Seasonal items. Limited-time offerings. Novelty tastes. Complete menu overhauls. Whatever tactic they employ, chains are not just fighting for our attention. They’re also fighting among themselves to see whose baubles shine brightest. This year alone, colleague Emily Heil and I have written about the Big Cheez-It Tostada at Taco Bell, the steakhouse burgers at Arby’s, the pizza bowls at Papa Johns and the French toast sticks at Wendy’s. Some were as shiny as the bumper on a ’54 Buick.
By design and temperament, Chipotle has not been the type of chain to dress up as a rainbow sparkle horse to get you to come over to the house and play. Chipotle believes in “53 ingredients you can pronounce,” not mac-and-cheese sticks dusted with atomic orange Cheetos powder, as artificial as the Las Vegas Strip in the middle of a desert. Amid the clown car that has become the quick-serve industry, Chipotle has managed to maintain a shred of dignity, at least in terms of menu development, if not always with worker conditions.
In recent years, when Chipotle introduced a limited-time-only item, you might not even notice it until you clicked through the main menu to select a protein. Last fall, the chain ignored those who were shunning beef and rolled out smoked brisket, and earlier this year, Chipotle added pollo asado to the menu, though both are now just memories. Pre-pandemic, the company was testing a handful of dishes for potential inclusion on the permanent menu. Four years later, it looks as if a couple made the cut, including the quesadillas, which you can order only online, presumably to prevent a drag on the in-store line.
You have to give Brian Niccol, chairman and chief executive of Chipotle, a lot of credit. The guy who during his time at Taco Bell basically threw everything against the wall to see what would stick has modified his sidewalk-performer shtick to align with the ethos of the more philosophical Chipotle. The results speak for themselves.
Chipotle’s latest limited-time offering is garlic guajillo steak, available to pack into your preferred protein carrier: burrito, bowl, salad, quesadilla, taco or any ingenious hack that you can convince the counter staff to accommodate. To be honest, the garlic guajillo steak sounds, based on the ingredient list alone, a lot like the preparation for the pollo asado, though, as always, the devil is in the details.
The new protein, available starting Wednesday, begins with cuts of top sirloin butt and tri-tip (usually sourced from the bottom sirloin butt), which are marinated, grilled, seasoned with garlic and guajillo peppers, sliced, then finished with a squeeze of lime and chopped cilantro. The garlic guajillo may be pollo asado in steer’s clothing, but you know what? I don’t care. This stuff is as flavorful as mass-produced beef gets, down to the not-insignificant heat of the guajillo and chipotle chiles, a pair of peppers not exactly known for their ability to ignite the palate.
My issue, as always, is how Chipotle’s superb proteins are regularly upstaged by lesser ingredients. Despite its reputation for quality products, Chipotle is a company that makes its nut by relying on fillers: rice, beans, salsa, lettuce. It’s the reason your burrito costs, you know, $12 and not $16 or more. The model is, of course, the reason for Chipotle’s mass appeal: It caters to both snobs and students, a pair of demographics with little overlap.
Pair those proteins with flour tortillas, fajita veggies and salsa. Let us pack the tortillas with all the meat we want. What I’m asking for, in essence, is a fajitas platter with those tasty strips of garlic guajillo steak. I’d pay whatever you’d like. Really.
Brian Niccol, can you make this happen?