When we heard that Chipotle was testing some new items at its location at 371 East Alameda Avenue, we leapt for joy, shouting, "Pride of our city! Purveyor of aggressively decent burritos all across our land! Expanding its menu! Huzzah!"
Then we found out what those items were: a new "Garden Blend" -- a vegan faux meat made by Gardein -- and brown rice.
We tend to be skeptical of pretend meat, and we feared that the nutty flavor of brown rice would clash with the other, more traditional burrito ingredients, but we decided we'd better give these new items a try anyway.
The Garden Blend isn't on the official menu -- a small sign at the far end of the counter announces its availability -- and the brown rice isn't advertised at all; the person behind the counter just asks if you want white or brown rice.
The Garden Blend, a combination of soy protein, wheat gluten and grains, was clearly formulated to approximate chicken, which it does fairly well. It's white, and even has something close to the fibrous construction of muscle tissue. It's spongier than real meat, and doesn't taste like much of anything other than the adobo rub -- but then, neither does chicken breast. Chipotle should have given tempeh a shot instead; it's far less processed, has a unique texture and intrinsic flavor, and takes really well to rubs and marinades.
The brown rice fared much better; its chewier texture added a not-unpleasant new dimension to the familiar interplay of burrito fillings, the flavor was unobtrusive, and at least it added some nutritional value to the burrito's 800-plus calories.
The verdict: The brown rice was a winner, but given the choice between the Garden Blend and the combination of the perfectly acceptable vegetarian protein Chipotle already offers -- black beans -- and free guacamole and fajita vegetables, we'll stick with the latter.
According to Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold, the homegrown chain began testing the Garden Blend at this and a few other locations across the country about a year ago, and it is now available at one spot in New York City, one outlet in Washington, D.C., and all of the locations in the greater L.A. area. The Alameda and Logan location is still the only place you can get it in Denver.
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The brown rice is a much more limited test: Arnold says it's being tested at one location each in Manhattan and London in addition to Denver. Chipotle tried it here a few years ago but decided it didn't work.
Arnold can't say much about the future of the Garden Blend or the brown rice: "We haven't decided how long these tests will continue, when, where or to what extent they will expand, or what will happen next."
So if you're trying to cut back on the meat but still want something meatish in your burritos, or if you've always felt that brown rice would be the one thing that would elevate your Chipotle feast from mostly okay to really transcendentally okay, get yourself on over to Alameda and Logan and try these items while you still can. And let us know what you think.