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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Chipotle Mexican Grill
1551 Valley West Drive, Suite 224
West Des Moines
Daily 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle Mexican Grill opened its first store in Greater Des Moines last month promising “fast food with integrity.” Cynical journalists such as I usually begin salivating when industrialists make such claims. With the impression that Chipotle was owned by McDonald’s, I attended their grand opening to investigate their definition of integrity. My cynicism, however, began to unravel when I learned that Chipotle has repurchased all of its stock that McDonald’s once owned. I also found out that Chipotle is a freak among fast food companies. CEO Steve Ells is a chef, trained on the line at San Francisco’s Stars. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, not the Harvard School of Business. At their West Des Moines opening, the VIP guests were mostly Iowa farmers who raise products for the restaurant. Some had familiar faces that had been featured in a national media campaign. Duane Dorenkamp looks like a Grant Wood character in a tractor cap. He became as well known on east coast billboards as Subway’s Jared was here.

The message attached to that advertising campaign was “Eat a burrito, save a family farm. “When the company switched to free ranged pork, they had to raise the price of a pork burrito by $1, yet sales increased. According to Chipotle, every time they open a new store the added demand creates a market for at least one new farmer in their supply chain. That chain is composed solely of companies committed to sustainable agriculture and animal welfare. Niman Pork head Paul Willis said that when his company first supplied pork shoulders to Chipotle, more than half of his hog farmers were from Iowa. To keep up with the growing demand for free ranged pigs, he has expanded into other states. Willis said that Iowa farmers still supply 20 percent of Chipotle pork.

The new store also served naturally raised, antibiotic-free beef and chicken, hormone-free sour cream, cheese made with vegetarian rennet and organic beans. That conscientious behavior put me in a good mood to enjoy their food. So did their choice of appropriate cuts of meat for their burritos, bowls and tacos — pork shoulders (in thyme, juniper berries, black pepper and bay leaf), beef shoulders (in an adobo of cumin, chipotle, cloves, garlic and oregano) and chicken thighs (marinated in chipotle adobo). The rest of the menu included vegetarian black beans, non-vegetarian pintos, vegetarian guacamole, grilled steak fajitas, sweet pepper and onion fajitas, four versions of freshly made salsa plus handmade tortillas and chips.

I have tried everything on the menu and consider it the best franchise fast food in town. I do, however, wish Chipotle offered a freshly made corn tortilla. That might help reduce the calorie count in an average burrito below 1,000. Their carnitas (pork) and chicken were particularly impressive because they avoided the dryness problems I usually find with such. I liked the fact that all lettuce was Romaine.

I began to wonder though if my enthusiasm for the food had been influenced by my appreciation of the efforts the company makes to support good farming practices. So I organized a blind taste test of similar burritos from Chipotle, Qdobo and Panchero’s. The latter two chains have been serving in Greater Des Moines for a while now, with a similar cafeteria line that allows customers to choose their ingredients while watching their burritos being made. I recruited a panel of four teenagers, none of who had ever heard of sustainable agriculture or free ranged pork. Two pronounced Chipotle’s burrito “superior.” One said Qdobo’s was “better” and the fourth said they “all tasted the same” to him. That makes Chipotle a thumbs up winner.

Side dishes

Ocean Beach Fries opened in Merle Hay Mall with a menu built around hand-cut, triple-fried potatoes. These French fries can be purchased in four pound buckets! Yes, smaller sizes are available. … Real sloe gin, not the syrupy liqueur that stole its name, is now being imported in America under Plymouth‘s label. It takes more than two pounds of sloe berries to make a quart of this artisan beverage, so supplies are scarce.

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