Chipotle spent all of 2022 rolling out new protein options on their not particularly change-prone menu. It was wonderful and a few of those new additions like the guajillo steak, pollo asado, and smoked brisket dunked on the meats that enjoy permanent status on the menu. The new options were such a success that at the end of last year, we gave Chipotle our coveted Golden Bag Award for best overall fast food brand. If you would’ve told me three years ago (when I started heavily covering fast food for Uproxx) that Chipotle would win an award for best fast food brand, I would’ve laughed in your face.
Unfortunately for all of us, all of these delicious and flavorful new protein options were limited, and now Chipotle is back to its base menu of options. We’re not sure what Chipotle has in store for this year, but so far all the brand has announced is some TikTok quesadilla hack set to join the menu next month. That news is… fine, but what would be better is a quesadilla hack with some of that guajillo steak! Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
The removal of short-term items means that last year’s ranking of Chipotle proteins is now obsolete and we need to update it. And since Chipotle is a fast food restaurant with a lot of variables (all realized in their purest form with this burrito build) we figured the easiest and most transparent way to rank all of these proteins is to eat all of them completely naked. No sauce, no extra ingredients, just a forkful of meat or veg or tofu!
Here are the best protein options you can order at Chipotle in 2023 (so far).
I feel bad about ranking Chipotle’s only plant-based protein option last, but…this stuff sucks. To be fair, when it comes to flavor, the sofritas aren’t half bad. They have a great blend of peppery and cumin-dominant notes that really cut nicely through your burrito add-ons and give you that savory meat vibe. That in and of itself is a commendable achievement. If you’re a vegetarian, straight up, 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. Is wet not a strong enough word? Should I say “moist”? What’s the deal with people not liking the word moist? Moist is great. You gonna tell me you don’t want to eat a moist brownie? Anyway, I digress — the sofritas are so wet that they will soak through your tortilla, which will 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, forget it.
Perhaps more importantly, because the sofritas are also Chipotle’s least popular meat option, they don’t get changed out enough so they are almost always served a little stale and lukewarm. That doesn’t do any favors to the overall experience.
The Bottom Line:
If you don’t abstain from eating meat, there is no reason to even look at the sofritas. It isn’t the flavor that’s the problem it’s the wet consistency and the awful rubbery mouthfeel that ruin this option.
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. If you love the Chipotle 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 even after 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. 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. Tooth floss. It can even double as floss, which is a point in its favor considering it’s going to get stuck in every crevice between your teeth. 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 downright amazing. But if you’ve ever eaten at a local taqueria or crushed your own avocados, this is 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 most of the time 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:
Because of its hit-or-miss quality, we’re giving this one the bronze medal, even though sometimes it’s at least worthy of a silver.
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 second-best meat for a positive experience overall. If you want the best experience, go with our number one choice while you still can.
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:
On most days, 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. Ask for a spoonful of extra liquid if you’re getting a bowl!