Have I Told You Lately How Much I Love Chipotle?

I won’t lie to you. Chipotle is a weird operation. And I was aware of its existence long before I actually tried it. But now having tried real food in Chipotle’s revolutionary fast-food context, I know there is no going back to the crap the passes as lunch at any other national chain restaurant.

My love affair with Chipotle began, innocently enough after listening to a recording of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” on one of my three-hour trips back and forth between Birmingham and Atlanta. The message of author Michael Pollan really resonated with me, especially given my upbringing in a farming family. I remembered what real food used to taste like and, post-Pollan, finally got why the stuff I ate after leaving home was never, ever as good.

After that, my husband and I did everything we could to identify sources of locally-raised and/or organic food. We learned that “organic” isn’t the end of the inquiry, especially when it comes to animal products, like beef, pork, chickens, and food produced from their milk or eggs.

One day, my husband mentioned Chipotle to me. He told me, even though it was a chain, the founder, Steve Ells, was some kind of fanatic who had figured out a way to bring locally-sourced food into a fast food context.

“No way,” my skeptical mind objected. “Mexican fast food? Like Taco Bell?” As it turns out, the answer is “yes” to the first question; and to the second, “perish the thought!”

Then, I watched THE video.

Then, I visited my nearby Chipotle.

What a revelation!

The organic, modern décor certainly was unexpected. Wood and corrugated metal are the predominant design materials, but rather than looking like an old shed, it looks like a really nice place to eat—down to the corrugated relief of a South American native on the wall and the stainless steel topped tables.

Meticulously clean but not aseptic; standardized yet unique, the ambiance underscored similar ideas I found incorporated into the food. Each store obtains its meat and produce from local farms and ranches. Therefore, the precise flavor of the carnitas in different locations may vary slightly, but the way in which it is prepared is the same. (And it is prepared entirely on site in the open kitchen at the back of the store.) And it is fabulous.

According to a message on one of the cups, Chipotle’s apparently simple menu conceals something like 66,000 unique combinations of ingredients. But I usually get the same delicious thing—a carnitas bowl with no rice, small amount of black beans, peppers, hot and mild salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole (yes, I know there is a small up charge), and lettuce.

To place my order, I talk directly to the person building the bowl, and I get to see what is in each bin from which each ingredient is removed through a glass barrier before committing. And none of the food is ever not perfect. In fact, nothing is ever not perfect—from the restrooms to the drink station.

Even the “tap” water served from beneath the Minute Maid Lemonade spigot tastes like good water, and not some horrible chemically-tainted liquid found in far too many restaurants. That’s because they actually clean the fountain nozzles on a regular basis. If every restaurant did that, I wouldn’t live in fear of ordering ice “water”! (Strange phobia, I know. Whatever.)

Bottom line is Chipotle has done what I heretofore thought impossible: fresh fabulous fast real food served in a warm, relaxing environment where you can actually look forward to eating. If you haven’t tried it, you simply haven’t lived. Vive la difference!

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