In America, we have a long and storied tradition of great corporate rivalries, especially in the food and drink sector. Generally, the best part about these battles is watching them unfold from the comfort of your couch. Those of us who enjoy watching scantily clad women jump around as chimpanzees kick unsuspecting people in the nuts have benefited greatly from the Miller vs. Budweiser duel, which has generated more ridiculous (not in the good way, which is spelled ridikalus) commercials than any rivalry. For the slightly higher-brow among us there has been the McDonalds vs. Burger King war. Burger King’s weapon of choice: The King, whose goofy smile and shenanigans have kept me entertained for many a 30 sec clip (for those interested, “The King” was the brainchild of the much lauded ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky). McDonald’s weapon: Close ups of their fries, which grace most commercials even if just ever so briefly. But that brief moment is all it takes, because those fries are ADDICTIVE, my guess being that they are seasoned with 7 parts salt, 2 parts crack rock, and a pinch of meth (these are ballpark estimates). And of course, what’s more American than back to back Coke and Pepsi commercials during the Superbowl? There is a new battle, though, one that isn’t being fought on the tube, but on the streets. Yes, I’m referring to the fast-casual Mexican food battle royale that is Qdoba vs. Chipotle.
All the aforementioned battles were duked out by corporations pumping tens of millions of dollars into broadcast advertising every year, in an attempt to sway enough opinions to beat the other guy. The brilliance of this battle royale is that it is fought not by ad agencies but by foot soldiers, delirious Don Quixotes who would ride to the end of the Earth to fight for the honor of their beloved Chiptole…or Qdoba. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask any friend who dines frequently at one of the two establishments which one is better, and wait; their eyes will start glowing and then a diatribe of hate for their rival will rain down on you. But which one IS better? Surely there has to be a victor in all this. I will spell it all out for you, so you can make an informed decision, and if you’re lucky, I may even tell you who, if any, (didn’t see that one coming?) I pick as the champion of the Fast – Casual Mexican food showdown.
Here are the relevant factors, laid out in escalating importance. One thing that some fast-casual diners consider is convenience. Both places have been consistent and fast in my experience, and the number of locations seems to be regionally variable, but both chains are expanding. The bottom line is they’re fast food, fast is in the fucking description. Another less important factor is the atmosphere / décor, as a lot of diners will end up taking their food home. Chipotle’s roll with metal tables and a darker, modern, industrial look. Qdoba’s are all decked out in yellow, with light wood tables. I have to give Qdoba the edge for a more inviting atmosphere to slip into a burrito induced food-coma.
Now for some categories that matter. First, the menu. Both feature a pretty similar menu, but then again, all Mexican food is the same (meat / beans + cheese + tortilla = taco / burrito / enchiladas / tostada / taquito…the list goes on). Both made their names building burritos where you start with cilantro-lime rice, chose black or pinto beans, chose your meat, salsas, and cheese or sour cream. It’s literally the same. They even both officially call their rice “cilantro-lime rice”. Chipotle’s other options include tacos, a salad, or a Burrito Bowl (tortilla-less burrito). Qdoba gets fancy by adding the tortilla soup, nachos, quesadillas, breakfast, and the all – too -important queso sauce to the list, on top of calling their tortilla-less burritos a far cooler name (Naked Burrito!). As queso sauce is the spice of life, I have to give it to Qdoba again, especially as Chipotle could similarly expand their menu without adding any ingredients. They have tortilla chips and cheese already, so why can’t I order nachos? I don’t know, I’m not a doctor, but it doesn’t add up to me. The last category is one that is near and dear to my heart, and it is quality of ingredients. These ‘fast-casual restaurants’ claim to offer the convenience of fast food and the quality of a sit down establishment. Well, they’re definitely half-right at least. Both places use ‘fresh’ ingredients, in that almost everything is prepared on site, not at a central location and shipped out to individual chains. That doesn’t mean it’s actually fresh however. I give you Qdoba’s guac as exhibit A. That stuff tastes like packaged guac, so who cares if it’s fresh, it has the consistency of doo-doo butter. Chipotle fares much better in the guac department, but still can’t bang with the good stuff Mama Densen makes every time I go home. I do like watching the meat get grilled and sliced at Qdoba, it’s a visual guarantee on their part, but Chipotle has a little edge in my opinion. Maybe it’s because they keep it simpler, or maybe they’re truly more committed to quality, but either way they snag the all-important win. So what’s the deal, which place will I crown?
I wish I could say “neither” was my choice because my palate wouldn’t allow me to eat at either place. But alas, it is not so. In fact, with both chains boasting a location within a five minute walk of my apartment, I happen to eat a LOT of fast casual Mexican. Right now I actually have a pretty bad case of the shakes, which means it’s time to get my fix… of Qdoba’s queso-crack sauce (they took a page out of McDonald’s book, and added crack as a seasoning). Both places are decent at minimum, but for me, Qdoba is markedly better. Here’s what I am going to get there right now:
Chicken Queso Burrito
- light on the rice
- black beans
- grilled peppers
- onions (extra $)
- pico de gallo
- corn salsa
- habanero salsa
- shredded cheese