Qdoba, Chipotle lure diners with "lighter, fresher" Mexican

When a city is chockfull of taquerias, cantinas and panaderias, many where hardly a lick of English is uttered and where some of the most authentic south-of-the-border favorites like tamales and flautas are made fresh daily, one wonders why diners would ever get Mexican food from a chain. Still, chains abound, from ubiquitous Taco Bell to the widely branded Chi-Chi's. While they're good for meeting for margaritas or staving off a craving, even the most oblivious diner might suspect this isn't really the food people are eating on the streets of Guadalajara. A burrito from Chipotle, voted best new chain restaurant of 2004 by NUVO readers.

Admittedly, you might not always hanker for a goat taco, a steaming bowl of menudo (waiter, there's tripe in my soup!) or even a plate of leaden enchiladas. Certainly, a major complaint about Mexican food is its heft: the fried chips, the greasy meat, the sour cream. No one could confuse this with diet food. But while the shrimp ceviche at Pancho's is one of the lightest dishes you'll eat, that fast-food steak burrito loaded with fixings isn't exactly "light."

Coming to the rescue of health-conscious Mexican fans is a new breed of restaurants offering fresher, lighter burritos and tacos in brightly-lit storefronts where English is always welcome. Newest in town is Chipotle, which opened three Northside locations just last year. But longtime fans of pioneer Qdoba, with a dozen metro outlets, abound. So, what do these "fresh" chains offer, besides proximity to shopping malls and office parks? Is the food lighter? Is it even "Mexican"?

Along with a trustworthy tasting panel, I set out to investigate two "fresh" Mexican restaurants a minute's walk from each other on West 86th Street. NUVO readers voted Chipotle, a McDonald's company, "best new chain restaurant" of 2004. Denver-based, Jack-in the-Box offshoot Qdoba, however, has been around longer and pretty much paved the way for the watch-them-make-it approach to Mexican food.

Chipotle favors stand-alone sites with large parking lots and artistically "rusted" exteriors, which tend to stain its sidewalks red. Qdoba is somewhat homier and turns up more commonly in strip malls and pre-existing storefronts. In terms of appropriating images from Mexican culture as décor elements, both chains tread lightly. Chipotle has a small iconographic depiction of an Aztec deity holding a Chipotle burrito. Mostly, the place is a shrine to exposed ductwork. Vibrantly painted Qdoba has a wall-sized mural of well-dressed women rolling tortillas while men harvest hot peppers.

The menus are almost indistinguishable in approach, if not scope. Focus is on burritos - but not the greasy convenience-store kind. Both employ steamers for tortillas, and both serve real beans, not refried, overcooked bean paste. Both offer a variety of chunky salsas and guacamole. Only Qdoba offers melted cheese.

Aiming for quality and speed, Chipotle's menu is streamlined and straightforward. Service was good, though the clerk yelled at the woman preparing our orders. A trio of tacos ($5.60) allowed a sampling of Chipotle's marinated and grilled meats. Though we chose three different tacos, we were charged for three pricier steak tacos.

Carnitas, marinated and grilled pork, were delicious and tender, with a nice kick. "Medium" salsa upped the Scoville quotient even more. Strips of steak were almost silky, and chicken seemed tender enough but with little character. Chips were tepid and covered with visible lime-flavored salt, which proved addictive. Guacamole ($2) was a bit too smooth but creamy and fresh tasting. "Hot" salsa bordered on bitter.

Qdoba has a considerably larger menu with more specialty items. Here, the counter guy seemed distracted, almost hapless. He made up the wrong burrito, expressed disgust and offered it to his co-worker. But a manager came by later to buss our table - big points at any fast-food establishment.

A steak taco ($2.05) at Qdoba proved to be the tastiest dish all evening. The meat was no less tender than at Chipotle, but the flavor was smoky, earthy and, well, steak-y. No mystery meat here. Tortilla soup ($3.25) was warm and filling, with plenty of chicken. Tortilla strips and sour cream added additional flavor. Along with warm, fresh chips, three-cheese queso ($2.90) had visible spices, though it was strangely viscous. Guacamole ($2.70) was a tad watery.

The one wild card was a chicken molé burrito ($5.50), a nod to that sacred sauce of blended spices. Often made with cocoa, this one had distinct overtones of a Hershey candy bar. We struggled to finish it.

Chipotle seems to be a bit more kid friendly, and parents tell me they usually get extra beans for free. Only Qdoba offers anything approximating desserts, but we were too stuffed to consider one of their chocolate chip cookies.

Given such scrutiny, the food didn't always wow the panel. Considering the speed and choices, however, it did trump many other lunchtime options.

Several items were clearly fresher, lighter and tastier than the typical burger takeout. Even some authentic Mexican elements - the spicy carnitas, the smoky steak - shone through. Salsas rivaled those at local Mexican joints. We won't be giving up those authentic cantinas any time soon, but if we're in the neighborhood, "fresh" might just do the trick.

Qdoba

3528 W. 86th St.

879-9483

Plus various location

Hours

Monday-Saturday 10:30 A.m.-10 p.m.

Sunday 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Food: 3 1/2 stars

Atmosphere: 3 stars

Service: 3 stars

Chipotle

3340 W. 86th St.

415-0136

Plus various location

Hours

Monday-Sunday 11 A.m.-10 p.m.

Food: 3 1/2 stars

Atmosphere: 3 1/2 stars

Service: 3 1/2 stars

0
0
0
0
0