Qdoba Versus Chipotle

One of the newer trends in dining out is “high-end” fast food: quickly prepared meals that (usually) cost a little more and taste a bit better. High-end fast food is usually served in more attractive surroundings with better presentation and a presumption of freshness. Occupying the space between traditional fast food giants and full-service restaurants, these high-end fast food establishments are creating all kinds of new rivalries. Now that the McDonalds versus Burger King dialogue is old hat, the new argument is: Qdoba versus Chipotle. Which of these growing high-end fast food chains provides a better burrito experience?

Background

The undisputed champion of fast food Mexican is undoubtedly Taco Bell. While we Americans run for the border regularly, we recognize that Taco Bell’s beef is a bit scary, their cheese is questionable, and their food is meant to be dirt cheap. Just look at how much food you can amass for under $5. By improving the quality and atmosphere of a Taco Bell, along with shortening the menu and increasing the price, we end up with the more palatable Qdobas and Chipotles of the world. While neither Qdoba nor Chipotle is anything like the authentic Tacqueria you may find anchored in a Latino neighborhood, these Americanized burrito centers are far less questionable than Taco Bell and more popular with the business crowd.

With Chipotle owned by McDonalds and Qdoba owned by Jack In the Box, both establishments have the backing of successful corporations that have already made millions flipping burgers. Qdoba and Chipotle offer relatively short menus, with their burritos taking center stage. You can watch your burrito being assembled in roughly the same order at both places: tortilla, rice, beans, meat, salsa, sour cream, and cheese. Following this Subway-style assembly line, you end up with a neatly wrapped burrito at both places. So what are the differences, burrito-related and otherwise?

Let’s compare based on my experiences. Over the past few years, I have visited multiple locations of both Qdoba and Chipotle in several states with about equal frequency. In total, I have probably had about 30 meals (or possibly more) at each of these burrito centers.

Report Card

1. Overall menu depth. Both Chipotle and Qdoba offer basic burritos with chicken, beef, and steak. However, Chipotle’s beef option (barbacoa) is shredded, seared, and braised – a winner compared to Qdoba’s more boring ground sirloin. Chipotle also features carnitas, a spicy pork option. Outside of these basic burrito fillers, though, Qdoba has a much more expansive menu that includes tortilla soup, dinner nachos, quesadillas, salads, and specialty burritos (mole, pesto, etc.). If you want choices, Qdoba is much, much better.

Qdoba: B +
Chipotle: C –

2. Tortilla. Most people think the tortilla is not incredibly important, but it can certainly factor into your burrito experience if something goes awry with the edible flour wrapper. Qdoba’s torilla, from my experience, sticks to the back of your teeth a little more. The Chipotle tortilla has less structural integrity and tends to bust more often. There are clear drawbacks to both.

Qdoba: B –
Chipotle: B –

3. Rice and Beans. Both chains offer cilantro rice, pinto beans, and black beans. The rice at Chipotle tends to be fresher, with more of that lively cilantro citrus flavour. Chipotle’s pinto beans are also more flavourful, as they’ve been prepared with some bacon. The black beans are rather similar at both Qdoba and Chipotle, but for these crucial starter ingredients, Chipotle is tops.

Qdoba: B –
Chipotle: A

4. Chicken. I consider chicken quality extremely important, as I don’t want to bite into anything resembling the chicken shrapnel used at many Chinese restaurants. That’s why chicken has garnered its own grade. I’ve had several experiences at Qdoba that involved more questionable pieces of chicken, whereas Chipotle’s poultry quality has rarely been of concern. Both places marinate their chicken in adobo sauces for spicy flavour, but once again, the Chipotle taste is better infused.

Qdoba: C
Chipotle: A –

5. Salsas. Qdoba offers five salsas: pico de gallo, chile corn, verde, roja, and habanero. If you’re seeking hot and sassy, the habanero is bud-kicking and the roja is snappy. The verde, a tomatillo-based salsa is surprisingly unimpressive, and the pico de gallo can sometimes be soupy. Chipotle offers four options: fresh tomato (like pico de gallo), red tomatillo, green tomatillo, and chili corn. Of these, the green and red tomatillos are the best. The corn salsas are similar at both establishments. Overall, Qdoba has more variety, but Chipotle has no notable pitfalls.

Qdoba: B +
Chipotle: A –

6. Sour Cream, Cheese, and Guacamole. The sour creams are pretty much the same. Qdoba is far less stingy with their cheese, though. If you want guacamole, you can rest assured that it is fresh at both places. The texture (incuding some pleasing chunkettes of avocado) is more diverse at Chipotle, where the overall flavour is, for lack of a better term, full-bodied. Qdoba’s guacamole is still great; it’s just a nudge flatter.

Qdoba: B +
Chipotle: A –

7. Atmosphere and Branding. Because it’s hard to separate these two components of the burrito experience, they have become one category. Without a doubt, Chipotle’s interiors feel sleeker and more urban thanks to incredibly generous use of silver/steel and the strictness of repetition and line. Even the Chipotle menu boards are sharp and simple. Qdoba is a little warmer-feeling, but it lacks a strong visual theme that distinguishes it from other high-end fast food establishments. Everything at Chipotle, from the simple black-and-white cups sporting spiffy information to the visually instructive napkins, shows mastery of brand management. Just compare the fun www.chipotle.com portal to the predictable www.qdoba.com site.

Qdoba: B-
Chipotle: A

Other tidbits:
Ã?· Chipotle could really lose their lightweight burrito baskets. They should take a lesson from Qdoba and employ wide tins that don’t tip with the weight of a burrito.
�· Both chains offer Coke products instead of the Pepsi line.
Ã?· I touched on this under “Overall menu depth,” but Qdoba really does have some noteworthy specialty burritos. The poblano pesto burrito, with a nutty taste (thanks to almonds and pine nuts), is quite remarkable.
Ã?· Pricing is pretty much the same at both Qdoba and Chipotle: more expensive than Taco Bell – but worth it.

OVERALL GRADES

Chipotle: A – / B +

Qdoba: B


What it comes down to is this: if you want a better basic burrito in a funkier setting, Chipotle is the place to go. If you want something other than a basic burrito, Qdoba is your bet.

Love Taco Bell, but think it’s not healthy? Think again. Read Healthier Eating Choices at Taco Bell.

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