What's the diagnosis for rapid heart rate brought on by a sudden increase in Tex-Mex food?
Taco-cardia. And Nashville's got it bad.
But seriously, folks, among the slew of South-of-the-border-inspired restaurants opening this season—including Taco Mamacita debuting in Edgehill Village and La Paz relocating to Elliston Place—Middle Tennessee is also welcoming much-lauded nameplates Chuy's and Chipotle. While both chains promise a fresh, healthy approach to Southwestern fare, they come at it from opposite directions. At one, less is more. At the other, Elvis is at the fore.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
2825 West End Ave., 320-1693
3900 Hillsboro Pike
The people of Nashville have spoken—or, more precisely, petitioned and pleaded—and management of the 900-store burrito behemoth has answered with Chipotle stores on West End Avenue and in Green Hills. (The latter is scheduled to open Dec. 11.) Located in the former Bittner's costume rental shop in Park Place, Chipotle has filled the West End space with a spare industrial decor as clean and uncluttered as its menu. Corrugated metal wainscoting and blond wood accent the well-lit and efficient layout, which directs customers counterclockwise through an ordering-and-assembly line and fountain drink station before funneling into a central seating area of booths, tables and barstools. The stripped-down menu-rebus opens with line drawings of burritos, tacos and salads, progresses to a section of "What Goes Inside" and concludes with salsa in four levels of heat. It's a refreshingly simple formula that makes for a fast-moving line that never seems to die down.
Tacos come in threes, with choices of crispy corn or soft flour tortillas, grilled chicken or steak, braised pork or beef, and rice and beans. Chicken and steak both have a little heat from marinating in the eponymous chipotle pepper, but it was the layering of sweet and tangy flavors in the tender shredded pork that won the most accolades at our table, both in the soft-shelled flour tortilla and in the generous salad loaded with romaine, salsa and corn salad with a restrained serving of intense chipotle-honey vinaigrette. (The fresh fluffy guacamole was worth paying up for, though it lacked brightness of salt or lime.)
The earthy brown menu devotes equal space to the food and to the philosophy behind the food—which is printed, literally, behind the food on the backside of the narrow roster. With a finger placed squarely on the pulse of the evolving appetite for healthier, more sustainable food, Chipotle dishes up plenty of promises of meat from naturally raised cows and hogs, cheese from antibiotic-free cows, and beans and produce from organic and local farms when possible.
Ever since news broke that Denver-based Chipotle was coming to Nashville, the shorthand description for the chain has been something along the lines of "McDonald's Mexican concept." While the Golden Arches did formerly hold a stake in Chipotle, the company is now independent of the burger giant, and appears to be falling all over itself to shake any association. Chipotle's website even posts a link to Food, Inc., a documentary decrying concentrated animal feed lots, the U.S. food system's dependence on corn, and environmentally harmful practices of industrial farming associated with fast food. With such vociferous rejection of the classic fast-food model, it's curious that Chipotle still stocks a veritable high-fructose Niagara Falls of corn syrup-sweetened sodas. Of course, if you're worried about your corn-consuming conscience, you could stick with a bottle of beer: The West End store has Dos Equis Amber, Corona and Corona Light, Bohemia and a lone domestic, Miller Lite.
Chipotle serves lunch and dinner daily.
3061 Mallory Lane, 778-2878
Oh, where to begin when describing the first Tennessee outpost of the Texas-based Chuy's restaurant, which opened last month in Cool Springs? What one detail could possibly sum up the playful excess of the rapidly expanding chain? There's the sprawling, colorful patio forested with metal palm trees, thatched with real dried fronds and adorned with festive toucan-shaped planters fashioned from old tires. There's the diner-meets-hacienda decor, with a hubcap-clad ceiling, a riotous mosaic of patterned tiles of ceramic and linoleum varieties, and a salsa bar fitted into the trunk of a Cadillac with fins. There's even an Elvis shrine at all the stores. (All this creative scenery made the 50-minute wait on Black Friday pass relatively quickly.)
But the one detail that sums up Chuy's better than any other certainly must be...wait for it...the Elvis Presley Memorial Combo. A $10 trio of beef, cheese and chicken enchiladas—covered in red chile sauce, tomato sauce and cilantro-flecked tomatillo sauce, respectively—sprawls alongside rice and beans, with bonus sides of a hard taco and crisp tortillas strewn with melted cheese. The dish offered an almost encyclopedic taste of the signature flavors and recipes described across Chuy's broad menu.
The less flamboyantly named Southwestern offered a similarly indulgent plate of soft blue-corn tortillas stacked with roasted chicken and tangy green chile sauce and topped with the memorably decadent flourish of a fried egg, which drew the flavors together with a velvety finish.
We also enjoyed moments of surprising restraint, such as the soup with pulled chicken and hunks of tomato and avocado bobbing in a soothing clear broth.
Our two criticisms: a cloyingly sweet margarita and over-fried shingles of fish in the Baja tacos.
It takes more than bulky servings and a passion for the King to earn the kind of cult following that Chuy's enjoys in Texas. Throughout our meal, we spotted several details than help explain the feverish loyalty accrued over three decades. Among them: bottomless baskets of warm paper-thin tortilla chips that all but melt across the tongue, fluffy flour tortillas that recall the most delicate of chewy falafel wraps, and complimentary Blue Bell ice cream pops for kids.
As we concluded our meal and packed the substantial leftovers into carryout boxes, there was mild discord about who had ordered the best dish, but when I asked what everyone would order on a return trip, there was unanimous agreement: Less.
Chuy's serves lunch and dinner daily.
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