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Is Chipotle the Future of Fast Food?

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First appeared on Food Riot, by Susie Rodarme

The first time someone told me about Piada Italian Street Food, a local Columbus chain (potentially ripped off inspired by NYC's Piada, which had opened the previous year), they described it as "Italian Chipotle." The "piada," the signature dish of the chain, is a lot like a burrito -- "but, you know, Italian," made with flatbread and pasta instead of a tortilla and rice.

I didn't go to Piada ISF for years because I thought the whole concept sounded stupid. An Italian burrito? Pfft.

Of course, when I finally went, it became my new favorite fast food. Just like Chipotle, you get to pick from a variety of ingredients that seem a lot fresher than the stuff you can get at other chains; instead of frozen burger patties and who-even-knows taco meat, you can get meats that were prepared in-house, greens that don't look like they're on their way out the door, sauteed zucchini and peppers. If you don't want it in piada form, you can get a salad or pasta bowl, analogous to Chipotle's burrito bowls.

I watched a special about Chipotle on Netflix, and the founder said that the beauty of their concept is that you can translate it from Mexican-ish food to just about any kind of food; considering there's not just Italian Chipotle but also now " Asian Chipotle " (actually owned by Chipotle), "Korean Chipotle", and a "Greek Chipotle", among surely others, I think he might be onto something.

Of course, you could say that their concept isn't exactly ground-breaking; Subway has been offering the build-it-yourself menu for ages now. The difference Chipotle made, other than riffing off of Mexican food instead of delis, was a smart one, though: instead of offering a mountain of processed lunch meats with peaky-looking vegetables, they actually cook food. I'm not living in a dream-world where someone's abuela is up at pre-dawn every morning getting the beans ready for the days' service, but the kind of radical thing about Chipotle is that if you order a beef and bean burrito, you get... beef and beans. The tortillas have some preservatives, but most menu items are made with the actual ingredient, plus the kind of stuff you'd use at home for flavoring -- herbs, spices, citrus.

Here, let's contrast: This is what is in Chipotle's pinto beans:

"Pinto Beans , Water, Yellow Onion, Chipotle Chile, Rice Bran Oil, Cumin, Garlic, Oregano, Black pepper, Bay Leaf, Salt, Citrus Juice, Kosher Salt"

And this is what is in Taco Bell's pinto beans:

"Pinto Beans, Soy Oil (Trans Fat Free Shortening With TBHQ And Citric Acid To Protect Flavor), Seasoning Blend (Salt, Sugar, Spice, Beet Powder [Color], Autolyzed Yeast Extract (Contains Gluten), Sunflower Oil, Maltodextrin [Corn, Potato, Tapioca], Inactivated Yeast, Corn Flour, Natural Flavors, Trehalose, Modified Corn Starch And Less Than 2% Silicone Dioxide As A Processing Aid). CONTAINS: GLUTEN"

I'm not trying to say that Taco Bell's beans are dangerous Frankenbeans. I've learned a couple of things over the years about fast food production, though, and one of the things I've learned is that a lot of the stuff they add to food, they add because they have to make it palatable. I would rather have the beans cooked from ingredients that just, y'know, taste good in the first place.

My only beef with Chipotle-style restaurants is the portion sizes. They baffle me; here are places that serve real food, which puts them leagues ahead of other fast food places in terms of quality, and then they serve you a becoming-frighteningly-standard 1000+ calorie meal. I just, I don't need or want to eat that much; based on the jokes that go around about what eating Chipotle does to your digestive system, I think maybe I am not alone in this.

Otherwise, though? I am ready to welcome our new fast food overlords. More like Chipotle, less like Mickey D's and friends, please. If their company growth keeps trending upward, I think we'll see a shift in the industry as a whole -- there's already talk of McDonald's going to a more Chipotle-style menu, but if they don't up the ingredient quality, I think they're missing the point.

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