Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New Burrito Love, From Disappointment and Heartbreak...

If Hollywood made a film about my life in food, ala Julie and Julia, Qdoba would be the adversary that I was destined to fall in love with.  When I was a budding doctoral student in Orlando, my college’s student union had a local chain slinging the Mexican food: Baja Burrito.  They offered up amazing queso dip and exceptional burritos on a student meal budget, but the crown jewel of the store was their salsa bar—a spread of eight freshly made salsas, with fresh cilantro, sliced lemons and limes, and peppers.  After a few months, I was a regular. I had “my” own table, where I would write papers or grade student work over warm chips and salsa or queso dip.  Eventually, I could walk in and order with two words: the usual.

Then, without so much as a goodbye, it ended.  I walked into the student union in the summer of 2007, and waiting for me was my Dear John (or Dear Panda, if you wish) letter: CLOSED. THANKS FOR YOUR BUSINESS.  I was crushed.  That was it?  All those years at my table, staring out the window as I shoveled queso and salsa into my mouth with warm salted chips, and I couldn’t even take a farewell swing through the salsa bar?  Okay, so there was another Baja Burrito a few miles away, but aside from a 4:30pm drive down Orlando’s University Boulevard (when most of UCF’s work force starts leaving), where’s the dramatic tension in that beyond a close quarters commute with a bunch of other self important academics?  I was heartbroken that day.  I sat in the neighboring Subway, sulking over a sandwich.

The Baja location was promptly papered up, the hanging sign in the hallway came down, and the sounds of construction began to ring from the interior.  I stopped going to the student union for dinners.  It just didn’t feel the same after Baja.  I’ve known of people who will look for new partners almost exactly like their ex: similar builds, similar fashion choices, similar hair color or styles—some even try to recreate the ex by buying the new partner clothes, wigs, and hair styling services.  I couldn’t do that.  There would never be another Baja Burrito.  I needed a clean break.  Months later, I had one of those movie cliché moments again.  I was running late to campus.  I needed dinner, and I was at the mercy of the student union.  At that point in time, the union offered up national franchises like Wendys, Subway, and Sbarro.  I prepared to roll the culinary dice and turned the corner down what was once a familiar hallway, braced for what was in the space that I spent so many dinners at in the years before..

A Qdoba burrito.  Another Mexican restaurant.  Those bastards at the student union…how dare they do that?  Any other sort of food, I could have at least tolerated.  But to strike a Mexican restaurant down…my Mexican restaurant…and put up another one?  I once had a friend who had to spend three months training the gentleman to whom his job had just been outsourced.  Standing in that student union hallway, seeing the stylized Qdoba logo and cactus, I had a similar feeling of sheer violation.  But then, I looked further down the hall and saw the other fare, and suspended my prejudices.  A hungry fat man can be phenomenally forgiving when faced with a rumbling belly and three hours of lectures on curriculum theory.

I wanted to hate Qdoba, but I couldn’t.  Like the widower who moves on to another wife after a sufficient period of mourning, I soon found myself going to Qdoba on an increasingly regular basis.  When I decided to move from Orlando to North Caroilna, I soon found a Qdoba less than two miles from my home, and it became one of my transition restaurants as I settled the area.

Like most styles of fast food, there’s a rivalry in the big-burrito scene: Qdoba versus Chipotle.  Both offer similarly spiced and cooked meats, with a near parallel selection of salsas and toppings.  Both offer a moist style burrito as their main attraction and signature dish—a steamed tortilla wrapper with steamed rice, wet beans, and various toppings.  But like burgers, fried chicken, and sub sandwiches, both Qdoba and Chipotle both have ardent supporters who would just as soon go hungry rather than consume a competitor’s food.  I’ve found that Chipotle’s menu is utilitarian and simplistic: burritos, burrito bowls, and tacos.  Qdoba’s slightly expanded menu won me over, with not only additional food items like soups and quesadillas, but also specialty sauces for the burritos—namely, the ancho chile BBQ and poblano pesto sauces.

For the meal, I started with a tortilla soup—a robust broth with grilled chicken and tortilla chips thrown in.  The spicing in the soup is strong, but in a good way.  It’s very present (namely in that it leaves a nice heat behind well after being swallowed) blend of spices--led with chili powder and cumin that’s intense, but not overly intense for more sensitive palate--makes for a nice warm up for the meal's main attraction.  For the burrito, I went with the chicken poblano pesto burrito: the steamed tortilla with white rice and black beans, poblano pesto sauce, a blend of the mild salsa and corn salsa, along with shredded cheese, lettuce, and sour cream.  Freshly prepared, the burrito is a rush of flavors and senses, with the dual salsas complimenting the spiced chicken and poblano pesto sauce.  Meanwhile, the warmed meat, beans, and rice plays against the cold of the salsas, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream.  Unfortunately, the burrito was a bit rushed. There was some breakthrough (the one disadvantage to the steamed tortillas) on my burrito

Moe’s Southwest Grill, Chipotle, Qdoba—they’re really all the same restaurant concept: fast-food style burritos that try to step a bit above Taco Bell fare. But I feel like I need to add a few notes about my preference for Qdoba.  First, the steamed tortillas really do add to the unique taste of the burrito—even if they can make the final product a but more fragile.   I’ve eaten at other restaurants that don’t steam the tortillas, and the final product has a different taste to it, a bit tougher to chew.  Secondly, the sauces that Qdoba offers up play well into the base favors of the burritos.  The ancho chile sauce is a sophisticated mix of sweetness with southwestern spices and a southern smoke.  The poblano pesto, meanwhile, has a subtle heat that plays against nuts and cilantro.  In a recession economy, Qdoba’s customer loyalty program is also a nice plus—offering an entrée up after purchasing ten.  Also, the North Carolina chains supposedly have rainy day buy-one-get-one coupons sent out over email, but I’ve yet to see one personally.  Regardless, as restaurants like Moe’s, Chipotle, and Qdoba try to make the big burrito the new burger, Qdoba’s expanded menu, flavorful sauces (seriously, the poblano pesto alone is worth the drive), and recession-friendly incentives make them the clear winner when I’m in the mood for Mexican food that’s fast, but not fast food quality.

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