‘Bol’ed over

Chipotle turns chain burritos into tasty, affordable family fare

WRAP IT UP <br>Amanda Lussier fixes up a meal for Chipotle customer Christina Salas. The staff will put ingredients together pretty much any way you want.

Amanda Lussier fixes up a meal for Chipotle customer Christina Salas. The staff will put ingredients together pretty much any way you want.

Photo By Tom Angel

Chipotle Mexican Grill 620 Mangrove Ave., 343-8707. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

I’ve found that it’s not that difficult to get good service when a restaurant isn’t busy. It’s when places are packed that you can tell the genuine customer-lovers from the fakers.

Even though the line was out the door when we arrived around 7 on a Thursday night, it moved quickly: Less than 10 minutes passed before our order was taken. And, while we waited, an upbeat employee offered up samples of Chipotle’s new salad, which I was tempted to order after tasting how the tangy chipotle-honey dressing set off the meat, cheese and romaine lettuce.

With the crowd, it was a little hard to hear in there; I had to repeat my order several times and correct it along the way (one of the great things about being able to watch your meal being made).

But there was no balking at special requests. I got the steak “Bol” ($5.25), which is essentially the contents of a burrito assembled in a cardboard bowl with the addition of lettuce. I order it because it’s easier and less messy to eat with one hand, but I think it’s supposed to be some kind of low-carb thing. I usually ask for the tortilla on the side—mainly because I’m cheap and don’t want to miss out on anything I could have had included in my meal. (That and I like tortillas. Chipotle’s are soft, flaky-yet-sturdy and taste good.) The roasted chili-corn salsa is my favorite: medium-spicy and with a crunch-pop brought in by the fresh corn kernels.

My husband got the carnitas (that’s pork, gringo) burrito ($5.65), neatly bundled into aluminum foil. (You can also get fajita burritos or tacos.) We decided to add an order of chips and guacamole ($1.85)—something we usually pass up as too pricey. Adding guac to a burrito costs a whopping $1.40. The guac, as usual, had just the right amount of citrus-y tang, along with its signature cilantro. The small serving went too fast. The chips, however, alternated between chewy and sat-out-too-long. It seems like, in some kind of cosmic fault, restaurants with amazing salsa have so-so chips and vice versa.

I also tested the promise of the “Parents Menu” (Chipotle’s version of a kids’ menu) that they’ll combine ingredients to make “anything your child will eat.” It turns out that my child, at nearly 11 months, will happily eat bits of a soft taco with black beans and rice ($1.65).

I should also mention that the staff seemed to notice we were struggling with the baby, his stroller and miscellaneous crap that seems to tag along whenever we go out nowadays. An employee brought our tray right to the table.

Chipotle has a diverse following. Around us as well as enjoying the outside seating facing Vallombrosa sat a microcosm of Chico: families, older couples, college students, teens.

The interior has an intentionally industrial feel with suspended lights and wooden beams alternating with metal ceilings as black-and-white photos line the walls. The slant-backed chairs are more artistic than comfortable. The high chairs are clean, not icky-sticky like in many restaurants.

Sometimes, it almost seems like they’re trying too hard to be hip. (For example, the cooks’ shirts have quirky sayings on the back such as “I made the guacamole.")

By now, most people know of the Chipotle-McDonald’s connection: CEO Steve Ellis founded the eatery in Denver in 1993 and five years later sold a minority interest to McDonald’s. (Chico’s Chipotle opened in 2003.) Now, McDonald’s owns 90 percent of Chipotle but has managed to lay low as the burrito chain’s following seems content to ignore contradictions such as McDonald’s onslaught on the rainforests versus Chipotle’s free-range pork and small-farm partnerships.

I followed my visit with a regrettable trip to the nutrition calculator at www.chipotlefan.com. My Bol and tortilla alone totaled 1,270 calories and 49 grams of fat—something I’d rather not think about when dining out.

Next time, I’ll try the salad.