Chipotle's burrito bowl comes with white or brown rice, pinto or black beans and other fillings. - Photo by Laurie Heuston

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Shoppers tempted to try the new Medford outlet of Chipotle Mexican Grill this weekend should save themselves the headache. Rest assured, it's worth waiting until the initial wave of interest has departed with Black Friday crowds.

The beauty of the chain-restaurant concept, of course, is customers can expect to find the same product, regardless of location, prepared to the same standard for approximately the same price. So a local review is unlikely to give diners information they don't already have. Given recent newspaper stories about the Medford debut of chain retailers Trader Joe's and REI, however, the nearby Chipotle seemed worth a look.

Like the genre of stores in the Northgate Centre Marketplace, Chipotle is a higher-end version of what consumers otherwise may experience — in this case, fast food. The model has been in place locally for about 15 years at Senor Sam's restaurants, then at Medford's Mucho Gusto. More recently, Milagros Fresh Mexican opened in Ashland, patterning itself after Chipotle. If you like these establishments, stick to them for another couple of months.

Arriving at about 1 p.m. on a Monday, my friend and I thought we stood a chance at avoiding the lunch rush. Instead, we stood in line for about 10 minutes to order at the counter.

Although Chipotle has quality and attractive pricing on its side, the atmosphere — at least initially — won't appeal to anyone sensitive about noise while eating. The din was nearly deafening, and staff struggled to hear diners deliver their orders.

Fortunately, the menu is an uncomplicated four entrees — burrito, taco, salad and burrito bowl — that can be prepared five ways and topped off with four salsas. An employee cut up avocados over a big mixing bowl in the back, a process that Chipotle highlights on its website. Whole steaks and chicken breasts — not cubed or crumbled mystery meat — also sizzled away on the flattop behind the cafeteria-style hot line.

We both ordered the burrito bowl ($6.25), simply a mixture of rice, beans and other fillings, sans tortilla. He chose the grilled chicken. In addition to grilled chicken and steak, meats constitute braised beef and pork.

I chose the vegetarian bowl but skipped the grilled melange of onions and peppers, two of my least favorite toppings in any context. Rice comes in brown or white, beans as pinto (stewed with bacon) or black.

Happily, Chipotle adds complimentary guacamole (otherwise $1.90 extra) to vegetarian entrees. It's a thoughtful practice — replicated at Milagros — as avocado brings richness and healthful fats to meatless meals and compensates for the restaurant's lower cost to serve just vegetables.

However, Chipotle is outperformed on the vegetarian front by Milagros and Mucho Gusto, both of which offer organic tofu. The latter also serves battered Alaskan cod.

Chipotle's menu does display calorie counts and advertises its "food with integrity" ethic. According to the company website, this means favoring sustainable, humane animal husbandry and organic, local produce "when practical." Previous newspaper reports cited a Marion County farm as the source of red onions for Medford's Chipotle.

Freshness is evident in Chipotle's fare. The topping of guacamole was so generous and delicious that a side order of fresh-made chips ($1.25) was an ideal complement. And the beans were surprisingly creamy and flavorful.

Yet I'll leave this relatively healthful, fast and inexpensive meal to Northgate shoppers undaunted by traffic, scarce parking and standing in lines, particularly at the holiday season.

— Sarah Lemon

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