Battle Feel-Good Gabacho Burritos

Categories: Dueling Dishes
Freebirds burrito wrapped in cayenne tortilla

Earlier this year, Freebirds World Burritos opened its first location in Orange. In case you haven't heard about this Santa Barbara-by-way-of-Texas chain, it competes in a very specific niche of the fresh-Mex quick-serve restaurant industry against Chipotle Mexican Grill: the sort-of-naturally raised meat, do-gooder, save-the-world-one-burrito-at-a-time niche.

Chipotle is committed to increasing the number of farmers who raise livestock sustainably, humanely and naturally fed. The chain makes a big deal about this business practice, but at the same time, weasels itself out of 100 percent compliance. Its website claims, "It means that, whenever possible, we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones." Whenever possible?!? The beans and meat you get might be organic, sustainable and ethically raised -- or not. Really, there's no way to know.

This sustainable-food ethos is a worthy corporate mission, but bottom line: How are the burritos?

The ordering system at both Chipotle and Freebirds is nearly identical: After you pick which size burrito you want, your server walks you past the steam table filled with different meats, rices, beans, salsas and toppings. It's all very customizable, and because all the ingredients are laid out before you, part of the appeal is the personalized ordering experience.


A giant Easy Rider poster to go with your feel-good burrito?

There are too many damn choices at Freebirds. Four sizes of burrito, including the Super Monster that's as big around as a supermodel's thigh. Four kinds of tortilla, two kinds of rice, three kinds of beans, eight sauces, and five proteins including fried fish. That doesn't even factor in the many veggie add-ons. When I walked into the store, the idea of a Baja-style fish burrito sounded good, until I got to the steam table and saw some sad, lonely, breaded fish sticks sitting at the bottom of the steam pan.

Not knowing how long that fish has been drying out, carnitas sounds like a better option. Tender, seasoned adequately and moist, it's not half-bad, but not the sublime carnitas you can have just up the street at La Reina Market, either.

The rice? Cilantro-lime rice, with a potent citric tang and lots of flavor. Corn salsa: sweet and delicious. Roasted garlic cloves: can't disguise flavor in those. Two kinds of onion and cilantro. A side of grilled lime wedges and grilled jalapeños. Wrapped up and eaten as a whole? Big flavors in a perfectly decent, if gabacho burrito. I'm not giving up El Toro Bravo's burrito any time soon, but Freebirds is very good for what it is.

Freedom of choice is part of Freebirds' pseudo-hippie corporate talking points, but why keep weak choices on the menu that sacrifice quality for speedy service? Even McDonald's fries fish filets to order, and it can manage to get your food out in less than three minutes.


Chipotle's burrito, unwrapped

Where entering a Freebirds store is like visiting a faux-hippie `60s memorabilia store with a classic-rock soundtrack to match, Chipotle decorates its restaurants in a cold, concrete-and-manufactured-wood look you'd find at the cafeteria of an engineering school. The blue-green glow of fluorescent lighting adds to the morgue-like feel of the room at night.

There are fewer choices of entrées and ingredients compared to Freebirds, so you'd expect there's greater effort to cook those fewer items more skillfully. But you'd be wrong. The cubes of presumably better-quality, grass-fed beef? Completely tough, chewy and unseasoned. On the plus side, the kitchen staff managed to cook the beef to medium-rare. The rest of the ingredients paled in flavor.

It's Cooking 101: Every component of a dish must be seasoned correctly. Salsa and condiments do not magically compensate for meat that's undersalted. 


The last and only other time I visited a Chipotle was at least 10 years ago at a Costa Mesa location on Harbor Boulevard. I remember thinking I could eat a thousand-fold-better burrito a short drive away at El Toro Bravo. I've never had any reason to return to Chipotle until I needed to revisit one for this story, and I won't need to again for a very long time. The winner of Battle Feel-Good Gabacho Burrito by a mile: Freebirds!

Freebirds World Burrito, 1632 E Katella Ave., Ste. A, Orange, (714) 628-0651;
Chipotle Mexican Grill, locations nationwide;

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I have to disagree with you here. I've been to Freebirds a number of times and although my first visit was good, each visit has degraded my trust in their product and the taste of their food. Also it always just seems weird in there. It's loud and they are all trying to be cool, just sort of off. And they charge for the corn salsa, something that is free at Chipotle. Lastly none of the sauces or salsas are really that great. You would expect a place that serves burritos to have like a good hot sauce or something, but then you get the server recommending I put some type of BBQ sauce monstrosity on my burrito that I end up regretting. Don't get me wrong Freebirds isn't terrible, in fact it's ok if you are looking for a big ass burrito filled with stuff, but I'm give the title to Chipotle even though the guy that created it acted like some entitled pretentious prick on America's Next Great Restaurant...


Full disclosure: Chipotle is a client of mine.  IMHO, Chipotle is not at all "weaseling out" on 100% organic/sustainable compliance.  They actually find it impossible to source enough of the stuff to meet the demand of supplying over 1,000 restaurants across the continent. 

And absolutely, there is no excuse for the steak not to have an adobo kick to it.  I dine there a few times a month (obviously) and there are times the food doesn't hit the mark...but many times it does, too.   As popular as El Toro Bravo (deservedly) is, I don't think they serve 500 people over 2 hours for lunch every day. 

So let's at least go to Chipotle when in Peoria, and ETB here in la naranja!!



Though only somewhat comparable, La Fogata in CDM has been serving "Healthy Mex" for quite some time.  The California burrito is filled with meat and grilled vegetables.  I'm not sure if anyone needs grilled zucchini or yellow squash in a burrito but its pretty darn tasty.    

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

Disagreement is totally welcome, Dan. I totally agree with you about Freebirds' uninteresting sauces. The hottest sauce? Completely not hot and lacking in any flavor or character of interesting chiles.

I had to edit this down to nuts and bolts - the story was getting over-long and I couldn't get that detailed about my criticism of the food.

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

I'm all for the mission of 100% family-farmed, locally-sourced and so on, but I'm skeptical that Chipotle can drive that market shift. For them to market it as such is duplicitous.

If they were sincerely committed to keep it 100%-compliant with their aim, why continue growing to 1000+ locations when their means of production is already insufficient to achieve the mission? Stuff still needs to be raised, grown, and distributed on a massive scale to support an operation spread across a continent, and only gets worse when Chipotle keeps upping the restaurant count. Isn't this the definition of "unsustainable?"

But bottom line, jb -  if they're taking meat carefully raised without hormones, antibiotics and sustainably by a family farm, then doing a lousy job cooking it, why bother at all?

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

I haven't tried La Fogata, but good vegetarian options are always good to know about.

For this story, I was going for the specific niche of naturally-raised, maybe-organic ingredients, and the do-gooder corporate mission.


Chipotle doesn't need me to defend them -- and I'm already in danger of being axed for violating the NDA and contract I signed -- but I gotta say, they could do no marketing whatsoever, and they'd still have a line out the door at 12:15 every day.  I truly prefer to think the organic and locally-sourced preaching is meant to be more socially provocative messaging under the cloak of marketing, rather than marketing.   

Regarding the expansion, Chipotle had a choice a few years ago: stay tied to McDonalds (an early, critical investor), or do an IPO.  Either scenario would result in some unbridled growth.  Let's hope that ultimately, choosing the latter will have proven they avoided becoming McMexicanized in the supply chain. 

And give those steak burritos some more chances!  The Costa Mesa and Santa Ana/Bristol Street locations aren't solid performers, but try the one on Barranca Parkway in Irvine, or near Brookhurst & Garfield in FV.  Can't promise satisfaction, but the odds will be better at these two. 


Here is the link to their website.  Check it out I would love to know what you, Edwin or Dave thinks about it.  Gustavo too but he can be a little to Purista when it comes to Mexican food. ( Which I dont fault him for)

Shuji Sakai
Shuji Sakai

Sorry to inform you this photo was taken at the Irvine Chipotle on Barranca.

Also agree that they will have a line of loyal fans regardless of my opinions. Good on 'em for at least taking on a worthy cultural battle. I just don't know how committed they are to it vs. corporate growth and the shareholders' dividends.


I figured you would say that and i'm not going to entirely disagree, I think about eating there all the time... Just not motivated to drive all the way down to CDM to get it. 

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