Freshly graduated in the early '90s from Hyde Park, N.Y.'s Culinary Institute of America, Chef Steve Ellis landed a cook's dream job at the fabled Stars restaurant in San Francisco. There he was, with his foot in the door of leading-edge New World Cuisine. But he couldn't stop thinking about the tiny (and wildly popular) taquerias in the Mission District. In 1993, against the advice of pretty much everybody, he converted a former Dolly Madison ice cream store in Colorado into the very first Chipotle Mexican Grill. It was to be nothing more than a stepping-stone to his own sit-down eatery, but the popularity of the fresh and simple concept led to a second, and then a third store by 1995.
Ellis was fascinated by the idea of free-range and humanely raised pork, beef and chicken. So he militantly integrated these elements, along with 0-trans fat oils and rBGH-free cheese and sour cream, into his "fast-casual" restaurant model. As the chain increased in size and popularity, McDonald's Corporation took notice and added its name to Steve Ellis' list of savvy investors. When the chain topped 500 stores, McDonald's bowed out -- shortly before Chipotle wentpublic on the NYSE in '06. There are now more than 1200 Chipotle Mexican Grills. A fresh & healthy Southeast Asian spinoff called Shophouse is on the horizon, and is already gaining in popularity (one of the first is already open, just north of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.).
Rehoboth Beach finally has its very own Chipotle Mexican Grill! According to Jamie, one of the managers/trainers, there has been a line since the moment they opened on Sept. 18th. And it's no wonder. The simple, made-right-before-your-very-eyes concept is obviously fresh and relatively healthy. Their choice to include Tabasco Green Jalapeño sauce on the condiments table is a wise one -- it blends perfectly with the adobo overtones of the chicken. It's not all that hot -- try it.
The star item on the menu is, of course, the burrito. When you belly-up to the counter, stand tall, proud and alert. Clearly state the meat you would like: braised carnitas (pork), adobo-marinated chicken, or barbacoa/steak (beef). Follow that with your choice of pinto or vegetarian-prepared black beans. Finally, state your desired rice component, brown, or their signature cilantro-lime. (When ordering, do not get on your tippy-toes and try to lean over the plastic sneeze guard. Nobody wants to share DNA with you.)
Your warm, partially filled flour tortilla is then handed off to another smiling employee armed with ladles, spoons and tongs, standing watch over 8 pansful of colorful goodies. Pico de gallo, perhaps? (They call it tomato salsa.) The hot (tomatillo red) salsa? The (not quite so hot, but great combined with the red tomatillo) green salsa? Ellis' signature roasted chili/corn salsa? Creamy white shredded cheese? Sautéed, but still crisp Fajita Veggies (sliced green bells and red onions with a little oregano)? And/or perhaps dark green romaine lettuce? Do not forget the brightly fresh (and accompanied by a moderate upcharge -- and they always warn you) guacamole. The tortilla is then expertly rolled and quickly wrapped in foil before it explodes.
Hard & soft tacos and little foam bowls (sans tortillas for those who fear carbohydrates) can be decorated any way you like using the choices enumerated above. The various salsas and the guac can also be paired with a bag of chips for pre- post-prandial munching.
It is a rare moment when 100% of your emails about anything are positive. Local feedback so far about the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Rehoboth Beach falls into that rare category. In their first few days, there were apparently a few temperature issues as they worked out equipment/holding kinks, but our last four visits (yup, 4, and they've only been open a week!) indicate that those problems have been fully resolved. Even our resident Vegetarian Buzzlette, Muncher of Roots, Barks and Herbs, approves of the place.
Casual-fast dining is an up-and-coming concept as people attempt to simultaneously watch their dollars and their fat/carb intake (somewhat difficult to do up to now). But places like Chipotle Mexican Grill and our still-spankin' new Panera Bread are testimony that you can do both, still have an actual dining experience, and get tasty food that you couldn't whip up yourself for even near the price. Take a look at their cute menu here.
The Rehoboth Beach Chipotle is located at 36453 Seaside Outlet Drive, in the parking lot on the right (south) side of Tanger Seaside Outlets. Access by turning on Holland Glade Road then entering the shopping center to the left. Or use the main entrance, turning right, passing Harry & David and the Bose Outlet, and then turning right again. If you don't see it, you will crash into it. Don't do that. It will anger them and they won't like you. And you'll miss out.
Call them to order in advance at 302-260-7123, or order online using their iPhone app. Click here to download it.
The bathrooms are new, of course, so they are still shiny by definition. I hope they keep them up. The bathrooms get an extra point because of the fun, high-velocity hand dryers (Xlerator) and the hi-tech water-saving commodes. Even if you're not that much of a tree-hugger, you've got to appreciate the technology. An infrared beam times how long you spend in front of (or on) the device, and then, using that information, assumes the fairly obvious scenarios. It then flushes accordingly. Y'gotta love it. I want one for my car.
Do note that the small, square interior can become quite noisy, even if the place isn't crowded. "Open plan" ceilings are stylish, but they can exacerbate that situation. But the outside dining area is cozy and surrounded by plants, so if the roar of interior activity gets to you, take it outside. The ratings reflect this one design problem with the building. If they do something about it (fairly easy when done by an expert) the noise rating will change.
Chipotle is open 11 'til 10, 7 days. Like most bigger chains, they will probably maintain those hours throughout the off-season. But ya never know, so give 'em a call. (L., D.) Price range: Inexpensive.
By the way, Chipotle has always been known for its sense of humor. Click here for a particularly hilarious seatback card containing ordering instructions.