New chain restaurants open on Union Avenue in Midtown Memphis at a steady pace. Chipotle Mexican Grill launched a new location a few weeks ago near Overton Square.
The restaurant opened next to a bank in one of the suites inside a new modern structure built to the sidewalk with parking lot in the rear. The structure abides by the city’s Midtown overlay building codes, but the main entrance faces the parking lot – away from the street. The rear entrance looks like a suburban strip mall, but the ediface on the street side features attractive stonework. Chipotle receives high marks for street view compared to the menacing drive-thru window facing Union on the Zaxby’s down the street.
But don’t judge a book by its cover. Chipotle Corporate spared every expense in designing the interior of this restaurant: an exemplar of basic blandness and boredom.
Recent paintings over murals by the Public Works Department of the City of Memphis probably inspired the vast white wall which spans the length of the dining room. Someone should mount a small plaque in the corner of the wall to give this minimalist work of art a title: “Brilliant at the Basics” – Memphis City Government.
Hard plastic and metal chairs provide seating around hardwood-topped tables over the polished concrete slab floor. The interior desecrator for the space called for long dark synthetic planks to hang from the ceiling to absorb the noise bouncing off all the hard surfaces in the dining room.
The staff at the counter eagerly took my order of a RESPONSIBLY RAISED® Barbacoa beef in a burrito. The number of available ingredients intimidated me: at least two kinds of rice, beans, chicken, and beef, grilled onions and bell peppers, soy crumbles, and other toppings. As they folded up my burrito in tin foil at the end of the line, the cashier asked if I wanted chips and a drink.
“Sounds good,” I said as they pulled out a carry-out bag for my order (She never asked if I planned to dine in or carry out). I interjected, “I’m dining in.”
“Oh,” she responded with surprise as she placed my burrito on waxed paper in a red basket. Perhaps she was trying to save me from the unbearable whiteness of the dining room. She placed my burrito basket, bag of chips, and cup for my drink on a round metal baking sheet to carry to my table.
Signs covering the diet drink dispensers at the soda fountain greeted me with “Sorry. No Coke Zero” and “Sorry. No Diet Coke.” I may be born and raised in the South, but I can’t bring myself to drink iced tea. Judge me harshly, as I know you will: I settled for one of the carbonated corn syrup and battery acid drinks available to me.
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When I reached my table and began to unwrap my food, I realized that I had no salsa to go with my chips. At other fast casual burrito restaurants, I am accustomed to finding a salsa bar. I walked back to the counter to inquire.
“Did you want salsa?” Her question dispelled my previous hope that the cashier worried for my welfare. Prolonged exposure to the dull esthetic of the dining room robbed her of all attention to detail.
“What kind would you like?” She offered me mild, hot or corn salsa. I chose hot.
When I returned to my seat, I amused myself reading the puns and corny jokes on the waxed paper in the basket:
Is tinfoil technically a tortilla for the tortilla?
If you’ve got cash to spend on guac does that mean you’ve got avocadough?
If layers make things complicated, are onions complex creatures?
Oh dear . . . . Chipotle waxed paper wrappers can’t match the dry wit of Taco Bell salsa packets. Perhaps Chipotle recruited their new CEO, Brian Niccol, a former executive at Taco Bell, to introduce edgy humor into their marketing plans.
I dipped and ate a few chips in the hot salsa. I enjoyed the heat of the salsa, but the mouthfeel and taste of the corn chips resembled a dry, mealy sawdust.
The brown rice and black beans in my burrito overwhelmed the other fresh and tasty ingredients, especially the spicy and juicy Barbacoa beef.
“Less IS more,” whispered the vast white wall next to me. “Less is more.”
Lesson learned. I’ll know better the next time I place an order.