Saturday, 30 January 2010

Chilango on a chilly Saturday

With friends down from Liverpool, i figured a busy and chilly Saturday lunchtime would be a good time to road test the Islington branch of Chilango, which celebrates its first birthday next month.

I was a fan of owners Eric Partaker & Dan Houghton's first ventue into the London burrito market - Mucho Mas - which opened on the same site in late '06, but the decor was under-whelming, the service hit and miss, and the soda wasn't refillable. As soon as Tortilla opened down the road, i jumped ship.

Eleven months into its rebrand, Chilango seems to have attracted a loyal clientele, judging by the healthy queue for food today. As a restaurant it's certainly a much nicer place to eat than its predecessor , and considerably easier on the eye,having been given a colourful but clean makeover by design agency 'I Am' .

I opted for the chicken burrito (one size only interestingly) which was tender and nicely marinated. There was no choice of rice but the option of pinto or black beans (i chose black) plus a nice chunky salsa, a dash of hot salsa, lettuce and sour cream. The whole thing was topped off with refillable fountain soda - result.

My friends went for the steak and were impressed with the size and taste. However unusually for a Mexican kitchen, the veggie option was probably the most impressive, loaded with guacamole and much so they had to replace the tortilla midway through being built as there was too much food in there. This is a definite plus in Chilango's favour, as its the pretty clientele, but that's another story...

The merits of Chilango vs Tortilla deserve a blog post of their own in the future, but both operators seem to have raised their game considerably in the last six months which is good news for anyone lusting after good burritos. Speaking of which, here's Chilango co-founder Eric Parkaker on BBC's Saturday kitchen showing you the secret of how to make a good burrito (as any burrito geek knows, it's all in the folding!)

Monday, 18 January 2010

Chipotle is coming to the UK

Just before Christmas, a painted sign on the old Turnkey Store on London Charing Cross Road (right) caught my eye. A quick search later and confirmation that American burrito giant Chipotle will be opening their first UK store in April this year.

Chipotle are a 900 strong chain of Burrito bars in the US. I've eaten in them a number of times whilst in the States, most recently in their branch in NYC just off Union Square. On the whole their restaurants are fast, clean; the burritos large and tasty. But they've also been mired in controversy - the company used investment from McDonalds to expand in the early noughties (Maccers have since offloaded their share in the company after the economic downturn hit the US fast food market) and an NBC report branded their burritos one of the 20 most unhealthy foods in America. But despite this their popularity is still high, and their wholesome, 'healthy' image - not unlike Innocent here in the UK - plays well with college kids and twenty something boho types.

So how will Chipotle fare in the UK? They certainly have the marketing resources to make a splash at launch (their usual tactic in the US is a free burrito day) but their location is nowhere need as attractive as the new Oxford Circus branch of Tortilla and UK market is a tricky one for Americans to operate in as Chilis recent retreat from Britain has shown. Ultimately though it comes down to how much demand for burritos there is in the UK, and if Chipotle's London branch is a success, it would never surprise me to see a Subway style roll out during 2011 . Interesting times for burrito lovers indeed.

Tortilla - Oxford Circus

On my way into work yesterday, i was delighted to see London burrito chain Tortilla have opened a branch in Market Place, just off Oxford Circus.

Tortilla has been my favourite London burrito vendor for a while now, not least because it's burritos are extremely good but also because of its £5 lunch offer of medium burrito and refillable fountain soda, which has enlived many a dreary Monday afternoon in Islington.

Opening a central London branch is an expensive gamble. Will it work? I think so. Although its target market of Gt Tichfield Street and Gt Portland Streert is a tough one - full of media types looking for a quick bite to eat at their desks or, if they're lucky, being lunched by a client - hopefully it will prove diverting enough to merit at least a takeaway visit. Attacting Eat in customers maybe more of a problem - at approx £7 for burrito and soda, it ain't the cheapest kid in town, but if they offer the £5 lunch deal they do in their Islington branch, this could be a winner.

Full review of their new branch later this week.

Why Brit Burritos?

Every since my first visit to California in 2002 I’ve been asking the same question; why doesn’t Britain ‘do’ burrito bars? After all as food, burritos are cheap, quick, healthy and a damn sight more tasty that calorific M&S packaged sandwiches and salty Subway atrocities. With refillable soda and free wifi, burrito bars are good places to spend a lazy afternoon in too, providing a welcome distraction from your local hostelry.

Over the last two years Britain’s burrito market seems to have emerge with popular hangouts in Manchester and London gaining more and more kudos. With American ‘super-burrito chain’ Chipotle opening its first UK outlet in April, 2010 looks like the year burrito bars go mainstream, so what better way to follow this story than blogging about them? Hell, at least it’s a constructive way of getting fat.