Earlier this year, Freebirds World Burritos opened its first location in Orange. In case you haven't heard about this Santa Barbara-by-way-of-Texas chain, it competes in a very specific niche of the fresh-Mex quick-serve restaurant industry against Chipotle Mexican Grill: the sort-of-naturally raised meat, do-gooder, save-the-world-one-burrito-at-a-time niche.
Chipotle is committed to increasing the number of farmers who raise livestock sustainably, humanely and naturally fed. The chain makes a big deal about this business practice, but at the same time, weasels itself out of 100 percent compliance. Its website claims, "It means that, whenever possible, we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones." Whenever possible?!? The beans and meat you get might be organic, sustainable and ethically raised -- or not. Really, there's no way to know.
This sustainable-food ethos is a worthy corporate mission, but bottom line: How are the burritos?
The ordering system at both Chipotle and Freebirds is nearly identical: After you pick which size burrito you want, your server walks you past the steam table filled with different meats, rices, beans, salsas and toppings. It's all very customizable, and because all the ingredients are laid out before you, part of the appeal is the personalized ordering experience.
There are too many damn choices at Freebirds. Four sizes of burrito, including the Super Monster that's as big around as a supermodel's thigh. Four kinds of tortilla, two kinds of rice, three kinds of beans, eight sauces, and five proteins including fried fish. That doesn't even factor in the many veggie add-ons. When I walked into the store, the idea of a Baja-style fish burrito sounded good, until I got to the steam table and saw some sad, lonely, breaded fish sticks sitting at the bottom of the steam pan.
Not knowing how long that fish has been drying out, carnitas sounds like a better option. Tender, seasoned adequately and moist, it's not half-bad, but not the sublime carnitas you can have just up the street at La Reina Market, either.
The rice? Cilantro-lime rice, with a potent citric tang and lots of flavor. Corn salsa: sweet and delicious. Roasted garlic cloves: can't disguise flavor in those. Two kinds of onion and cilantro. A side of grilled lime wedges and grilled jalapeños. Wrapped up and eaten as a whole? Big flavors in a perfectly decent, if gabacho burrito. I'm not giving up El Toro Bravo's burrito any time soon, but Freebirds is very good for what it is.
Freedom of choice is part of Freebirds' pseudo-hippie corporate talking points, but why keep weak choices on the menu that sacrifice quality for speedy service? Even McDonald's fries fish filets to order, and it can manage to get your food out in less than three minutes.
Where entering a Freebirds store is like visiting a faux-hippie `60s memorabilia store with a classic-rock soundtrack to match, Chipotle decorates its restaurants in a cold, concrete-and-manufactured-wood look you'd find at the cafeteria of an engineering school. The blue-green glow of fluorescent lighting adds to the morgue-like feel of the room at night.
There are fewer choices of entrées and ingredients compared to Freebirds, so you'd expect there's greater effort to cook those fewer items more skillfully. But you'd be wrong. The cubes of presumably better-quality, grass-fed beef? Completely tough, chewy and unseasoned. On the plus side, the kitchen staff managed to cook the beef to medium-rare. The rest of the ingredients paled in flavor.
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It's Cooking 101: Every component of a dish must be seasoned correctly. Salsa and condiments do not magically compensate for meat that's undersalted.
The last and only other time I visited a Chipotle was at least 10 years ago at a Costa Mesa location on Harbor Boulevard. I remember thinking I could eat a thousand-fold-better burrito a short drive away at El Toro Bravo. I've never had any reason to return to Chipotle until I needed to revisit one for this story, and I won't need to again for a very long time. The winner of Battle Feel-Good Gabacho Burrito by a mile: Freebirds!