With all the speed of a Taco Bell and all the fresh ingredients of a Ninfa's, the recently opened Chipotle Mexican Grill [5600 Kirby Drive, (713)666-9769] could very well steal customers from both well-known chains. The unusual Denver-based chain launched last month in a limestone-clad strip center in the Rice Village area, but don't expect Chipotle to be satisfied with its lone Houston location.
Angela Gomez, Texas regional manager for Chipotle, says a four-year plan calls for the company, which is not publicly traded, to open "between 30 and 35" such eateries in the Houston area, with a statewide goal of 100 locations. There are already Chipotle outlets in Austin and Dallas.
It all started in Denver in 1993 as a 705-square-foot burrito and taco outlet housed in a former ice cream shop. There are 23 outlets now in Denver and 68 total operations in 12 other cities, says regional marketing director Chris Smith.
The company's founder, according to press materials, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the good CIA) outside of New York City and cooked for two years for Jeremiah Towers's famed San Francisco restaurant Stars.
These nouvelle taquerias do not stress the ethnic angle, despite a staff that converses almost exclusively in Spanish. The sleek, carefully designed interior has none of the kitsch common to restaurants serving purportedly south-of-the-border cuisine, such as the new Lucinda's Mexican Restaurant [2415 Dunstan, (713)394-7280], which manages to include virtually every single visual cliché of commercial Mexican decor in a self-contained, surreal smear of primary-color paints. Chipotle, by contrast, is all deconstructed ductwork and pale woods and a reddish stained concrete floor. The interior, Smith adds, is also designed to keep the customer traffic moving; the goal is to serve everyone, even during peak periods, within six minutes. That qualifies as fast food in our book.
Despite the speed, the food tastes, and is, freshly made, which is more crucial with Mexican-style cooking than with many other popular national styles. Smith exults, "We have no microwaves, no freezers and no can openers.Our tortilla chips are fried daily, twice a day, as are our taco shells."
Customers ordering, say, the standard 20-ounce burrito, can pick from chipotle pepper-flavored grilled chicken ($4.75), beef steak ($4.95) or pork carnitas ($4.65), then choose from two kinds of beans and three kinds of salsas, as well as other toppings, such as sour cream or a white grated cheese. That means you can have it 72 different ways, and we haven't even mentioned the vegetarian burrito ($4.55) or the shredded beef barbacoa burrito ($5.25). Beverages include domestic and imported beers as well as margaritas. Working stiffs can have a variety of fountain drinks ($1 or $1.25). (In case you have been in prison for the last decade, the trendy chipotle is a red, ripe jalapeño pepper that has been wood-smoked and then packed in a tomato-based sauce called adobo.)
This could be the Starbucks of burritos
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