Lime to me, baby!

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When I moved to DC, Chinatown/Gallery Place had already transformed to most of what it is today. Sure, there wasn’t a multi-floored Walgreen’s yet, and the Wizards were a long shot from winning a playoff series, but the stories like the one my former boss, a 6’6″ ex-power forward at Catholic University, told me about breaking beer bottles on the ground to have a weapon on your walk home in the 90s were definitely a thing of the past.

No, Gilbert, not that kind of long shot

No, Gilbert, not that kind of long shot

In most of my travels, I’ve found the local “Chinatowns” to be pretty dirty. This goes for Boston, SF, Sydney, and NYC… where many of us have stood in between fish heads on ice and ducks in a window while waiting for a shoddy but cheap bus back to whatever city we actually live in.  Granted, it’s not as dirty as a literal town in China, but that bar isn’t exactly high. (NSFW)

In our little DC version of Chinatown, we have some big golden Chinese arches to compliment our golden big fat American arches with a variety of Asian cuisine and Chinese letters below store names. But beyond that, I would not say the Irish bar, Hooters, or Legal Seafoods count as Chinese.

And in this Asian-fusion hot pot, there is a small Mexican joint. Oh wait, make that two… no… three! That’s right, in the shadows of the John Wall’s palace there are three chain Mexican places: Chipotle, California Tortilla (aka Cal Tort to the die-hards), and Lime Fresh Mexican Grill – the subject of today’s post. At some point, someone looked at the burrito density of Chinatown and thought, “You know what this area need? Another burrito place!” taking a page from the Starbucks Business School of Strategic Density. 

Although I have been to Cal Tort before, and I promise to go back there again with my roommate, WAFC significant other, and frequent commenter under the pseudonym “Cal_tort_4_lyfe” Hustle Russell, but today was not the day for the revisit. And despite the constant long lines at the Chipotle in Columbia Heights, the Lime across the street on 14th wasn’t able to get enough spillover business to stay afloat and abruptly closed at the end of December last year, which meant this was my only shot at some Lime in the mouth.

Looking at the menu, I noticed all the real burritos (sorry, I do not count a bean burrito as a real burrito; vegans and vegetarians… I do not approve of your lifestyle choices) were the same price, $7.25, and I narrowed it down to Queso or Big Cali. I was pretty hungry and the description described it as “An XL burrito” and told me I “Better have a spotter ready.”

I also had my shirt unbuttoned

The Big Cali came with my choice of “chicken or ground beef, cilantro-lime rice, guacamole, salsa asada, cilantro, black bean corn salsa, tortilla strips, cheese, and our signature sour cream.” I selected chicken then made my way to the salsa bar to fill up my to-go containers. The selection was not as great as District Taco’s, but still hit most of the biggies – salsa verde, pico de gallo, salsa asada. In the emptiness of the mid-afternoon work day, the friendly staff came up to me to double check what I ordered and asked if I had any questions. The exchange went something like this:

ron swanson i know more than you

I took my burrito to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite museums with a sweet atrium to enjoy this burrito around some culture. Like the Art of Video Games exhibit, the current special American Cool, or some college kids playing arrangements from… video games. I personally love the permanent exhibit on the US Presidents. Although Bill Clinton’s portrait really could go in the American Cool as well.

I sat down and unwrapped my burrito. I was taken by it’s lack of XL-ness. Hell, it was barely even “L.” This thing wasn’t going to stand a chance. I was afraid that I wouldn’t even be able to take notes because I’d get through it so quickly. The pleasant surprise (ie I didn’t read the menu carefully) was that the burrito came with chips! Huzzah! The salsas for the aforementioned chips were all solid, but none blew me away. The cilantro was fresh but hastily chopped with lots of big chunks and stems. Salsa verde was… fine, and salsa asada decent flavor but not hearty enough.

The tortilla was grilled, not steamed, and dry (surprise!). Here’s a lesson for all you young budding burristas out there, you need to do one of two things, either: a) steam your tortilla so it is moist and delicious, or b) grill it with some oil so it is moist and delicious. Straight grilling is a recipe for failure.

When I dug into the burrito itself, the rice immediately jumped out as flavorful. A cilantro-lime rice that actually has flavor? My word! The guacamole on the other hand… not so much. You know how good Whole Foods and Chipotle guacamole is? Well, it was nothing like that. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I think it had too much cumin. There were little hints of cheese here or there, but I guess at Lime if you want real cheese on your burrito you have to order the one with the word in the name. The chicken was plentiful, had above average flavor, and was impressively not dry at all. The salsa asada was nearly undetectable as was the sour cream. The black bean corn salsa provided texture and little else.

After this experience, I can see why people would rather wait 20 minutes for Chipotle than 5 minutes for Lime. A burrito that lacks so much character than repeated trips to the salsa bar is no bueno. And did I mention that despite being billed as “XL”, I felt ready for a few tacos for dessert at the end? Totally could have; too bad it wasn’t Taco Tuesday. If this was a yelp review, it might get 3 stars, but since this is a burritocentric review, they’re getting a big ol’ 2.5 sombreros.

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Lime Fresh Mexican Grill

726 7th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
202-638-4770
@limefreshmex
25pinos

What’s mostly white with specs of color?

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The answer? It’s two-fold my friends. A Qdoba burrito is the more relevant answer, while the neighborhood of Georgetown is the more racist answer. Today, we are going to tackle the former although our adventure takes place in the latter.

Skipped out of work a bit early to beat the traffic (and by “beat”, I mean travel directly with), met up with MR Stone, AV, and Jolly to head down to grab a burrito in the least diverse area of Washington DC other than GOP headquarters…. you guessed it, Georgetown.

A few important notes before I get into this: 1) I had eaten Qdoba before, but it was a few years ago since I had last eaten it and tried to forget any preconceived notions I had about it; 2) one of the big draws to going all the way to G-town to go to a chain was their student special…. 50% off for “students” every Monday!

Helping out those poor Georgetown students... wait a minute...

(they didn’t ask for a student ID, but if they had, I still have my Boston University ID that has no expiration date)

That’s a good value; in other words, pretty much the opposite of the contract the Atlanta Basketball Hawks gave to Joe Johnson. Of course, when reviewing the place, I couldn’t let that low price affect my ultimate rating because it is only at this one location, so my loyal readers in other places will not be so fortunate. But now I’m rambling as usual….

The Qdoba menu is fairly diverse but definitely has the feel of a chain restaurant. It’s not as streamlined as the Chipotle menu, which has its trade offs. On the one hand, a few more options, but on the downside, the assembly process, especially when it’s busy (and I heard it gets much more crowded than when I was there), feels rushed, disjointed, and out of order. I did not like having my options so poorly laid out in front of me.

My order: 3-queso burrito with chicken ($6.25), “cilantro-lime” rice, black beans, cheese, pico de gallo (mild), salsa verde (medium), and guacamole ($.99, for a Qdoba guac ordering tip, see MoJo in the sidebar!), all of this wrapped in a steamed flour tortilla. The 3-queso sauce is described on the Qdoba website as a “creamy three cheese blend with roasted poblanos, tomatoes and jalapeños. ” Sounds pretty good, right? I can certainly get on board with those mixture of flavors.

Sassy Jolly says, "Order guac on the side, because they give you a ton more!"

After flying through the line,  and stammering out my order, I get my food and we sit down. AV and Jolly both get burritos, while MR Stone gets taco salad.  Nothing really stood out at about this burrito. The rice was bland, the salsas lacked any distinguishable flavor, and the beans did little more than take up space. The chicken was moderately flavorful, as was the guacamole, and the 3-queso sauce was quite good and added a unique and zesty flavor to the burrito. My complaint here was the underrepresentation of the good ingredients.  The quality of the meat often makes or breaks the burrito, which is why it’s generally the focus and why we order by saying “a chicken burrito” and not a “sour cream burrito with chicken” or something along those lines. There was minimal drippage from the burrito, which means that the ingredients blended fairly well together and the salsas weren’t too wet. I guess they weren’t as excited to be there as we were.

The inside of a 3-Queso chicken burrito

I did have one negative experience that I had never had before, and I am not sure if it’s indicative of this Qdoba, this batch of ingredients, or of Qdoba as a whole, but the tortilla became stuck in my teeth after every bite like a piece of cheap Wonderbread. Jolly experienced this sensation too and we spent a minute or two after every bite just picking the low quality tortilla out of our teeth. Qdoba steams their tortillas which, as my loyal readers would know, I love, but the tortillas must have been cheap because they did not hold their integrity the way I would have liked.

In the scheme of the burrito universe, this is at the bottom end of the scale. It doesn’t have too many redeeming qualities or a particular niche in the market that some restaurants or chains may have. What it goes for is completely middle of the road. Give the customer a few different options, aim for the middle in terms of flavors and ingredients, and keep the prices reasonable. If that is the goal, then it generally succeeds. I would not go out of my way to go to Qdoba, and it will probably lose a head to head with most other places, but if you’re itching for a burrito without dropping a lot of dough (or maize) for something that will fill you up, then Qdoba is convenient because it is a chain and you can find them all around.

Mase in Georgetown camouflage

By being on the east coast, Qdoba is playing in the Division III of burrito leagues, so it’s able to stay afloat. Also, if you can get it on the 50% off day or with one of their buy one-get one specials, then it’s definitely a very good value.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 sombreros.

Qdoba Mexican Grill
3303 M Street NW,
Washington, DC‎
(202) 342-3360


Chipeezy fo’ reezy

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What presentation!

Beautiful day in Friendship Heights. I was very hungry and we realized that today would be the first day of the spring that we could sit outside for lunch. We decided to go to the über-popular Chipotle. These things are poppin’ up almost as frequently as websites about hipsters. Almost daily someone from my office goes down to Chipeezy for lunch, and when they ask if I want to go… how can I possibly say no?

So I roll down to Chipeezy, about 50 deep with co-workers…. give or take 40 (yeah, it was probably closer to 90), we post up at some tables and go to town on a variety of Mexican fare. The long and short of Chipotle is that you get quality food and convenience with a decent variety of choices at only a slight premium. Major bonus points go to the many environmental and animal welfare policies that Chipotle implements.  Napkins of recycled paper, and food with integrity means that the meat is treated humanely and not fed anti-biotics or hormones.

Real Meat, eh? Bold move, Chipotle.

To my knowledge, Chipotle is the only nation-wide chain that does anything like this. There are a lot of good links and reading suggestions (like Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma) on the Chipotle website. At least they’re using their burrito powers for good.

In the past, I have gotten the chicken burrito ($6.10 + tax) because it is cheaper and I generally prefer poultry over pork or beef. I decide to switch it up and get barbacoa ($6.50 +tax) – shredded, seasoned beef, similar to carnitas. Chipotle manages to churn out burritos at an impressive rate, which means that even when the line is long, the wait is bearable and worth it. We start with a steamed tortilla (I love burritos with steamed tortillas – it improves texture, decreases dryness, and makes the burrito more structurally sound). Throw on some white cilantro rice (disappointed that it’s white, but I love the cilantro), and the option of black or pinto beans – an important option to have. Carnitas and barbacoa both look dried up like 50 Cent’s career, but we’ll see how it tastes (and as I wait for another 50¢ album, come on buddy!) 

Four options for salsa: pico de gallo (mild… hey! That name sounds familiar!), roasted chili-corn salsa (medium), tomatillo-green chili salsa (medium), and tomatillo-red chili salsa (hot).  To say the pico de gallo is mild is like saying Lady Gaga has a peculiar fashion sense. It adds moderate taste and texture, but doesn’t have a knock out flavor, although none of the salsas do. I end up throwing together 3 of them: the pico, the corn “salsa” (really, it’s just corn), and the tomatillo-red chili salsa, which does add a bit of spice, but not much considering it’s billed as “hot.” Guacamole is an additional $1.85 on meat burritos, which is a big minus. The guacamole is delicious and I believe each individual avocado is tenderly loved and raised on Baby Mozart and then has its balls caressed ever so gently when it’s time to make the salsa.  While I appreciate organic and whatnot, $1.85 makes it unrealistic to ever put guac in the burrito.

Finally, add on some sour cream (nice option), throw in some shredded cheese and romaine lettuce, and wrap that sucker up! I am hungry and excited, and being the showman that I am, I am giddy with anticipation to have people watch me devour this burrito and critique it on the fly.  My co-workers are equally riveted at the prospect of seeing a real live burrito connoisseur in action.

Hard at work

Grab a seat and go to town. The meat did in fact taste as dry as it looked. I would not recommend getting the carnitas or barbacoa ever. I can say from experience that the chicken is quite tasty and rarely too dry; the steak is somewhat bland but has not had the same dryness problem as the pork; and the veggie burrito, as long as the preparers don’t overwhelm it with beans, is very satisfying, delicious, and never dry (probably b/c of the big helping of guac and salsa you’re able to get on it).

So, as I said at the beginning, Chipotle is a great option because of its accessibility and quality of ingredients. It’s not particularly creative and has somewhat limited options, but that doesn’t stop people from lining up to get a piece. I can assuredly say that Chipotle is the best chain burrito joint that I have encountered so far. Bonus points for locations and food with integrity practices.

Final verdict: 3.5/5 Sombreros

Ahhhhh! Screamin’ Burrito (California Tortilla)

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On a crisp evening, after seeing a minor league basketball game… (I’m sorry, hold on; I’m getting word that the Wizards still play in the NBA! How bout that?), it was time for a Mexican night cap.  Because no tequila could be procured in Chinatown, we had to settle on a burrito… and settle we did! Welcome to chain restaurants everybody!

The limited time only special was the California Screamin’ Burrito (regular size: $6.89). There was nothing screaming about it… unless it was screaming “I’m Mediocre!!!”, which is generally my job and I would have kicked its ass if that was the case. Ok, that’s not true, I just would have gotten passive aggressive and cranky that the burrito was stealing my mediocre thunder, but alas, I digress. 

Cover your ears! And probably your mouth!

 According to this stylish advertisement, the California Screamin’ Burrito includes “our signature blackened chicken, queso, California screamin’ sauce, grilled peppers and onions, Mexican rice, and salsa.” These ingredients intrigued me… queso is often a great addition to a burrito but is rare, the peppers and onions could compliment it nicely, and this doesn’t just have rice…. it has Mexican rice. Let’s see if this is as exciting as when I became old enough to distinguish between an “open bar” and a “cash bar.”

The California Screamin’ Burrito was much like the state of California’s economy: great in principle but terribly flawed.  The rice was saturated and mushy, for lack of a better word. I enjoyed the grilled onions and peppers being included, but from time to time they were somewhat over-powering. I barely noticed the queso, and the “salsa” was little more than a few chunks of tomato in the burrito. And like a male stripper, this burrito’s meat was hidden until the end. Buried at the bottom of it was generally bland and dry chicken. And while dry, this was not amusing in the way a Brit’s dry humor regarding parliamentary procedure inevitably leads to a good laugh; no, this resulted in many trips to the variety of sauces that are available at every California Tortilla location.

Burrito Autopsy

The one redeeming quality about California Tortilla’s fare is the expansive array of sauces that are available (called the Wall of Flame). This includes a variety of interesting hard to find brands and flavors like BBQ Mango, Green Bandit Cilantro, and…. Colon Cleaner (which was really convenient since I don’t have health insurance). Unfortunately, this is not enough to really make it worthwhile. The sauces are like the white guys at the end of an NBA bench. Yeah, I’m sure they’re great guys and great for chemistry, but they’re not winning you any basketball games. And we’re here to win basketball games… I mean eat good burritos.

So maybe you’re doing a walk of shame back from Gallery Place on a Sunday morning, and you want your insides to feel the way your outsides look, then this is probably the place to go.  But if you’re in the area, there’s a Chipotle across the street anyways, but we’ll cover that another day….

The Verdict: 1.5/5 Sombreros

California Tortilla
728 7th St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 638-2233