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Food Dude

Panchero’s and the Burrito Wars

3/12/2014

A carnitas bowl from Panchero›s, with multiple metro locations; open Monday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

A carnitas bowl from Panchero›s, with multiple metro locations; open Monday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

Remember when Chipotle was the good guy? The Colorado chain had just 16 stores in 1998 when McDonald’s bought a majority share in the company. It quickly grew to 500 outlets before McDonald’s divested. Now it has 1,500. It built its image around a remarkable series of billboards and magazine ads that featured black-and-white photos of Midwest pig farmers, many from Iowa, with the tagline, “Buy a burrito, save a family farm.” It contracted small farms, many under the Iowa-based Niman Pork umbrella in Thornton, to produce free ranged pork without antibiotics or growth hormones. It later extended its “food with integrity” mission to include beef, dairy, chicken, tomatoes and vegetables. It was the uncontested fast-food industry leader for using organic foods and humanely raised animals.

Last year it developed hand-crafted margaritas for its menu. This year, it added something more cynical — a film series of heavy-hearted satire called, “Farmed and Dangerous.” It depicts an insane agricultural system in which farmers feed petroleum to their animals until they explode, and advertising agencies spin that as a good thing. It has totally pissed off a lot of farmers who previously supported Chipotle. The company’s devotees say those people can’t take a joke. Maybe, but if you call something “satire” you can defame others without worrying about honesty. It’s a low moment for a good chain — sort of the advertising equivalence of mean-spirited political distortions. Even before “Farmed and Dangerous” hit the airwaves, the beef industry was in damage control, mailing out strange brochures titled “Wow that Cow.” The group claims that beef cattle improve air and water quality, prevent forest fires, provide pharmaceutical wonders and convert grass into cheap protein.

Looking for a Chipotle substitute, I visited Panchero’s, a 65-unit chain that started in Iowa City in 1992. At that time, founder Rodney Anderson had just finished his MBA at the University of Chicago, where he made some money in the stock market and ate regularly at Mexican tacquerias. With eastern Iowa backers, he expanded exclusively in college towns for six years. His Iowa City store was known for being open after the bars closed. In fact, it didn’t even open till 2 p.m. After 1998, the chain began expanding into suburban locations and keeping more conventional hours.

In Johnston, I found remnants of the college town ambiance, namely music that was considerably louder and more contemporary than what one hears at Taco John’s or Chipotle. Furniture and décor were considerably upgraded from the early days of the Iowa City experiment. Panchero’s is the Jimmy John’s of burrito bars.

The restaurant has no freezers, microwave ovens or deep fryers. Food is necessarily fresh, and dishes are made in front of your eyes, to order. If Chipotle’s hook is “integrity,” Panchero’s is hand-pressed tortillas. I tried burritos made with beef asada, carnitas, chicken and a veggie mix. I could not taste any lack of integrity, nor could three others who taste-tested those burritos against Chipotle products. Roast corn salsa was the only Chipotle ingredient that a majority preferred over Panchero’s. Panchero’s tortillas and guacamole were similarly preferred. People were split about meats and other salsas. Prices were similar, but Panchero’s discounts taco dinners and Chipotle does not. Panchero’s patented “Bob the Tool” does a superior job of spreading various ingredients around so that customers get an array of tastes in each bite. It sold no liquor.

Bottom line — Panchero’s has as much “fresh and local” stuff going for it as Chipotle without the cynicism.

Side Dishes International African Cuisine opened on Douglas Avenue, in the former Olive Branch restaurant… Green America targeted Starbucks to discontinue using milk from cows that are fed genetically-modified grains. CV                

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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