CHIPOTLE, Paris, C- And if You Think This is a Burrito, Then I’m the Mad Empress Carlotta

August 15, 2012

Chipotle-4

I’m not sure exactly why, but while I was perched on a stool in front of a window overlooking the boulevard at the new Chipotle, I found myself thinking of poor old Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and his wife, the Belgian born Princess Charlotte whose slippery grip on sanity later in life led her to be known as the ‘Mad Carlotta.’ Don’t worry if Max doesn’t ring a bell right away either, since the paper-punch of historical confetti that had an Austrian aristocrat and naval officer briefly installed (1864-67) as the emperor of Mexico with the benediction and patronage of Emperor Napoleon III of France isn’t well known these days. Maybe it struck a chord with me, however, as an historical footnote on a much earlier failed attempt at globalization?

In any event, the dog days of August and the fact that we’re momentarily gypsies since–surprise, surprise!–the renovation work being done in our flat is taking twice as long as planned, offered a perfect pretext for me to nip around the corner and lose my Chipotle virginity yesterday at lunchtime. To be sure, I’ve spotted branches of this hugely successful American ‘Mexican’ fast-food chain in various U.S. cities, but if I’m in New York or Boston or Philadelphia or, or, or … the last thing in the world I’d ever do is eat at a fast-food place, even one that’s copped a pretty good reputation. I mean can you imagine eating at an Olive Garden in Rome or a Red Lobster in Boston? My curiosity had also been piqued and primed by the fact that such estimable Gallic guardians of good grub as Le Fooding and L’Express Styles have actually given this first French outpost of the U.S. chain good reviews. I mean, Le Fooding giving a thumbs up to an American fast-food chain is sort of like a priest admitting that he doesn’t believe in God or Julia Child confessing that Twinkies are her favorite pastry.

So I ducked around the corner from my current temporary digs late in the afternoon after the lunch rush, and was immediately surprised by the friendliness of Chipotle’s staff, who rather poignantly seemed to have realized the only interesting thing about their work is that it offers them a chance to practice their English, since only two of the ten people who went down the rails before me were confirmed Francophones. And these nice young kids speak English really well, too. Anway, with jet-lag firing up my always red-hot appetite for Mexican food, the first thing that kind of let me down was that there weren’t enough side dish possibilities. Okay, chips and guacamole, fine, but what if you wanted to be a total slob and get a side of rice and beans? No can do. The beverage selection didn’t set my hair on fire either, since I think you have to have been born below the Mason-Dixon line to like Dr. Pepper and drinking nothing but water with a meal always strikes me as self-flagellantly monastic. Why not create some fabulous faux Mexican non-alcoholic drink with sparkling water and lime cordial? Unlike most fast food chains, Chipotle doesn’t try hard enough to up-sell. No cactus-paddle confit tart for dessert, no nothing.

Chipotle-3

The site of those little molded red-plastic baskets that used to be all over the place in more up-market American fast food places like Howard Johnson’s or Friendlys gave me a happy twinge, though, and after a lot of hemming and hawing I decided on the daily special, which was their ‘lime-marinated’ barbecued chicken burrito. So my server slapped a big flappy burrito on the grill and attended to the serious fillings–I went with the two different offered types of beans, black and pinto cooked with bacon, rice and chicken, and then it was on to the sauce lady with her three degrees of hot sauce, grated cheese, tasteless sour cream, and maybe a few other things. Dosed with what hoped would be seriously hot chile sauce, this nice young woman wrapped up my big load, nestled it into a paper lined red basket, and away I went, my pockets lighter by 11.50 Euros.

Chipotle-2

A lot has been made about Chipotle’s commitment to well-sourced produce, so I bit into my meal papoose with a lot less reluctance than I’ve ever felt before unknown fast food before. Immediate problem: my entire Mexican-American food pod was lukewarm to cold. And then the flavors seemed out of balance, with several shaded tones of acidity floating on a nobly caliente scrim of chile sauce. Not bad, but not good either. But I kept going, because I was there, and I’d paid for it, and I was hungry.

Chipotle-1

Then something odd happened. I looked down at my basket and realized I’d been so distracted by the fun of the weirdo people watching provided by les Grands Boulevards that I’d ignored my food pod for a good five minutes, which in my book is the equivalent of being in the middle having sex with someone and suddenly saying, “You know what? Let’s just watch TV instead.” Oh, I finished my burrito, and it was sufficiently better than any other American fast-food I’ve ever eaten to mean that Chipotle will score on my radar in airport terminals and places like that, but it’s not a place that’s going to be seeing me again anytime soon.

Walking home, I found myself thinking that the most interesting thing about lunch was that it showcased how good Americans are at inventing highly rationalized production systems. The problem is that they’re almost inevitably deployed towards mediocrity than quality. Now that I’m on a franchised food roll (sic) (sick?), the next time I go to the U.S., however, nothing’s going to keep me away from an Olive Garden or a Red Lobster. I just need to know.

20 boulevard Montmartre, 9th, No public phone, Metro: Richelieu – Drouot, Le Peletier or

Grands Boulevards. Open daily. Average 12 Euros.

  • Meg

    C-?! Wow. Interesting! But by default I love love love Chipotle and what they stand for, but I'm from Colorado. 🙂 Great review! It is indeed a bit pricy, but I wouldn't call it fast food. In the 303 we call Chipotle and the links fast casual.

    Really enjoyed reading this. And I love your comment about Olive Garden & Red Lobster at the end. Brilliant.

  • I have never been to a Chipotle. I am constantly surpried how many expats bloggers have mentioned this Paris outlet or their excitement over the arrival of Starbucks at the Marseille airport. I don't get it.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Thanks, Meg!

    Michel, The arrival of Starbuck's at the airport in Marseilles is of no interest to me whatsoever, but the first Chipotle in Paris did interest me, because 1) I love Mexican food, and the Mexican offer in Paris is mediocre at best, and 2) The chain is such a huge success in America–mostly for trying to use decent quality produce, and I'd never been to one before. But if I'm really in a hurry in Paris, I'd go with a nice steak tartare anyday! Best, Alec

  • thank you.
    for that kind of munchy it is cheaper and easier to mix equal parts salt and old cooking fat, sprinkly lightly with pre-made chili powder, and spread on a Frito.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    You know Wellfedfred, if I could get ahold of some Fritos in Paris, I'd almost be tempted to give your recipe a try! Best, Alec

  • I've lived in Provence for nearly four years now and I have been known to detour to Marseille airport just for Starbucks. On my latest trip to Paris, I kept asking myself 'where is the next Starbucks' and needless to say there was one on nearly every corner. I am not a fan of chains – fast food – casual , but I just don't have any affinity for tiny sips of 'sock water' called espressos served throughout France and sold for nearly 2€. Starbucks is exorbitantly expensive, but at least I get a 'coffee experience.'
    Chipotle is also pricey for Mexican food, but it's a great concept. I must agree – my Mexican food experience was a bit disappointing at this Chipotle in Paris – with poor stare value and an overly stuffed burrito which kept opening consequently dripping my 'extra harissa' all over me. Also, the drinks are displayed out of sight for the customer…I ended up drinking a sparkling lemon water made and bottled in Turkey which tasted much like toilet water…
    That said – it was the closest to really yummy Mexican food I've had in ages…
    There is a serious shortage of food Mexican in this part of the world…

  • Alexander Lobrano

    I agree that Paris could definitely use a couple of seriously good Mexican restaurants, Alexis. I had high hopes for Chipotle, but it just didn't come anywhere near the Mexican food that you can get for half the price in cities like LA or Chicago. Best, Alec