Few foods are quite so perfect as the burrito, and while I generally bemoan the proliferation of chain stores, both in my neighborhood and in general, I must confess a certain amount of satisfaction—nay, elation—that there are now three burrito ‘n’ taco based, good quality, counter service joints within walking distance of Polytropos HQ. It is truly a fine state of affairs. The only trouble is deciding which one I like best.
Let’s acknowledge first of all that the very best burritos are likely to be found at a little independent joint. Indeed, it was sublime, truly transporting experiences at holes-in-the-wall in Tampa and San Francisco years ago that kicked off my love affair with the burrito in the first place. For my purposes, though, here are the contenders:
Baja Fresh—Nationwide chain; a good baseline for these sorts of places.
California Tortilla—Local chain; similar menu to Baja Fresh; deliberately tries to foster a fun-loving atmosphere, which can be good or bad, depending.
Chipotle—Nationwide chain, McDonald’s-owned; Subway-style counter service instead of take-a-number; spare, no-nonsense menu; froofroo decor.
(Qdoba is conspicuously absent; I’m aware that it also fits in this vein, but there’s not one nearby and I actually haven’t eaten at one yet.)
Let’s see how they stack up across the categories:
Decor and Service—Baja Fresh is the clear loser when it comes to decor; their black, white, and red checkered motif is very open, but feels too much like a cafeteria. Chipotle hired some architect to design all their fixtures in earthtones and corrugated metal—it gets points for originality, but is just a tad too pretentious and austere. The edge goes to California Tortilla—they’re on the borderline for “too busy,” but their boldly-painted walls (in reds and oranges) feel warm and . . . zesty, I guess. Plus the look ties in nicely with their whole hot sauce motif (more on that below). When it comes to service, take-a-number is definitely the way to go, and California Tortilla has the advantage over Baja Fresh on friendliness and general competence—perhaps because they’ve just opened. Gold: California Tortilla. Silver: Chipotle. Bronze: Baja Fresh.
Price—Baja Fresh is the clear loser here as well. Their burritos automatically come with a side of chips, for which they tack on an extra dollar compared to the other two places. I don’t want those chips, and yet, I usually eat them anyway, creating a dangerous mix of resentment at the price and guilt stemming from lack of self-control. Not plesasant. California Tortilla and Chipotle are nearly identical in price, and while this is a more impressive accomplishment for CT given its larger, more diverse menu, for our purposes the two are tied. Gold/Silver split: California Tortilla & Chipotle. Bronze: Baja Fresh.
Ancillary Food Considerations—Baja Fresh has a nice little “Bowls of Salsa” bar with a few different choices depending on mood, and standard drink choices. You can’t get beer there, though, and you can at the other two. Chip quality, while important for some, doesn’t come into play here, since I rarely order them. But California Tortilla cinches the gold again thanks to its Wall of Flame: a shelf with literally dozens of hot sauces. Their house sauce is also very good. Silver/Bronze split for Baja Fresh & Chipotle.
The Burrito—This is, of course, the category that trumps all others. My tastes are particular: I prefer my burrito with rice, onions, and peppers, but no beans—this means a ‘fajita’ burrito at Chipotle and California Tortilla, and the Burrito Ultimo at Baja Fresh. This is a category where Baja Fresh finally shines—they grill the tortilla a little, which keeps the contents nice and hot and lends some texture as well. It’s an all-around good meal, too. California Tortilla’s burritos have the best meat of all three. I’ve only tried chicken so far, but it’s been quite fine and their blackened chicken is even better. Their fajita burrito loses points, though, for containing disproportionate amounts of unremarkable rice. And as for Chipotle—there’s an ineffable something about their burritos that sets them apart from the others. One of the best things about them is that their rice is made with some secret ingredient (probably “extra butter”) that makes it taste really good all by itself. Their veggies aren’t quite as good as the other two, but their habanero salsa is to die for. And when it comes down to it, the rice factor is tremendously important, because it means that nothing counts as filler in a Chipotle burrito. It’s all good, and you get the sense that you could remove any one ingredient and it would still be tasty. Set against it, though, is the infamous “clumping” downside. They just layer the ingredients on top of each other as they make the burritos, conveyor-belt style, so there’s always a few bites that are heavily weighted toward one ingredient or another. I know this is a deal-breaker for some, but I’ve never minded it enough to be a significant factor. Medals: too close to call.
Taking all factors into account, Baja Fresh, despite its very tasty burrito, comes in third. A single factor—that unremarkable rice—keeps California Tortilla from the number one spot. But as it is, Chipotle is the overall winner, with its unforgettable, quirky burrito at an excellent price. There may be a sentimental bias at play here, since I’ve been enjoying Chipotle for a couple years, and the other two are recent arrivals to the neighborhood. Practically speaking, California Tortilla is probably going to get the most business from me, because they’re literally three blocks away. I like the idea of supporting a local chain, too, so I’m hoping that as this new location gets its act together, they’ll keep getting better.
I would love to address the larger question of the best burrito in Washington DC, and perhaps will, after a bit more research. Recommendations are welcome!
UPDATE: Another visit to California Tortilla last night has introduced a few more pros and cons. Their selection of fountain drinks is poor—no unsweetened iced tea, no Dr. Pepper. And their fajita burrito is definitely third place in my mind now. But their chips and queso is really quite excellent on the side—the ‘small’ version comes with a generous helping of both. Even better, you can order a fountain drink and one of the chips sides as a combo for only 25 cents or so more than the chips by themselves. At last: a combo deal that actually consists of a considerable discount, and that doesn’t force you to buy the combo in order to get a decent price on your main dish. It’s a deal that’s an actual deal, not a gimmick, and that’s refreshing.