A key feature of Chipotle’s menu is also its biggest weakness: the fact that it lends itself to endless customization. Because you have the option to make your meal however you want, none of the food from Chipotle truly has an identity. Most fast food menus have a famous meal, an item you have to order if you’re visiting for the first time — the Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, Shake Shack’s Shack burger, Raising Cane’s chicken tenders, McDonald’s French fries… these are essential menu items.
Chipotle doesn’t have any of that. If you ask someone what they like from Chipotle, they’ll probably just say “I get a bowl,” or “I get a burrito,” they’re not going to say, “Well, personally I’m all about the barbacoa on a burrito with half a spoon of white rice, pinto beans and black beans, fajita veggies, corn, half a spoon of hot sauce, cheese, lettuce and a side of guacamole for extra dipping.”
So when we set out to review the Chipotle menu like we have the McDonald’s breakfast and burger menus, we hit a roadblock. It’s hard to say whether a burrito is better than a bowl when your burrito isn’t necessarily my burrito. Plus this is Chipotle we’re talking about, what even constitutes a bowl? You could skip the lettuce, ask for a bed of chips, steak, queso, beans, fajitas, corn, guacamole, sour cream, a sprinkling of cheese, and mild salsa and you essentially have nachos. Does endless variation make Chipotle’s menu unrankable?
They wish. Nothing is un-rankable. To do so, we simplified our approach and decided that instead of ranking menu items, we’d just rank each of Chipotle’s protein options to separate the good ones, from the ones that should probably never be ordered.
I feel bad about ranking Chipotle’s only plant-based protein option last, but…it is what it is. I will say that when it comes to flavor, the sofritas aren’t half bad. They have a great blend of peppery and cumin-dominant flavors that really cut nicely through your meal and give you that savory meat vibe. If you’re a vegetarian, this is a great meat substitute, don’t feel bad about ordering it or think of it as an excuse to skip Chipotle entirely.
What I don’t like about the Sofritas is everything else.
First of all, they’re incredibly wet. So wet that they will soak through your tortilla, which can totally ruin your meal. Aside from the wetness, the sofritas also have a terrible mouthfeel, the tofu is really chunky and chewy to the point of distraction, and it becomes very obvious that you’re not eating meat. In a loaded burrito or bowl there are enough other ingredients going on that you aren’t going to notice that mouthfeel, but in something like a taco, you won’t be able to ignore it.
Perhaps more importantly, because the sofritas are also Chipotle’s least popular meat option, they are almost always serving old lukewarm Sofritas. That doesn’t do any favors to the experience.
The Bottom Line:
If you don’t abstain from eating meat, there is no reason to ever order the sofritas. It isn’t the flavor that’s the problem it’s the wet consistency and the awful rubbery mouthfeel that are the problems.
I’ve heard people swear by the carnitas at Chipotle, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Chipotle carnitas are not “real” or “proper,” but these are without a doubt consistently the worst carnitas I’ve ever had. So if you love the carnitas, sorry, but you have bad taste in carnitas — you’re playing on my homecourt here and I’m telling you: not good.
Where to start with these things? They’re dry, over-salted, and so fatty-sinewy that you’ll constantly be picking sh*t out of your mouth because it’ll end up sticking around while you’ve already swallowed the rest of your food. What makes carnitas special is the slow-cooking, this helps the pork reach a level of tender juiciness that is downright orgasmic on the palate. Flavors of cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper are supposed to dance across the tongue with each bite.
Chipotle’s carnitas has none of that.
The juicy tenderness is replaced with a bone-dry texture that enables you to feel each strand of pork in your mouth as you chew through it. The earthy flavors of cumin and oregano are instead replaced with a small ocean’s-worth of salt. I’m almost amazed that Chipotle could fail at carnitas this hard, if you told me this was Taco Bell’s new meat, I’d believe it.
The Bottom Line:
When people say “Chipotle isn’t real Mexican food” it’s because they’re offended by this poor excuse for carnitas.
Does guacamole count as a protein option at Chipotle? Not in the “protein” sense, no. But we’re using the phrase to mean: “main item featured in an entree” and in that sense, it certainly fits the bill. So what the hell, we’ve decided to include it!
People go nuts for Chipotle’s guacamole, and if you’re comparing it to Taco Bell and Del Taco guac, sure, it’s pretty good. But nothing worth obsessing over. This is pretty standard stuff at every Mexican joint in California, and if anything Chipotle goes a little heavy with the onion here.
Aside from the dominant flavor of red onions, we have some consistently ripe avocado here acting as our base, mixed with lime juice (a little too much — someone on Chipotle’s board must be heavily invested in lime groves), cilantro, and diced jalapeno bits throughout. The diced jalapeno is my favorite feature, it adds a nice subtle kick that lingers on the palate after each bite and leaves you wanting more. It’s a great trick, and I wish they would’ve focused more on the peppers than the onion, but I get that they’ve got to please the average consumer who probably can’t handle the spice.
The Bottom Line:
Chipotle’s guacamole is astoundingly consistent. I’ve yet to have a serving that tastes like it was using over or under-ripened avocados, and though this is more onion-dominant than I like, I’d still order a veggie burrito over getting the sofritas and carnitas — so we’re ranking this higher.
Even though it’s not really a protein option.
Chipotle’s steak is probably the most frustrating meat option the chain has on offer. On the one hand, when it’s good it’s great — tender chunks of medium-cooked steak with a perfect caramelized outer and a simple seasoning blend of salt, black pepper, cumin, and finished with what I’m assuming is butter to help achieve that crunchy glaze. But when it’s bad — which, unfortunately, is pretty often in my experience — it’s grainy, chewy, and tough. An absolute chore to eat.
So my advice is to give the steak a good look when you’re ordering it, if it glistens with rising ribbons of steam like in the photo above, get it — it’ll be excellent, but if it looks like it’s been sitting around for a while and they’re about to change it up with a new batch, ditch it because you might as well be eating rocks.
The Bottom Line:
If it’s fresh, get it, but if it looks like it’s been sitting in the bin for far too long, trust your instincts. Because of its hit-or-miss quality, we’re sadly ranking this delicious option in fourth place.
Chipotle’s chicken doesn’t suffer from the same consistency issues that plague the steak. Even when the chicken has been sitting in the bin for a while, it’s still packed with flavor. The only thing you lose with time here is how hot the meat is, and considering you’re eating at Chipotle I’m just going to assume you don’t care about whether your food is hot or not. Because at Chipotle it rarely is.
Chipotle’s chicken is flame-grilled and features a flavor profile that is dominated by the smokey qualities of ancho chilis and the savory zest of adobo sauce. I have no doubt the restaurant spends a good amount of time marinating this meat. Because Chipotle uses grilled chicken thigh rather than breast, each bite is juicy and tender, never suffering from the dry tendencies of over-cooked white meat. If you’re wincing at the idea of dark meat over white, you must hate flavor. Just kidding (kind of), but if chewy fat generally keeps you away from ordering dark meat, that’s not a problem here. The meat is still remarkably lean, you almost can’t tell it’s dark meat aside from the fact that it’s so consistently tasty with each bite.
The Bottom Line:
Flavorful, juicy, and most importantly, consistent. It’s hard to get a bad serving of chicken at Chipotle. If this is your first time, this is your best meat for a positive experience overall.
2. Smoked Brisket
Chipotle’s smoked brisket is the chain’s newest protein option, joining the menu for a limited time in late September. I’ve only had the smoked brisket on two occasions so I can’t speak to the overall consistency of how well the meat is prepared, but on both occasions it was satisfying. That doesn’t sound like it’s worthy of a number two spot, I get that, but the first time I tried this new option I was absolutely blown away. So blown away that I decided to put together this article, just so I could rave about this meat. On my second tasting… I got a bad batch. It was still good and still edible (unlike the bad steak) but nowhere near as good as the first time. That’s enough to knock this down a rank for me!
The Smoked Brisket is slow-smoked for 10-16 hours and features a mouthwatering mix of smokey and sweet flavor notes. It’s tender, with a smooth butter-like consistency in the chew, and is dominated by a mix of garlic, paprika, cumin, and various peppers, from black to chipotle. It’s not going to rival the best brisket at a BBQ joint, but in the fast food space, you’ll rarely find anything this tender and flavorful.
A definite winner in Chipotle’s line-up and welcome addition to the menu.
The Bottom Line:
If it’s fresh, grab this without thinking twice. On a good day, it’s Chipotle’s most flavorful meat option and has the best mouthfeel. On a bad day, it’s still good but not enough to blow your mind or lead you to want to come back. It’s definitely worth indulging your curiosity though.
Barbacoa has always been Chipotle’s best meat option, but it’s very close to being dethroned by the brisket. The strength of this meat is in its insanely tender texture — each bite bursts with juicy savory goodness. For this barbacoa, Chipotle uses shoulder-cut meat, (rather than the more traditional cabeza) which keeps it tender, helping to soak up Chipotle’s marinade, which it spends overnight bathing in. Putting in that extra time marinating really helps this meat soar above the rest of Chipotle’s options, and while I miss the silky sumptuous qualities that I’ve come to expect from traditional barbacoa, this comes way closer than I’d expect a national chain to ever get to the real thing.
The barbacoa is dominated by the earthy notes of oregano and cloves, I’m also getting a bit of bay leaf in there and Chipotle’s usual pepper and adobo-forward flavor. It works great in each of Chipotle meal form-factors, whether you’re crunching on tacos, putting together an epic burrito, or you’re looking for the best salad of your life.
The Bottom Line:
Chipotle’s most flavorful protein and almost as good as the traditional barbacoa you’ll get at a classic SoCal taqueria. Almost. Seriously, if you’ve ever left Chipotle thinking the chain is seriously lacking in flavor, you must not have tried the barbacoa yet.