1643 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst, NY 14228
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Amherst Chains Mexican
"Chipotle's arrival is part of a broader trend, using higher quality ingredients as a distinguishing factor to win over customers raised on 'cheap and greasy' alternatives."
We're going to have more to say soon, but the big food story of the week is one we've been discussing on Twitter: after a soft launch yesterday, national Tex-Mex chain Chipotle officially opened its first restaurant in Western New York today, and if you love tacos or burritos, it's worth checking out. Why? Like competitors Salsarita's and Moe's, Chipotle brings something important to the local Mexican dining scene - a focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients - and though it shouldn't be confused with full-fledged Mexican restaurants such as La Tolteca, its use of well-above-par meats, tortillas, and vegetables should scare the bejeezus out of lower-end places like Mighty Taco and Taco Bell. If you have working taste buds, one visit is all it will take to help you understand why low-grade ground meats just don't pass muster any more for taco fans elsewhere in the country.
Chipotle's menu is streamlined to an extreme: you choose from one of three variations on the burrito, two types of tacos - each served three to an order - or a salad, then select a meat, included vegetables, and a salsa. Anything made with either marinated chicken breast or a vegetarian combination of guacamole and black beans at the core is $6.10, while anything made with steak, brisket-like barbacoa beef, or braised carnitas pork is $6.50. That's it: three tacos for $6.10 or $6.50 -- roughly $2 each -- or a big salad or crazy big burrito for either of the same prices. Chips are extra. Drinks are extra. You mightn't need them.
The relative simplicity of the menu enables Chipotle to offer an iPhone and iPod touch ordering app that we were able to test for today's order: the app lets you custom-configure each taco, burrito, or salad with the ingredients you like, add chips, salsa, and guacamole as sides, and even order drinks. Our order went in a little before the place opened for business and was ready for pickup a half hour later - you can set the pickup time yourself, pay the bill in advance, or do so when you arrive. A bummer: our loaded bag didn't include the drink we ordered with the iPhone app. Check your bag against your receipt before you leave.
How's the food? True taco and burrito connoisseurs aren't going to be blown away by anything here, but if your frame of reference is a low-end taco shop, we'd be surprised if you weren't at least a little impressed by the quality of the meat. The Barbacoa and Carnitas Tacos we ordered were full of soft, nicely marinated beef and pork, while the Steak Tacos and Burrito were packed with nice chunks of - you guessed it - actual steak. Not tiny little bits of steak, or charred grizzle, but bona-bide pieces of tender beef.
There were also no complaints about the vegetables we ordered, the four different salsas, each of which we tried this time, or the tortillas. To the contrary, the crispy-style tacos were surprisingly good, made with fresh, crunchy shells, and as spice fanatics, we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the sweet Roasted Chili-Corn salsa. The hotter salsas, one green chili, the other tomatillo red chili, were also good, but just as in California, they were too watery for our tastes: a little extra body from tomatoes, as in the mild Fresh Tomato salsa, would help.
In the grand scheme of things, Chipotle's arrival in Western New York isn't a huge deal: it's just one restaurant, one location, and yes, the meals it serves border on fast food. But it's indicative of an important broader trend in Tex-Mex places and the new generation of national chain restaurants, using higher quality ingredients as a distinguishing factor to win over customers raised on "cheap and greasy" alternatives. Putting the specifics of its execution aside for the moment - points we'll discuss in our full review - Chipotle surely deserves praise for helping to raise local taco and burrito standards. We'll have more to say, soon.
Updated January 17, 2010: There may be some debate over whether Chipotle is superior to or equivalent to its locally more established competitor Salsarita's, and the reasons are clear: from location to location, Salsarita's offers nicer dining rooms, a more impressive "cantina" bar, and food that at times looks even fresher and more diverse than Chipotle's. In fact, shrimp, fresh red onions, jalapenos, and other ingredients are individually available at Salsarita's, and either unavailable or mixed in with other items at Chipotle, which treats its taco-, salad-, and burrito-making process like an even more streamlined assembly line; the industrial, spartan look of the seating area in Chipotle may well appeal more to some people than others, as well.
But let there be no doubt: the quality and flavors of the meats and salsas used in assembling Chipotle's menu items are high enough that we'd never object to eating there; we're frankly thrilled to have a place that does barbacoa beef and marinated steak so well, offering such high-quality meat in tacos that are roughly $2 each when purchased in threes. The salads and burritos are similarly reasonably priced, and just as compelling as the tacos for those who are looking for higher proportions of vegetables or rice and beans. Each of the meals we've eaten at the Chipotle here have been like what we experienced in California: very good, reasonably priced Tex-Mex that's at least as well suited for takeout as for dining in - worthy of a three-star rating overall.