For around three years of my life, I ate at Chipotle with absurd frequency. Part of the reason why was that it was one of the only safe restaurants I was aware of, and I felt (and still feel) entirely comfortable eating there—but I also just liked the food. A lot. It was my go-to lunch, my go-to after-school “snack,” and my go-to travel food. Once, I spent two weeks in Michigan and ate at Chipotle for almost every single meal, breakfasts included. I’m past that stage now—I’m way less phobic about eating out with my allergy, at least—but I just realized that I’d never written about Chipotle, so I figured I should.
For those with nut allergies, Chipotle’s a pretty safe option. According to this page on their website, there are no (intentional) eggs, mustard, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish, or fish in any of Chipotle’s food. (Of course, they don’t guarantee that their food is 100% free from trace amounts of any of the above, but a lack of nuts on-site is generally good enough for me.) Plus, if you’re into Food with Integrity, Chipotle has you covered; their meat comes from pasture-raised animals, and they’re very into their commitment to “real” (i.e. farm-sourced, organic, and/or non-GMO) ingredients.
But enough about all that. (Seriously. Enough.) For me—and for most, I assume—Chipotle’s real appeal lies in its unusual mix of ubiquity and food quality. These days, Chipotle is about as common as McDonald’s (not really, though it does often feel that way; McDonald’s has, like, 36,000 locations to Chipotle’s 2,000-ish). But Chipotle’s food is actually pretty good, which is practically unheard of for a chain of its size. It’s omnipresent enough to be dependable, but it won’t leave you feeling sick. And that is why I spent so long eating so much Chipotle.
I should probably explain, then, why I’ve slowed my Chipotle consumption to a measly once a month, if that.
It all started with Chipotle’s 2015 E. coli outbreak—but it’s not what you think. I never got sick from their food, nor did I stop eating there out of fear of falling ill. But after the outbreak (which followed outbreaks of norovirus and Salmonella, and which did a lot to sully Chipotle’s wholesome image), the chain made a bunch of changes in the name of safety.
Among those changes was a shift to the use of central kitchens to allow for frequent ingredient-testing. Cheese now arrives pre-shredded, a bunch of ingredients (tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, peppers, etc.) now arrive pre-chopped, and steak now arrives pre-cooked. Onions don’t arrive pre-chopped, but they’re now blanched before use, along with lemons, limes, jalapeños, and avocados—and all of the above (aside from lemons and limes) are now marinated in citrus juice before they’re used in anything else.
Now, none of those changes have made much of a difference—except for the switch to pre-cooked steak, which is the sole reason I’ve become so disillusioned. Chipotle offers six protein bases: steak, carnitas, chicken, barbacoa, chorizo, and sofritas. I’ve only ever been able to get into the steak, and I’ve always been silently skeptical of anyone who swears by any of the other options. The carnitas are bland, and both they and the barbacoa are mushy as hell. The chicken’s dry, and the chorizo might as well be ground chicken, flavor-wise. Sofritas are vegetarian, and I’m heavy into meat. That’s left me with steak.
I never minded, though. I loved the steak, in all its medium-rare glory. On a good day, it was juicy, soft, and bursting with flavor—never dry, never crusty, and hardly ever overcooked. Now, the steak is cooked sous-vide, cooled, and then shipped to Chipotles everywhere for marinating and further cooking on the grill, and for whatever reason, this process never seems to end well. These days, Chipotle’s steak is almost always dry, tough, and bland. On its best days, it’s just a little overcooked—but usually, it’s inedible.
Before the outbreak, I had my order down pat: a steak burrito with white rice, fajita vegetables, chili-corn salsa, sour cream, cheese, and lettuce—or a bowl with the same ingredients, with their (free!) honey vinaigrette drizzled on top and a (free!) warm tortilla on the side. But without good steak, my order falls apart. I tried switching to carnitas. I tried switching to chicken. When they introduced chorizo, I tried switching to chorizo—but it just wasn’t happening, so I gave up. Perhaps the steak will improve. Perhaps the grillers will get used to grilling pre-cooked steak, and perhaps it’ll start tasting better.
In the meantime, Chipotle has done a lot to un-tarnish its reputation. They’ve given out free burritos, introduced a summer rewards program (Chiptopia), and released an animated short—but if you ask me (and why would you?), their customer base, fickle as any other, will have no reason to return until the food’s good again. For me, at least, it isn’t about E. coli; it’s about the food, and the food’s demonstrably worse.
But even if the steak never gets better, I’ll probably never get fully clean. Chipotle’s too big, too easy, too dependable for me to remove it from my repertoire. So I guess I’ll just continue to eat their food on occasion, taking every chance I get to talk about my dissatisfaction with their new steak, promising myself, with fresh conviction each time, that this will be my last Chipotle meal, that I won’t be back.
But let’s not kid ourselves.