Complaint Desk

Out Of Order: The Chipotle "Ensalada de Meat Four Ways"

Each week Out Of Order challenges restaurants to defend their dishes against someone trying desperately to mess things up. We hope to find a few who say the customer isn't always right.

Ensalada de Meat Four Ways
Bowl of lettuce with chicken, barbacoa, carnitas and steak with jalapeño Tabasco sauce.

I was all set to head out to a diner -- someplace with a catch-all menu just begging for a remix --  when some coworkers asked if I wanted to come to Chipotle.

My first instinct was to go it alone, reprise my weekly one-man idiots convention, and concoct some truly unholy marriage of the menu as I'd planned.

But then someone said "barbacoa," and that was it for plan A. Besides, there'd have to be some way to get creative with the Chiptole menu. There had to be something behind that counter that didn't belong with everything else.

"Why not just a big bowl full of meat?" someone suggested, and you'd be hard-pressed to find fault with an idea like that.

One way or another, I was committed to have some fun with the new plan. Anyone could order gravy on their key lime pie, but making trouble at an all-business burrito chain? This would be a challenge. Hanging above all the corrugated metal, and the artsy photos of their chairs and stools, Chipotle may well have successfully crafted a menu that, if a little basic, is completely idiot-proof.

From my first glance at the middle menu board, I should have known Chipotle was ready for somebody like me. Above the choices like steak, chicken and carnitas -- where the menu heading should have read "Choose your burrito," or "Meats" -- was a translation from everyday grown-up English into language that seemed written for customers who'd just been hit in the head as they walked in. The menu heading is: "What goes inside."

Up until yesterday, a trip to the burrito shop has always meant choosing between barbacoa, steak, chicken or carnitas -- "Only One Thing Goes Inside" being the presumptive law of Chipotle -- so I liked the idea of asking the workers to mix the meat together.

Thanks to years of influence from no-tortilla carbohaters, getting the meat in a bowl was no problem. I also asked the first burrito-maker to line the paper bowl with some shredded greens; lunch today would be a meat salad, like a fruit salad but for animals.

Behind the counter, the lettuce-grabber passed my bowl to the meat-scooper. This would be the only challenging part of the order, but it all happened so fast. "What meat?" the counter worker asked, and I told him chicken. And barbacoa too. And a little steak, too, if that's OK. He dutifully scooped the meat, one after the next, as I pointed.

There wasn't much of a line behind me, but I could tell my order was upsetting the usual burrito rhythm. As the meat pile grew, the next one in the factory line -- the woman who adds the condiments -- looked antsy. After three meats she was about to grab my bowl, when I suggested adding some carnitas to the mix. The condiments woman tried to put her foot down.

"So, double meat? That's extra," she said. I gave her a conciliatory nod, but we both knew she wasn't the one in front of the carnitas tub holding a scoop. "Just a little," I suggested to the meat man.

From there, I hoped some miracle topping would appear behind the counter to give the salad even a slight gross-out edge, but, much as she probably wanted to, the condiment lady could do no worse than add a scoop of sour cream. Even the house salad dressing, chipotle-honey vinaigrette, worked fine.

As I sat down at the table with my salad, my lunch companions were underwhelmed. "That doesn't look so bad at all," one said, and he was right. I was torn. Dousing the pile with hot sauce, I was glad to have talked my way into getting the meat combo, and for once, here was an off-menu lunch that I looked forward to eating.

But I felt like I should've done much worse to the menu at a chain like Chipotle, where nobody behind the counter was about to stop me. I'd gotten just what I asked for, but it was all on Chipotle's terms. This time, the idiots lost.

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels