1137 25th Street, Golden Hill
734 University Avenue, Hillcrest
As Bob Dylan never wrote and George Harrison never sang:
Well, that railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it.
I'll have my chauffeur do it for me.
I'm sitting here, buttering my toasted crumpet,
And you forgot to bring my pot of tea --
So is it Cook's night out, Sweet Marie?
It's "Cook's night out" for me two or three evenings a week, when I'm too busy scribbling to put in any stove time. Although my partner is a darned good cook, he'd rather go scouting for a new review destination, or, more often, some decent takeout. The latter has to be cheap as well as good, since it's on our own dime -- which turns Ms. Stainless Spoon here into Miz Plastic Knife.
It's not that easy to find this combination. We gave up on the nearby Sherman Heights Jack In The Box (with its borderline-decent entrée salads) about a year ago because they always leave out something you order but charge you for it anyway, and when you discover that the thing-you-craved-most isn't in the bag, are you going to go back and try to prove they never put it in? (And now they're taking credit cards, but do they give them back?) And my local drive-through taqueria never gets the order straight either -- they don't omit, they randomly substitute. In fact, I've given up on drive-throughs. As for my local walk-to taqueria, you're about to hear why I spurn it.
But things are looking up. Home is the hunter, with three takeout "discoveries" where the food is tasty and the price is low. These aren't drive-throughs -- you have to find parking and wait in line. But it's worth it.
CHIPOTLE I often crave the luscious carne asada (grilled steak) burritos that I used to enjoy regularly at La Cumbre in San Francisco. Alas, my nearest 'Berto's offers meat-sawdust in the wraps, icky yellow fake cheese on everything, and blenderized industrial guacamole with a brown edge. Worse yet, they sell this junk from behind iron-barred takeout windows, as though their primary product weren't food, but, say, UTC pharmaceuticals.
I would never have guessed that I'd find the answer to my yearnings at a chain-restaurant subsidiary of Mickey D's. But if McDonald's bought the chain when it was still a start-up, they're rearing a child that's in full-fledged rebellion against parental McValues. Chipotle is the Anti-Mickey. I think I love it.
The biggest difference lies in the quality of the meat. Most taquerias here (including the many 'Berto's that are better than mine) buy and serve ready-marinated thin-sliced steaks, and we're not talking USDA Prime or Choice or even Select grade. These cattle come to market so skinny and unmarbled, the meat packers don't even bother to have them graded. The marinade isn't thrilling either, when you meet the same one all over town. At Chipotle, in contrast, they use naturally raised meats from small ranches, and make the marinades on-site. The food is as wholesome as it is tasty.
Then, too, Chipotle's motto might well be, "Have it your way," rather than McD's' "Here's what ya get." You start out with a tan cardboard menu that explains your options. Then you proceed cafeteria-style, with all the choices laid out behind the counter in a row, and you point-and-shoot as you walk the line. The chafing dishes and serving trays are small, guaranteeing a rapid turnover of their contents.
The choices include, first, the genre: Burrito, "fajita burrito" (with sautéed peppers and onions instead of beans), burrito "bol" (in a bowl, with no tortilla), or else soft or crisp tacos, or an entrée salad. Portions are generous, with burritos so enormous that my partner and I always share one. There's a caution, though: All the burritos start automatically with a scoop of cilantro-lime rice. If you don't want rice, you have to speak up immediately as you order. There's usually an English-speaking person taking orders at the beginning of the line, so you can say, "Without rice, I want..." If not, start with "Sin arroz, un burrito con..." After that, you can operate on nods or head-shakes.
Next you choose your meat (or lack thereof, in the vegetarian version). The marinated grilled steak isn't the standard local chew-hard stuff, but tender and tasty, with that good grill flavor. The chicken is similarly marinated and grilled. The pork carnitas are seasoned with thyme, bay leaves, and juniper, seared, and then braised until tender but still moist. To my palate, they're among the best carnitas in the county. (Only Casa Reveles up in Valley Center beats them.) The barbacoa is in the Tex-Mex mode, featuring slightly spicy shredded braised beef seasoned with garlic, oregano, and potent cumin that's been roasted and ground on the premises.
Want beans in your burrito or burrito bol? You can choose between pintos or vegetarian black beans. (Tacos and the fajita burrito are beanless.) The black beans are strongly seasoned with roasted cumin, like the barbacoa. You also have a choice of four good salsas, ranging from mild to spicy, although the Hillcrest location that I frequent hasn't had any salsa verde on hand at my visits; they seem to have substituted a chipotle salsa. Finally, you can get cheese or sour cream, and/or guacamole. The latter, hand-mashed from Hass avocados ripened in-house, costs $1.40 extra -- except if you're having the vegetarian burrito or burrito bol, where it's free. The ingredients are classic, without the nasty off taste of cheap overripe avocados.
The backstory: Chipotle was founded by an idealistic chef-entrepreneur named Steve Ellis, who began with a small storefront burrito shop in the Denver area and ended up with a nationwide company. He wanted to bring full-flavored, eco-conscious cooking to the mass market -- "fast food cooked like slow food." Even though Ellis sold Chipotle to McDonald's, he still steers it. The meats Chipotle uses are, as much as possible, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and naturally raised on family ranches. Most of the pork, for instance, comes from Niman Ranch (which is actually a group of small Midwestern piggeries raising veggie-eating unpenned hogs specifically for that label). On Chipotle's delightful interactive website (see above), you can view a video of happy stoats gamboling in a field of greens.