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Chain links

Right there, in a glass case just as you walk up to the counter at Chipotle Mexican Grill on McKinney Avenue is a T-shirt (for sale) with a clever maxim. "Usually, when you roll something this good, it's illegal," it says. This statement refers to Chipotle's massive 20-ounce burritos, which are about the size and shape of a sleeping bag. This statement is interesting, especially considering Chipotle's history.

Denver entrepreneur Steve Ells dreamed up Chipotle in 1993. Ells is a Culinary Institute of America grad who has cooked at Stars in San Francisco under onetime megawatt celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower. So it might seem strange that with all of that froufrou food background Ells would decide to focus his culinary energies on burritos and tacos shoveled from a stark haunt resembling a stylized tool shed.

Even more fascinating is how Ells was able to snag the attention of McDonald's Corp. Back in 1998, he pried open the company's longstanding aversion to acquisitions by partnering with the $33 billion burger behemoth, striking a deal making the company a minority partner in his little chain for a reported $10 million. That stake was boosted to 51 percent late last year, and plans are under way to rapidly expand to 100 units by the end of this year from the current 30-plus.

Info

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Two Dallas locations: 2705 McKinney Avenue, (214) 871-3100 and 8301 Westchester, Preston Center, (214) 691-7755.

Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

$

Maybe this is signaling a lunge into edginess for the burger company, which in recent years has seen its share of the burger market turn as flat as one of its meat patties. Still, it's a little odd to see the company of Ronald McDonald and the Happy Meal trumpet the goodness of illegal rolls in one of its newest ventures. Then again, maybe it isn't.

Named after the toasted and smoked jalapeño pepper, Chipotle boasts that it uses no microwaves, freezers, or can openers in the kitchen where it prepares its gourmet burritos and tacos. Ells says he got the idea for his burrito outlet from the taquerias in San Francisco's Mission District, places that often ply burritos the size of dreams dancing in the heads of men who never bought the old line "size doesn't matter."

These fat food rolls are mostly good. They'd be even better if the cooks could figure out how to keep the freshly steamed flour tortillas from turning into gummy sheaths once they're rolled in foil. Burritos come in four varieties: steak ($4.95), chicken ($4.75), carnitas (pork, $4.65), and vegetarian ($4.55). They're stuffed with cilantro-lime rice, sour cream, fresh grated cheese, and your choice of pinto or black beans. There's a choice of salsas: hot tomatillo and red chili, medium heat chili corn, and mild tomato.

There is also a fat-roll variety called fajita burritos, whose only difference from the aforementioned tubes is the choice of red bell pepper and onion instead of beans. Another version is the barbacoa ($5.25), a roll with shredded beef braised with chipotle peppers, cumin, garlic, and cloves. With that roster of braising components, you'd expect the thing to be a bit zestier.

Tacos ($4.55-$4.85) come in trios with a choice of soft or crispy shells. Unlike the gummy burrito wraps, the soft tacos are firm and supple while the crispy shells are fresh, brittle, and rich in corn flavor. In contrast, the house-prepped, kosher-salted chips served with guacamole ($1.65) were stale on one visit, though the guacamole was bright green, smooth, and tasty.

Of the meats, the pork was by far the tastiest and most consistent. Chicken leaned toward dryness more often than not while the beef tended to be tough and leathery, though it could also be rich and juicy.

Chipotle corporate propaganda boasts that its interior design earned an achievement award from the Denver Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, but all of the birch-veneered plywood, smooth sheet metal, and corrugated steel made the to-go option seem far more appealing -- which the food is, for the most part. And unlike the illegal variety, a fat Chipotle roll won't give you a bad case of the munchies.

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