(Locations in La Mesa, Mira Mesa, Encinitas, La Jolla, Pacific Beach and Hillcrest)
You know that feeling you get in fast-food places, when every pimply, sleep-deprived teenager looks at you with pure contempt, and you think, "If that Tyler Durden wannabe behind the counter didn't spit on my burger, it was only because he didn't have the energy"? Have you ever wished you could get that feeling, but in a clean restaurant, with better food?
Welcome to the ill-conceived world of "fast-casual." Chipotle Mexican restaurant-partially funded by the evil McDonalds empire-is a darling of the new category.
The kicker is this: Chipotle has decent food. They serve only burritos (or a tortilla-less burrito bol) and tacos (soft or crispy), custom-made for you in an assembly-line format. (Although customization has its limits. No corn tortillas, no refried beans.) They do spare you the indignity of having to slide your tray along as you walk; instead, they hand it to you when you reach the register.
The choices of filling are steak, chicken, carnitas or barbacoa (the house specialty), all good, if sometimes too salty. The pork is free-range, and free-range chicken is in the works. Chipotle prides itself on fresh ingredients and meats grilled to perfection. Of course, everything sits in warming trays, and after 15 minutes on a warming tray, the steak slowly transforms into the chewy blobs of meat by-product you find at Taco Bell. But the sneeze guards are usually clean enough to give you a good preview, so you can avoid anything that has been warming too long.
There are two types of whole beans, fajita vegetables, cilantro-tinged (and disturbingly fluffy) rice and freshly made chips and guacamole, both with a kick of lime. Then the salsas: mild, roasted corn, tomatillo and hot. Other than varying degrees of spiciness, all manage to have distinct and rich flavors, as well. Hot has a bit of a horseradish flair and is my favorite, but I find myself digging into the little plastic cups for the last dregs of any of the salsas. The corn, very sweet, with little bursts of bitter red onion, is a tremendous addition to the burritos and tacos. (My strategy: corn salsa on the concoction du jour, with an extra cup of tomatillo or hot salsa on the side.)
So a solid three forks for the food; I might even have given them four if I wasn't such a food snob. And yet, my Chipotle experiences leave me feeling full, yet unfulfilled. For starters, the atmosphere is abysmal. The elementary-school reject chairs are Spartan and unwelcoming. The burnished metal tabletops are aggressively endothermic. The Mayan-inspired artwork is "tribal" as interpreted by IKEA-Peter Brady's cursed Hawaiian idol re-imagined in blonde wood and aluminum. Add the brown plastic trays and the little red baskets for the foil-wrapped burritos, and you have a presentation only a lunch lady could love.
Those hateful fast-food servers make things even dicier. The first time I ate here, the "greeter" stood with his back to us, his arms folded. After a few moments he twirled around and jutted his clenched chin. (I'm not sure whether he wanted to take our order or pick a fight.) A cashier put us on hold while he checked his cell phone messages. Another night, the line was in complete turmoil because the chicken tin had run out. I was only ordering a vegetable burrito (a favorite), but I guess the training manual does not cover such situations. So I waited as the chefs grilled the chicken, diced it and refilled the serving line. Yet other times, I've been the only person in the entire store, but still I get rushed through my choices as if a party of 200 was standing behind me.
But once, in the La Mesa store, only two people stood behind the counter (in contrast to the small army that usually confronts you). A longhaired, red-cheeked woman greeted me warmly. When I hesitated on my order, she smiled and launched into the Chipotle story.
"Is all very good," she beamed as she finished. "You'll love it."
Love is a strong word. But I'll admit I do like it, if not the surroundings or the McDonalds-influenced operations (and only very rarely the service). I ordered too much, as always, and that night, I even went back for seconds.
"Goodbye!" she shouted as I was leaving. "Come back again!"
Of course I will. I don't always have the time or money to sit down to linen tablecloths and sommeliers. Better a foil-wrapped burrito in a plastic basket than some cellophane-wrapped burger sitting under a heat lamp.
If I knew she would be there to greet me, I might find my way back to Chipotle more often.