The nutrition calculator tells me my whole salad had 25 grams of carb, with 12 grams of fiber, for net carb count of 13 grams, not bad for a whole highly-satisfying meal. Still, it turns out that the red tomatillo salsa cost me 8 grams (4 fiber); I’ll skip it next time and just add Tabasco.
All told, my lunch at Chipotle was by far the most satisfying fast food experience I have ever had, with food that was both wonderfully tasty and nutritionally superior. I may have missed Chipotle Mexican Grill up until now, but you can bet I’ll be going back again.