Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 05:43
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.
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.
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.
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.