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Friday, July 2, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Holy guacamole: really good Mexican fast food

Special to The Seattle Times

Chipotle


10503 N.E. Fourth St., Bellevue; 425-467-0660

Mexican

$

Web site: www.chipotle.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

No liquor license / major credit cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

Rating: recommended.

My 6-month-old daughter, Iris, is kind of like me, but much smarter and better-looking. That's not unlike the relationship between Chipotle, a Tex-Mex chain that recently landed in Bellevue and Seattle, and its corporate parent, an outfit best known for super-sizing its value meals and customers.

In truth, Chipotle is more of an adopted child: McDonald's liked what it saw of the burgeoning chain and bought a 90 percent interest.

I like what I see — and taste — too. Actual cooking is afoot in Chipotle's open kitchen. Cooks sauté fresh onions and peppers for the fajita burritos, and they grill chicken and steak throughout the day.

The menu couldn't be simpler. Five choices of filling: carnitas (braised pork), barbacoa (shredded beef), steak, chicken and vegetarian (black beans and guacamole), available in a burrito (with rice, beans, salsa, and cheese or sour cream), bowl (burrito minus the tortilla), fajita burrito (peppers and onions replace beans) and hard- or soft-taco plate.

Nothing is more than $6, unless you add the spicy guacamole ($1.40 for a huge dollop). Custom orders are encouraged. If you want a burrito with chicken and pork, no one is going to look at you funny and say, "We don't have that button on the register."

One other way Chipotle is unlike the average fast-food restaurant: It has applied for a liquor license and plans to serve margaritas ($3) and beer ($2.25-$2.75).

Chipotle's Bellevue location, off the southeast corner of Bellevue Square, was packed with families on a Saturday afternoon. (The Seattle site is on University Way, between northeast 42nd and 43rd streets.)

Chipotle isn't the best Americanized Mexican food in town, but it's still remarkable: chain fast food that doesn't taste like fast food. So, if they can do this well with their four-item menu, how about taking it to the next level? Corn tortillas made in-house? Enchiladas with red sauce that doesn't come from a can? There's no dessert at Chipotle. How about some kind of artisan churros?

The magic of McDonald's is that a burger in Moscow tastes the same as a burger in Minneapolis. The magic of Chipotle is the burrito tastes the same at every location — and it tastes good.

Check please:

Carnitas burrito: Carnitas are bits of shredded braised pork shoulder with spices. Chipotle's carnitas are made with Niman Ranch pork; they really taste like pork. They're neither as fatty nor as flavorful as I've had at some local Mexican spots, but the hot tomatillo-red-chile salsa added some spice. Some of the pinto beans in this burrito were undercooked — al dente is for pasta, folks, not beans.

Chicken soft tacos: The marinated grilled chicken in these tacos is impeccably juicy and delicious, and the tomato salsa is mild and refreshing.

Chips and salsa: The tomatillo-green-chile salsa (medium heat) is tart and delicious, but these tortilla chips are painfully salty.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Carnitas burrito $5.65

Chicken soft tacos $5.10

Chips and salsa $.95

Tax $1.09

Total $12.79

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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