Nobody behind the counter at Chipotle Mexican Grill on Kirby speaks English. A friend and I order a carnitas burrito and a barbacoa burrito, and I chat with the three women in Spanish as they assemble them.
"Do you eat carnitas and barbacoa on the weekends?" I ask. They all say that they do, and go on to list their favorite places to get them: Fiesta, Matamoros Meat Market and La Michoacana.
"But why don't you get carnitas and barbacoa at Chipotle?" I ask, putting the women on the spot.
"Because this isn't really carnitas or barbacoa," one answers in Spanish, looking a little sheepish.
The burritos at Chipotle are very good. But I've always wondered why the chain hires Mexican kitchen workers and then insists on making them use traditional Mexican-food words incorrectly. So I call Steve Ells, the founder and CEO of Chipotle, at his Denver office to ask him what he was thinking when he picked these names.
"We don't do authentic Mexican food. We do what I like to eat, which is braised meat," Ells explains, going on to say that he does like real carnitas and eats them often. "We're borrowing the names and the effect," he continues. "It reminds people of the traditional."
In Mexican cooking, carnitas are pieces of pork boiled in lard until they get crispy. At Chipotle, carnitas are braised and shredded pieces of pork. In search of the best pork, Ells struck a deal with Niman Ranch Pork Company, which raises "free range" pigs. While the carnitas at Chipotle may not resemble the traditional Mexican ones, they're actually more expensive to make.
In Texas, making barbacoa means slow-cooking a cow head. At Chipotle, barbacoa is made from a beef shoulder clod, a huge cut that weighs around 30 pounds. It is marinated in a spice mix that includes cumin, garlic and adobo, sealed in Cryovac and then slow-cooked for seven or eight hours in a 185-degree water bath.
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Ells went to cooking school at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. While working at Stars, Jeremiah Tower's high-dollar San Francisco restaurant, he first discovered the burrito joints on Mission Street, which sell huge steak burritos for a couple of dollars.
When the time came to start his own restaurant, Ells decided to leave the fine-dining arena and open his own burrito joint. "I decided to take the San Francisco Mission Street format and sex up the food," Ells says. He borrowed the French confit method of slow-cooking that he learned at school and applied it to the meats for his burritos.
Several years ago, Ells sold an interest in the company to McDonald's, which now owns a majority share; the Chipotle chain has some 305 locations across the country. The Dallas and Austin markets are expanding more quickly than Houston's, Ells says. I suggest that maybe that's because we actually know what barbacoa and carnitas are in Houston.
Ever the diplomat, Ells responds, "You have to bring a different understanding of the terms to Chipotle."