Fast casual dining has gained popularity ever since the economy took a tumble. These restaurants bridge the gap between fast food and casual dining establishments, they offer counter service and focus on serving quality food from open kitchens in a fun and friendly atmosphere. Made-to-order menu items generally have more complex flavors than fast food joints, and lower prices than casual dining restaurants. Panera Bread and Panda Express are other big players in this category, but it is Mexican fare that dominates this niche.
I’m not a fan of fast food; Ronald, The King and Jack do little to sway me. Other than an occasional breakfast sandwich, I avoid these chains. In-N-Out is the exception, but they deserve their own tier because they offer fresh food that is never frozen and they don’t even have microwaves or heat lamps. That said you can imagine my hesitation with these new fast casual eateries. Even after they were popping up on every corner, it took me quite sometime to warm to the idea (fears of processed foods and heats lamps kept me away), but then, my husband urged me to try Chipotle after he had one deliciously fresh burrito after another.
Chipotle Mexican Grill got its start in Denver. Steve Ellis founded the restaurant in 1993, after one-month the restaurant was a greater success than he ever imagined. Later McDonald’s became Chipotle’s largest investor. The chain had continued success, but in 2006 McDonald’s divested from the chain to focus on its own interests. Chipotle is currently publicly traded (NYSE: CMG), and in 2009, it ranked eighth in a list of fast-growing companies, based on increases in sales over the past year.
Currently, twenty-five Chipotle locations span the valley. With no television ads they rely on word of mouth and other means of advertising. Their focus is “Food with Integrity” they boast organic produce and naturally raised meats. They strive to put their best foot forward, and that does not end with the quality food. Each store was designed and built with sustainable architecture in mind. It is always refreshing to see any business taking an active role to be environmentally-conscious.
At Chipotle you are able to customize your meal; burritos, tacos and quesadillas are made-to-order in an assembly line style. The menu is simple, but there are thousands of combinations to choose from. Sodas and alcohol are available to wash it down. A healthful filling meal will set you back no more than ten bucks. My usual is the steak burrito; the meat is marinated in chipotle adobo and grilled, then it’s tucked into a flour tortilla with cilantro-lime rice, beans, salsa, and cheese. Every order has been consistently fresh and delicious.
After such pleasant experiences at Chipotle I decided to seek out other fast casual options, such as Baja Fresh and Cafe Rio. The latter got its start in St. George, Utah by Steve and Tricia Stanley in 1997. It’s since been sold and has expanded to six states in the southwest. The Las Vegas area has five locations. Cafe Rio makes its menu items from scratch and I believe its demonstration cooking is what sets them apart from the competition. You can witness fresh tortillas being prepared by hand and watch meats grilling while you wait. Their tacos were pretty humdrum (the babacoa was cloyingly sweet, while the chicken was bland), but the enchilada style steak burrito was quite tasty. Prices are comparable to Chipotle, but Chipotle’s menu-items seem to have bolder flavors than what Cafe Rio serves up.
After experiencing Cafe Rio and seeing how it stacked up against Chipotle I was interested to see how Baja Fresh compared. It has California roots, in 1990 Jim and Linda Magglos had a vision for a restaurant to serve fast Mexican food that wasn’t processed. Baja Fresh was an initial success and it was later franchised. Today more than 250 stores are in 28 states; more than a dozen are here in Southern Nevada. Again the menu and prices are similar to Chipotle. They, too, pride themselves on the freshest ingredients. Like In-N-Out they don’t have a need for freezers, microwaves or even a can opener. However, it is the shared nutritionals and complimentary chips and salsa bar that allows Baja Fresh to stand out from its competitors. Still, I didn’t feel it measured up to Cafe Rio or Chipotle. I was least impressed with the quality and presentation of the food at Baja Fresh. Items seemed to lack moisture and spice. Again, the burrito is a tastier choice than the tacos… Considerably higher calories, too.
All things considered, Chipotle has sold me on the fast casual dining experience despite my initial doubts. It has encouraged me to try others, but I believe Chipotle is the best value for Mexican fare in the fast casual market. What do you think? Does Chipotle get your vote, too?