The Frugal Forager: Chipotle meals fast and tasty, but decisions can be tricky

Perhaps you have observed that Chipotle restaurants are popping up all over the Capital Region. I vi

Chipotle Mexican Grill

WHERE: 1475 Western Ave., Stuyvesant Plaza, Guilderland. Phone 459-1025.

WHEN: Open seven days, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

HOW MUCH: $17.01

MORE INFO: Children’s menu available. Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Wheelchair-accessible.

Perhaps you have observed that Chipotle restaurants are popping up all over the Capital Region. The first opened in Wilton in April 2009 to much fanfare, soon followed by locations in Clifton Park and Latham. I visited the fourth and newest at Stuyvesant Plaza on Western Avenue, which opened last month.

I talked husband Eric into accompanying me to Stuyvesant Plaza on a lovely autumn day. When it was time to eat, Chipotle presented itself in all its politically correct, locally sourced, shiny new splendor.

I don’t eat fast food much, but, before a long airplane trip, Eric and I will usually stop for a ceremonial burger at the McDonald’s in Albany Airport. We know it will be hours before we are offered a meal, often without time to eat anything between flights, and I offset the burger with a container of milk. It holds us until the next meal.

Chipotle is not about calories, or, perhaps, it is. I was amazed to see a clearly posted calorie count next to each item on the simply designed menu hanging above the kitchen at the restaurant. It’s helpful, mostly, and boy does it keep you from wanting to get the tangy, freshly made and bagged salt and lime dusted tortilla chips: 4 ounces, 570 calories and 73 grams of carbohydrates. That’s more than some of the entrees. Ouch.

What to get?

Head to the corridor on the left that corrals you to the front counter/kitchen area. You can grab a menu near the door, but you’d better be ready when you get to the counter, because they’re ready for you. Let me help you out with this. There are tacos, burritos, burritos in a bowl without the wrapper, and salads. You might prefer the burrito in the bowl once you read the menu and find out the flour tortilla is 290 calories and has 44 grams of carbohydrates. But you have to give Chipotle credit for telling you about it, and I do.

So be ready to tell the eager crew which of these you want. The vessel is prepared (paper bowl, tortilla, taco shell) and you move along the counter and choose what you want in your meal. Do you want chicken? Steak? Shredded beef or pork? Simply point and it will end up in your meal, including rice, beans, veggies, and sauce.

When it came to be our turn, we weren’t quite ready. Eric wanted a steak burrito, but once he saw the selection of cooked meat, changed it to chicken. Then he added onions and peppers, roasted corn, sour cream and spicy red sauce, which was all wrapped up tight as a drum in a foil wrapper. I ordered the burrito in the bowl with steak, added rice, black beans, roasted corn and shredded cheese, all on the fly since I didn’t know where I was going with it.

I slid down the counter to the register, where a very efficient person wanted to know our drink order at that moment. What did they have? I looked around anxiously. She rattled off a list of drinks, and added, vaguely: “and Coca-Cola products.”

Beyond the cashier, I could see a cooler of drinks including a variety of colorful Izzy sodas in their friendly glass bottles. But there was a line forming behind me, so I caved and got one very large Diet Coke from the self-serve fountain. Eric always says he doesn’t want a drink and ends up sharing mine.

For the life of me, I couldn’t tell how they figured out our bill. How do they know how many toppings you have? How about if you chose ALL the toppings? Are black beans more than pinto? It’s no problem for Chipotle; they simply charged us for a chicken burrito and a steak burrito bowl ($6.10 each) and one soda ($1.55), as well as an order of chips and salsa ($2).

Minimalist decor

Now let me tell you about the restaurant: It’s all hard shiny surfaces and sleek design, white subway tile, and minimalist, industrial decor.

The fixed wooden tables are metal-topped and illuminated with task lights, and the smart wood and metal chairs don’t encourage loitering. The ceiling is the underside of the roof painted gray, all of this adding up to a somewhat sterile, but spotless, decor. It’s like an Apple computer store with an open kitchen and without the grace. The first thing I noticed when I opened the door was that it was noisy. “There’s no fabric anywhere,” observed Eric.

On to the eats. By leaving out the beans and ordering onions and peppers, Eric’s burrito morphed into a fajita. He enjoyed the sour cream, chopped tomatoes, grilled onion and roasted corn but thought some of the chicken pieces were a bit dry. A bit of char on the pepper and chicken livened things up quite a bit. He was two-thirds done with the oversized beast when he finally slowed down. I had a few bites and thought the chicken wasn’t dry at all.

A single flour tortilla is the size of a small seat cushion, and capable of holding the stuffing without interfering with the flavor of anything going on inside. However, we both liked the fajita-burrito better than the burrito bowl perhaps because it kept the ingredients moist.

In my haste, I ordered without considering the result. Cilanto-lime rice, yum. Black beans, roasted corn and tomato salsas, with grilled steak sounded wonderful, but I omitted a cohesive element. If the cheese went on the hot meat instead of the cold stuff, it might have been the unifying factor.

As Eric observed, “Chipotle is one of those places where you go through the line a few times before you find what you really like.” I’ll order with an end in mind next time.

I wouldn’t choose the steak though, because while some of the spicy chunks were great, others were chewy. They took care not to overcook the meat, but nearly half the pieces were hard to eat. Next time, I’ll try the shredded pork or beef.

We shared our meals and I was surprised when, after poking at the steak burrito bowl, Eric said: “This could get boring quickly.” Having spent most of my life favoring lower-calorie foods and meal-sized salads, I thought it was just fine, but I could see his point. So you might want to add sour cream, salsa and sauces to your meal.

Satisfying chips

By the way, those fried tortilla chips were terrific; a few had nice chewy oily spots that showed they were recently fried. We weren’t crazy about the salsa, which was more tomato and onion salad with fresh cilantro, than sauce, but we loved the chips.

If you order a bowl to go you get an aluminum cover embossed with their cute chili pepper logo that is also useful for wrapping leftovers, which is what I did with mine. You bus your table and bring your detritus to the industrial brushed-steel drum turned stylish garbage can. No table service, no tipping to worry about.

The tab for our meal came to $17.01. I liked the food at Chipotle, especially the cilantro-lime rice and roasted corn salsa, and if I wanted a healthy, quick meal out, then it’s probably where I would go.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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