Seemingly out of nowhere, restaurants claiming to be Mexican Grills are popping up all over the Unites States. I decided to take a look at three of the most visible ones here in the southwest, Chipotle, Qdoba and Cafe Rio and offer my thoughts.
All three grills are similar. You come in, approach the counter and then begin the process of building your meal and choosing from a wide array of freshly prepared ingredients. Those ingredients run the gamut from beef and chicken to grilled veggies and cheese. You can also generally get your meal served in a gigantic tortilla, burrito style, in a bowl, or as tacos.
At each restaurant, I ordered the exact same meal, 2 tacos, one beef and one chicken, pico de gallo, rice, black beans and a side of guacamole. Along with each meal, I also ordered a small soda and asked for some salsa on the side.
Here’s what I found, the good, the bad and the ugly at each one of the three.
I arrived at 6:00pm and was the only customer in the place, never a good sign. As I walked towards the food station I was greeted and then asked what I wanted.
By the time my order was rung up and I got to my table, my tacos were stone cold. The red salsa was little more than a tomato based condiment loaded with oregano and chile powder. When I asked one of the employees if the salsas were made in the store, she rolled her eyes and said “No, they come already made from the company.”
Both the beef and chicken in my tacos were dry, possibly because they had been cooked earlier in the day. The tacos came with standard flour tortillas, the type you can buy in any supermarket. The rice and black beans were warm, although the black beans were slightly hard, a little undercooked.
The Good… the portions were excellent. Not too much, not too little. I was really surprised at the quantity of guacamole for the price.
The Bad… There is no vibe in Qdoba. With few others eating and a formica based interior package, I felt like I was having tacos in a Subway. This was not about creating an experience or atmosphere.
The Ugly… Cold tortillas and lousy salsa. Maybe because the air conditioning was on too high the tacos were iced pretty quick. That along with some extremely pedestrian salsas really colored my impression of their food.
The portions were great, especially the guacamole, but I was surprised they did not ask if I wanted chips with my guacamole. The meal was served in a pie tin, covered with paper.
Cool factor… They have a futuristic drink machine that must be tried to be appreciated.
Cost – 2 tacos, rice, beans, soda and guacamole, with tax… $9.00 or 115.00 Mexican pesos.
I went mid afternoon and while there was no line, many of the tables had people eating. My first impression of Cafe Rio is that it seemed busy. Not with people, but with a lot going on. The decor, the colors, the music, clearly they were working hard to create a certain party/casual type of ambiance.
The beef and chicken used at Cafe Rio is shredded and then held in juice until you order it, sort of “tinga” style. It’s a two edged sword. While this makes sure your food is never dried out, it also makes for some wet tacos. When you order, your tacos are then warmed on the grill along with handmade flour tortillas, a real plus.
The salsas were nothing to rave about, but the tacos were stuffed! The rice and bean portions were huge and the beans were excellent. Great taste and cooked to perfection. The guacamole however was a waste. If all I am getting for an order is a tablespoon, don’t even bother.
The Good… Hand made flour tortillas and the size of the portions, except for the guac.
The Bad… Take some wet wipes because you are gonna take a bath in taco juices. I’m just sayin’! Also, if you are making fresh salsa, make some with a little heat. I’m sorry, but bottled Cholula does not cut it at a taco house.
The Ugly… The Jackson Pollock style paint job on the tables and chairs. I am not sure where this idea came from because in all my travels in Mexico, I’ve never seen anything like this.
Cool factor… The drink station. A great soda variety and non-carbonated Mexican waters should be enough to satisfy everyone, but Cafe Rio went one step further. They also have various syrups to add to your drinks, or combine with a cup of crushed ice to make, essentially, snow cones… perfect to go on a hot day!
Cost – 2 tacos, rice, beans, soda and guacamole, with tax… $12.25 or 156.00 Mexican pesos.
The hippest of the three, Chipotle attracts a crowd the others can only dream about. Few children, lots of professionals, younger and for good measure, tats! Lots of tats. On customers, on employees, everywhere. Chipotle, at least the ones I’ve been in, with their urban interior have a vibe that screams trendy and progressive.
The star here is the burrito, but to be fair, I skipped it and ordered my usual 2 tacos, black beans, rice and guacamole. I topped it off with some pico and their hottest salsa on the side.
When I got to my table, my tortillas were cold, just like Qdoba. The meat was perfectly cooked and tender, although the steak was nothing special. The chicken had a wonderful fresh and tangy taste. Definitely a win.
The beans were excellent. Not mushy, and not undercooked, with a great taste. i would order those again. The salsa was a clear disappointment. Rather than add heat through the use of chiles, the pervasive taste was one of chile powder, providing absolutely no nuance.
The Good… You feel cool here. It’s a place you want to be and if you like to people watch, this stage is pretty good. And the tacos, especially the chicken, were top notch.
The Bad… Coming in at over $9.50, Chipotle is clearly the most expensive of the three restaurants I visited.
The Ugly… The salsa. Pure and simple, a place that prides themselves on quality food should be doing a better job on this.
Cool Factor… You want a margarita or a beer with your meal? You can get it here.
None of the three Mexican Grills will make you forget what it’s like to eat at a taco stand in Mexico. There is little offered here that even hints at an authentic taste south of the border. But, and this is the big qualifier, that does not mean the food is not good, or that you will not like it.
Each one of these restaurants has their devoted followers and have been successful in their own way. Incredibly, they have also contributed to the changing restaurant scene here in the US. Fast food outlets, ala McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr and Burger King are struggling as people seek out food that seems healthier. Sit down places like Red Lobster and Olive Garden are losing customers as people are demanding more choices and quicker service.
Places like Chipotle, Rio and Qdoba are changing the game, offering customers more variety and generally healthier choices in a setting more attuned to people’s wishes. Don’t believe me? Check out this article from the Washington Post.
Are their tacos what you would find at a stand in Mexico? Not a chance, but then not everyone has an opportunity to make that true run for the border. So order their tacos, or even a burrito, enjoy it and leave the place well fed. Just know that when you want the real thing, I’ll be waiting for you in My Mexico with an ice cold cerveza in my hand.