When I first heard that Chipotle was changing its menu — running out the first new board the operation has seen since setting down roots in Denver some fifteen years ago — I refused to take it seriously. The second time, I laughed at the person who insisted that Chipotle — which has never been anything but dependable, and dependably set in its ways — was striking out in bold (and rather economy-driven) new directions.
But then I got the news straight from the horse's mouth — or at least the mouth of Chris Arnold, who handles marketing, promotions and general rumormongering for Chipotle. He told me that what I'd heard was true: Within a week or so, Chipotle locations across Denver would be rolling out a reorganized menu (with single tacos, à la carte options and a kids' menu) with a few additions: pozole, new bowls. And the restaurant would also introduce a few innovations that, at an indomitable rock of changelessness like Chipotle, sounded roughly tantamount to McDonald's adding a sashimi Extra Value Meal.
So of course, I immediately ran out last week to hit my neighborhood Chipotle. And although I've always loved the place, I wasn't altogether pleased with the changes. To start with, the staff seemed completely dumbfounded as to how to assemble the new dishes. Each one I ordered inspired a conference behind the counter between cooks and management, and generally a step-by-step listing of what, exactly, was supposed to go into my Carnitavore bowl or cup of chicken pozole. And while that might have been fine (it had only been a week or so since the new menu debuted), the trouble didn't stop there. The cilantro-lime rice — always a part of any Chipotle experience for me — tasted different, and not in a good way. It was too heavy on the cilantro and lighter on the lime. And the pozole wasn't pozole at all, but some kind of thick and lukewarm tomatillo stew, chunked out with over-cooked (and therefore over-soft) hominy, poured over rice and topped with the standard taco chicken. It was interesting for one bite, confusing for two, tolerable for three, and after that I (sigh...) threw it away — something I've never done with anything from Chipotle before.
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The à la carte tacos were a good addition, though. And the kids' meal (yes, they looked at me funny) was a nice thought: basically a DIY taco-creation kit for easily distracted children (or restaurant critics).
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Still, I can't quite forgive that pozole. It's not going to keep me away forever, but for the next few weeks, I'm going to be spending more time at Tocabe, while I give the Chipotle crew time to get their heads around this brave new world they've stepped into.