A scant four hours after I first learned on Monday that Chipotle Mexican Grill was “rolling out” a new vegan burrito in the Pacific Northwest, I grabbed a bottle of Valentina hot sauce from the fridge, wedged it in the front console of my Vespa and motored across the McKenzie River to scarf down one of the fast-food company’s latest hippie-friendly creations.
I did this not because I belong to the Cult of Chipotle, for reasons I can explain later (though I do have a friend who once drove 90 minutes round trip to get her fix, if that lends credibility to my writing on this subject).
No, I went to try out the new “Sofritas” burrito because my boss asked me to, because apparently we review burritos now and I am the burrito reviewer. Or maybe this was my trial run at being the new burrito reviewer, and maybe I’d better not screw it up.
By now you might be wondering why I brought that jar of Valentina with me, and it’s time to tell you, because it reveals the shameless journalistic bias I also carried into the only Chipotle in Eugene, Oregon.
I actually find Chipotle pretty meh. I know it’s a fast food burrito place like Qdoba or Baja Fresh and you don’t have to be a food snob to find any fast food to be meh, but the thing about Chipotle is that people go bonkers for the stuff, for its organic and sustainable ingredients. Sales are up. Revenue is up. The company plans to open between 165 and 180 new restaurants this year. Its stock price surged from $50 in 2009 to $400 last year. Yes, you can buy stock in burritos.
Me? I never got the hype. The food is fresh but boring. It’s maybe slightly better than Baja Fresh but I actually prefer Qdoba, which perhaps disqualifies me immediately from reviewing fast food burritos.
But the hot sauce? At Chipotle, there’s only one kind — I guess three kinds, technically, if you count that they stock three different kinds of Tabasco. What the hell is up with that? I hate Tabasco, and I need hot sauce on a burrito. I can’t have one more option? No Cholula? No Tapatio? No verde?
So if I was going to be forced to endure a Chipotle burrito — any Chipotle burrito — I was going to have to B.M.O.S. (Bring My Own Sauce). Maybe a Chipotle worker would ask me about it, and I could stand up on a table and give my little hot sauce speech for the world to hear. I mean seriously. Solamenté Tapatio, Chipotlé? Por qué? Qué pasa?!?!!
But enough about the dearth of hot sauce options. This vegan burrito, the Sofritas:
Right as I walked into the store on Monday night, a greeter smiled at me behind a plate of plastic cups filled with Sofritas. “Would you like to try our —” I cut her off. “That’s what I’m here for!” I said cheerily, and she looked kind of stunned that I already knew about Sofritas, and I strolled up to the counter smugly, ahead of the game.
“It’s really good,” said the dude, as he scooped up a scoopful of the diced chunks of seasoned tofu and spread it across a bed of cilantro rice and red beans.
“It better be,” I wanted to say but didn’t.
I took the first bite sin Valentina, just to get a pure sample.
Meh. Granted, the first bite of any burrito tends to include a disproportionate helping of tortilla, for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain to you, but it was dry and bland and boring, and I could not tell what was Sofritas bouncing around between my molars and what was shredded lettuce.
I dabbed on some Valentina, to see if that might improve the situation. It did, but only because I like Valentina. The Sofritas were (was?) fine—the consistency of scrambled eggs, the flavor of mildly spiced tofu—but they didn’t reach out and grab me, the way a killer pile of carnitas can. They don’t drip meat grease into the other attendees of this party in my mouth. As a flavor, Sofritas are like so many maddeningly polite drivers in Oregon small towns: “You go ahead. No you go ahead.”
How much of this opinion is colored by my existing Chipotle bias? Some, to be sure. What about a vegan bias, though? I bought my girlfriend a Sofritas burrito too—she’s a devoted cult of Chipotle follower—and she had pretty much the same reaction. Interestingly though, her first question while standing in line was, “Am I allowed to add cheese and sour cream?”
No, you are not. And as she munched on her dairy-free Sofritas burrito, she realized that as much as anything she was probably missing that stuff.
So maybe we find veganism bland, not just Chipotle’s version of it?
Except that’s not really accurate, either. Eugene is a city chock-full of great vegan food. There’s a tofu scramble at a little hippie joint called Morning Glory that I have naughty dreams about, and the Laughing Planet Cafe offers vegan burritos with tofu or tempeh I’d choose just as often as I would the kind with dead animals inside them.
So it’s not that I hate vegan food. I don’t even hate Chipotle, really. I just find their vegan burrito bland. Even with a healthy helping of my own hot sauce.