By Jack Peat
Mexican food has been somewhat absent, or at least under represented, in the UK for some time. Whereas people in the US enjoy burritos and tacos as a staple high street diet us Brits have been left to seek out our refried beans and pulled meats. But not for much longer.
A new wave of fast food – or perhaps I should use ‘over the counter’ to avoid the negative connotations – Mexican restaurants have finally found their way to London’s high streets serving up staple Latin America foods in the shape of burritos and tacos. In an attempt to shake up the market they take a Nando’s-esque approach to catering by using simple menus and counter service in a restaurant setting. It’s food-in-hand-in-under-five-minutes stuff, but with enough panache to distinguish the offering from multinational fast food counterparts.
Over the past year I’ve been making regular (once a month) Friday visits to Benito’s Hat which has a couple of eateries within close proximity of my central London office, but last week I committed food adultery by visiting a newly-opened Chipotle Mexican grill in Soho. Despite championing remarkably similar business models such as simplicity and high customer turnover I was surprised by how the two contrasted on taste, which is why I wanted to weigh up the attributes of both and decide who now has my burrito allegiance.
Benito’s Hat could be described as somewhat of an innovator in the high street Mexican food arena. Named after ex-Mexican president Benito Juárez and his penchant for bizarre hats it was founded by Ben Fordham on returning to the UK after a year in Texas where he sampled the wealth of Mexican food on offer. In partnership with chef Felipe Fuentes Cruz they developed a simple menu to lure in Brits who know little of Mexican food past what they read on an Old el Paso box.
The restaurant’s defining attribute is its character. Using vibrant colours and upbeat branding it projects a friendly and relaxed restaurant setting that is reinforced by the staff who always serve with a smile. The range of alcoholic options and deserts also make it a bit of care-free place to eat lunch or grab a quick dinner with a range of Mexican beers, wines, cocktails as well as the classic margarita on offer.
For the price (around £10 for a burrito and a beer) you get a sizeable meal that will put even the hungriest of stomachs to the test. Each meal is served with tortilla chips and there’s always a range of dips to try while you snake your way to the counter, ensuring that your burrito is suitably spiced to your preference.
Chipotle is the big boy of the market after making a name for itself in America and replicating its success around Europe. Founded by Steve Ells in 1993 it skyrocketed when McDonald’s Corporation became a major investor and now boasts 1,600 locations, a net income of US$327.4 million (2013) and a staff of more than 45,000 employees.
Its launch into UK territory was pretty spectacular and soon grabbed the headlines by giving away 14,000 burritos for free in its opening week. Hungry Londoners were lured into flash Twitter/ Instagram campaigns directing them to sites like www.doihavethespeedthebrainsthefocustowinafreechipotleburritotoday.com and other such elongated domains. It seemed to piss a few people off at points, but you’ve got to credit them for their originality and you’ll never get something for nothing.
Chipotle is a more refined eatery with a communal feel. The focus is very much on using fresh and locally sourced food which was noticeable in the end product. Their mission statement, Food with Integrity, highlights its efforts in using organic ingredients, serving more naturally raised meat than any other restaurant chain. The various rice options and fresh salad turns what is a traditionally heavy dish into a more refreshing meal and, unlike Benito’s Hat, Chipotle doesn’t make you feel like you might die after you’ve finished your meal.
Battle of the Burritos
Overall the choice between Benitos Hat and Chipotle will be judged by my mood on the day. There will be the Fridays that call for a good craic and the Fridays that call for a good eat, but mainly, I’ll just be grateful that there are new entrants making a go of it in a completely unsaturated market.
Jack Peat authors ‘Of Wood and Region’, a journey across Europe drawing on the similarities of the most renowned drink regions of the world.