Monday, March 23, 2015

Chipotle Sofritas!

At long last, America's other go-to taco shack finally has a faux-meat veggie alternative ... but are the much ballyhooed burritos really worth a hoot?

Back in the day, the Federal Communications Commission had this thing called the “Fairness Doctrine.” Basically, it was a policy that forced radio stations to give equal air time to both liberal and conservative viewpoints. As evident by the staggeringly disproportion number of gas bags on talk radio who think all black people want to shoot cops and burn down gas stations and that the Homosexual Agenda is somehow leading to an Islamofacist takeover of Western Civilization, the FCC really isn’t much of a stickler on that rule all that much nowadays.

Although the suits in D.C. may not be making any efforts to bring objectivity to the masses, rest assured that we here at The Internet is in America want to do all we can to bring you a truly impartial, well-balanced anti-consumerist and anti-pop culture humor and entertainment site. As such, you’ve probably noticed that a good 43 percent of the blog consists of articles either explicitly or obliquely referencing Taco Bell. Well, as a matter of broadcast journalistic integrity, I have decided to finally put the spotlight on America’s other star-spangled taqueria. No, not that one, the one people actually go to.

Chiptole really is the photo negative of Taco Bell. Whereas the Bell is all about bringing you high-speed, semi-authentic Tex-Mex at the lowest consumer cost possible, Chipotle is anchored around the exact opposite marketing approach: there’s no drive-thru, the eating spaces are cramped, and odds are, you’re going to have to wait in line for quite awhile before you get your nom on. Without question, the two brands are competing for different sets of clientele; with their more expensive, sort-of-like-Moe’s-only-with-fewer-ingredients assembly line model, Chipotle seems to target the more affluent fast food diners, while Taco Bell’s dedication to gloriously unhealthy high-concept foodstuffs unequivocally proves the subsidiary is dedicated, first and foremost, to serving really poor people or people of normal income who smoke a lot of drugs.

Even the dining area aesthetics are completely antithetical; one is warm with lots of pastel colors and corporate art, and the other is basically a post-modern factory, complete with gun metal tables and lighting that seems lifted out of a Austrian meat locker. And if that wasn’t enough of a yin-yang situation for you, the musical selections at each restaurant seem to be at odds, too; at the Bell, you’re bombarded by either bubble gum pop singles or plasma screen in-house infomercials, while at Chipotle, you’re assailed by this genre-less, gunky drumbeat accompanied by low-pitched electronic wails.

Clearly, a comparison of the two restaurants is like listing the similarities between night and day, or fire and ice, or Libertarian ideals and reasonable foreign policy. Alas, the absolute biggest discrepancy between the two brands is the menu. Whereas Taco Bell is all about providing you with as many stand-alone products as possible, Chipotle’s menu has remained relatively static since its inception. Ultimately, the reason why I haven’t really covered the restaurant in-depth in the past is because, frankly, the franchise doesn’t really release anything new to talk about -- and my nearest location appears to be one of the few in the country that’s never heard of the fabled “quesarito,” either.

The arrival of the Sofrita, thusly, is pretty important on two fronts. First, it’s a new item being offered by the chain, which is the type of thing that happens with the seeming regularity of Harper Lee novels being published. Secondly, it’s a tofu item offered by a national fast food chain, which is about as rare as catching a glimpse of D.B. Cooper holding hands with Bigfoot.

For those unfamiliar with the Chipotle model, it's pretty simple to explain. Instead of walking up to the counter and asking for a Chili Cheese Fries Loaded Griller, you pick a type of Tex-Mex dish and some marble-mouthed teenager who smells like peppermint gum and weed screams at you what about what kind of beans you want before handing off your item to another marble-mouthed teenager who smells like peppermint gum and weed who screams at you about what kind of meat you want. This happens about five or six times over the course of ten seconds, with other marble-mouthed teenagers asking you about lettuce, toppings, sauce and salsa before a junior college general education major rings up your order. Simply put, you never really know what you're going to end up with at the restaurant -- sometimes, you wind up with more toppings than you ordered and sometimes, less. One time, I ordered two tacos and wound up with a rice bowl.

The Sofrita, as such, isn't a fixed menu item. Instead, it's a type of protein topping you can add to your burrito, taco or salad as a substitute for shredded beef or chicken. Since I was being rushed through the line like the building was on fire, I didn't even have time to snap a picture of the sofrita-faux-meat in the little plastic container next to the black olives and guacamole. That said, I did see the stuff pass by in a blur -- it was chunky and red, more closely resembling ground chorizo than shredded beef.

If you are curious about the nomenclature, the term "sofrito" seems to roughly translate into "stir-fry" in English. However, the Wikipedia says that "sofrito" is actually the name of a traditional, spicy stew that's popular in the Mediterranean, which, technicallly, the Chipotle Sofrita is not.

I guess the best way to describe the core concept of the product is "spicy tofu," since the stuff is seasoned with poblanos and actual chipotle peppers -- you can even see some of the flakes in the protein paste, if you look for them hard enough.

In my sofrita test-taste, I decided to opt for the burrito incarnation of the dish. I tried to keep the additional toppings to a minimum so as to best gauge the gustatory quality of the new product, so I went with the blandest ingredients I could -- standard white rice, black beans, shredded white cheese and no veggies to speak of whatsoever. I even skipped the salsa for this showdown, and as we all know, the salsa is pretty much the best part of any Southwestern food experience.

On my introductory go-around with the Sofrita, I was conflicted. The big positive with the new item is that it is indeed spicy -- WAY spicier than anything you'll find at Taco Bell, for sure. Of course, this also leads to a singed butt hole a day later, but hey, that's just part of the total sensory experience.

In terms of taste and texture though, I was a bit disappointed. While the faux-meat does have a nice kick to it, it really doesn't have much of a flavor of its own. I know, that's a complaint you can lob at tofu products in general, but I've downed some fairly yummy soy dogs in my day, and I KNOW Chipotle can do a better job than this of flavoring their newfangled product.

Really, the big problem with the dish is its inconsistency. Like greasy snowflakes, no two pieces of Sofrita  are the same in terms of texture. You may get one speckle that's almost shaped like a hunk of ground beef, and the next bite is like a chewy piece of sausage. You never really get a good sense of mouthfeel rhythm going on, and it makes the entire process disjointed and a teensy bit frustrating. It's not a gross-tasting product by any stretch, but at the same time? Man, does this thing lack anything even remotely resembling an idiosyncratic fast food personality.

Of course, that's not to totally pee all over the product. I mean, it's good for what it is and if you're a hardcore vegan, I'm sure you'll like it. That said, this stuff really isn't giving me any kind of excuse to go out of my way to try it, especially at such a steep price point. Sorry, hipster scum, but for the price of just ONE of these damn taco salads, I can pick up a half dozen Cheesy Bean and Rice Burritos at the Bell. With that sort of disproportionality in volume, the whole quantity vs. quality debate doesn't even matter anymore.

If you have a lot of money in your pockets to burn or you are some kind of eco-terrorist earth-firster who just HAS to eat whole-organic bean paste or shrivel up into a ball and die, I reckon the Sofritas will do you just fine. However, even as a "premium" fast food item, I still think it's lacking in the flavor department, and quite frankly, you could probably whip up something else faux-meaty at home that's even tastier, and probably quite a bit cheaper, too.

It's OK, but just OK, I am afraid. It's probably worth one chow just for the experience, but truthfully, I think we're all a bit better off just hanging out at the taco-place of the Proletariat -- as is the case with most scenarios in life, I have long attested.


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