Chef Dan seeks out the little donkey

Salsarita’s chicken burrito with black beans, medium salsa, guacamole, lettuce, cilantro, red onions and cheese. Photo by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Qdoba, Moe’s, Salsarita’s)

When a top chef takes a break from cooking for other people and ventures out to dine on someone else’s fare, what goodies is he likely to choose? Ethereally trendy foams and smears and other cutting-edge num-nums of molecular gastronomy?

Well, maybe.

But if you ask Chef Dan Thomas, sous chef at Big Spring Country Club and late of City Café, Café Metro and Equus, about the casual snack that smacks his piñata, a fond, distant look comes into his eyes and he literally licks his chops.

“Burritos,” he said. And not taqueria burritos, either. Thomas enjoys getting himself around the fast-food version, Mexican-style stuffed tortilla wraps at least as big as your head. The fanciful name means “little donkey” – food historians can’t agree on just why – and it’s not classic Mexican but a Mexican-American item evolved from the Mexican soft, wheat-flour taco.

This portable Southwestern variation on the sandwich is immensely popular, and not just with Thomas. And as for the nutritional analysis, don’t even ask. (Oh, all right, ask. Fully load a Triple Lindy at Moe’s, and you’re looking at 1,651 calories. That’s without chips or a drink.)

We invited Thomas to take his chef’s toque on the road and render his professional judgment of the “little donkeys” at three major local chains. Here is Thomas’s report:

Qdoba, Moe’s and Salsarita’s are all franchise eateries in the “fresh-burrito” concept (think Subway with a Mexican accent), with a build-your-own formula with quick counter service. All three appear similar in menu, preparation, casual setting and reasonable prices.

Are there any differences? And most important, who has the best burrito? I tried to compare them on a level playing field, going to all three during the busy lunch hour and ordering the same burrito at each. I tried to judge food, mood and service, but let’s face it: It’s really about that burrito.

At Salsarita’s in St. Matthews, cleanliness stands out. Just about all the tables inside and out were occupied, and about 10 people were lined up to order. I went for the Grande Burrito. A 12-inch flour tortilla was steamed before my eyes. “Carne or pollo?” asked the pleasant Latina server. (Although all the contenders offer such choices as ground or shredded beef, pork or shrimp, I found “Carne or pollo?” a recurring theme.)

Having a good grasp of kitchen “Spanglish,” I ordered pollo, er, chicken, and called for black beans, medium salsa, guacamole, lettuce, cilantro, red onions and a shredded cheese blend from the clean, fresh-looking and well-kept line of fillings. They had a hard time wrapping that fat sucker up!

Sweet iced tea was fresh brewed, and if the drink station was a bit untidy, I liked having both lime and lemon wedges available.

My burrito lived up to its designation “fresh.” The mildly seasoned chicken was OK, the black beans were very well seasoned, and the guacamole added a nice, cool balance.

My wife, Colleen, ordered a 10-inch version “wet” – with enchilada sauce on the side. The ground beef was bland, but it was much improved by the zippy ancho chili flavor of the enchilada sauce. The white corn tortilla chips seemed to be dressed with seasoned salt and a touch of cumin. The salsa was fresh, but the mild pico de gallo seemed a little flat.

On a scale of 1 to 10, we gave Salsarita’s a 9½ for atmosphere, particularly for the bar. Friendly counter service (despite some language barrier) and burritos both won an 8 rating. Lunch for two was $14.48.

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina
285 N. Hubbards Lane

Moe’s in Middletown was clean and bright, too. A large patio offered no shade, yet most of the seats inside and out were occupied. Music played at a comfortable level, improving our brief wait in the 10-person line.
Moe’s menu items are named after movies and TV shows. I ordered the “Homewrecker,” with the same fillings as I had at Salsarita’s. Here, too, a helpful counter person built my burrito from a 12-inch freshly steamed tortilla and choice of fillings. The service area was clean but a bit untidy, with ingredients mixing at the edges of the pans.

Moe’s salsa bar is located near the drink station, so it can get crowded when some people try to fetch drinks while others are spooning up salsa. I examined the short selection of beers but went with sweet tea. It tasted old.

Digging into another monster burrito, I found the grilled chicken (which appeared to be all white meat) on the dry side. The bland black beans tasted straight-from-the-can. Colleen’s ground beef was well seasoned with cumin, but again the canned black beans and bland parboiled rice diminished enjoyment. Fresh, unseasoned white corn tortilla chips were unremarkable.

I tried all five of the free salsas. Two chunky, commercial salsas straight from the jug were OK. I had high hopes for a tomatillo salsa, but it let me down with an insipid “grassy” flavor. The two thin salsas were tasty, though, particularly the vinegary sauce with ample cayenne and a touch of achiote.

Lunch for two came to $17.34 and earned my 9 rating for service and atmosphere (nice selection of piped-in tunes) but only a 7 for the burritos.

Moe’s Southwest Grill
12001 Shelbyville Road

We walked into a nearly full Qdoba on Breckenridge Lane and wondered where we could sit. Twenty people lined up in front of us, making for a very loud environment with no music or TV.

The usual freshly steamed 12-inch flour tortilla awaited fillings. Disappointingly, Qdoba doesn’t offer separate tomato, onion or cilantro fillings, but the patient, friendly counter person offered pico de gallo.

I settled in with my burrito and sweet tea, pleased that fresh limes were offered at the tidy drink station. The concept of “quantity vs. quality” quickly came to mind. This was the biggest burrito yet, an estimated 2 pounds. Digging in, though, revealed a lot of romaine lettuce and more black beans than chicken. On the other hand, although a puny ration, the chicken (“adobo marinated,” said the menu) was the best yet. I missed my fresh onion and cilantro, though, as the pico de gallo suffered from too many cilantro stems and too little salt.

Colleen’s “ground sirloin” burrito was afflicted by a musky dried coriander flavor, and there really wasn’t enough meat to counter the much larger portions of nicely lime-flavored rice and canned-tasting black beans. “Want a bite of my veggie burrito?” she joked. Plain white corn tortilla chips and “stemmy” pico de gallo were forgettable.

Lunch for two came to $16.80. The service here rated a 10 – those guys worked fast and didn’t miss a beat despite a line that stayed long through the lunch hour. But the irritatingly loud atmosphere and the lackluster burritos each earned only a 5.

Qdoba Mexican Grill
970 Breckenridge Lane

If you’re looking for a quick burrito bite, any of these places will do. But for my money, Salsarita’s wins the burrito sweepstakes.

Downtown Highland Coffee closes
Many people who work downtown near Theater Square were saddened by last week’s closing of Highland Coffee’s Fourth Street location, which opened three years ago next to the Palace Theater. Owners Greg and Natalie Hofer explained they were simply overextended with running their flagship Highlands location and the downtown store. The downtown location was a terrific environment and had a steady customer base during the day, but after 5 p.m. there just aren’t enough bodies downtown. No word on what will go into the space, which the Hofers own. — Cary Stemle