So, I ate the burrito that the vegan world is buzzing about the other night, and you know what? I liked it. More than a little bit. Surprisingly, I found myself thinking about it, and more so, the implications of its potential introduction nationwide, all night long.
Where it all went down: The Pearl District Chipotle
Full Disclaimer: This was a complimentary, invite-only media tasting.
The run down:
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a media tasting of the new Chipotle Sofritas, aka the chain’s brand spanking new vegan option. They’d experimented with a limited run of vegan chicken in the past in the LA area, and the buzz for these Tofu Sofrtias was infectious as it expanded from California to the Northwest. My own experience with Chipotle is so limited that it involves eating some chips this one time. I figured that all of the vegans who already freaked out over Chipotle simply didn’t live near any other options. I didn’t get it. I live in Portland. I order my burritos from Los Gorditos with housemade soyrizo. What was the fuss? Then I realized…it wasn’t just the vegans in suburbs getting excited. Suddenly, with word of the Sofritas on the West Coast, I realized that I was in the minority. California vegans surely know burritos. And upon asking around, Chipotle remained something of a guilty pleasure for my Portland friends who had the same access to Los Gorditos and El Nutri (both of which offer full vegan menus). What was happening?
Let me get this out there: I certainly have mixed feelings about supporting massive chains (which I’ll dive into a bit at the end of this post), but the sake of my vegan curiosity got the best of me, plus the whole free-burrito-dinner thing.
In short, West Coast vegans were freaking out, and I wanted to know why.
The media tasting consisted of a small group with a curious lack of smartphones. It began with starters: tiny cups of Sofritas over the famous cilantro lime rice (and to those who know my disinterest in that first ingredient, you’ll be glad to know that I persisted and frankly, was expecting a lot more cilantro) with those salty chips and guacamole, drinks — did you know that Chipotle has margaritas?!, the low down from the friendly PR rep and local marketing guru, and finished with our own opinionated musings over filling entrees.
I’m getting to it.
Here’s the official blurb:
Sofritas is a new menu item from Chipotle that’s been exclusive to California and is now expanding to the Pacific Northwest.Sofritas are made with shredded organic, non-GMO tofu from Oakland, California’s Hodo Soy, and braised with chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices. Available in burritos, tacos, burrito bowls, and salads, Chipotle expects Sofritas to appeal to vegetarian and vegan customers, as well as those who are looking for delicious new menu items.
So there I was, tiptoeing into the vegans-who-love Chipotle club, which is certainly a bit weird, but shows the curious, hopeful progress veganism has made in the big scary, mainstream. Right?
Like I said, Chipotle was never on my radar, so the whole thing was a nice surprise. I didn’t grow up eating burritos. I had my first during the end of my college days, the BBQ tofu burrito from now defunct Burrito Max in Kenmore Square. As a longtime vegetarian, I’d had my share of boring hummus & veggie wraps before then, and plenty of bean tacos, but burritos remained (ridiculously) mysteriously intimating for years. But that’s a whole other story.
The Sofritas is currently being offered on the West Coast, which was very recently expanded into the Northwest, hence the media tasting. It features Oakland-based, shredded Hodo Soy tofu (which has also fairly recently started a run at Whole Foods, hmm) immersed in spices and hot peppers, as described all officially above. Think of it as a spicy, scrambled tofu that would be perfect for some Vegan Migas at your favorite Portland brunch spot. I know I am.
You can order it in a bowl, burrito, taco or salad. Since I’m making up for lost time with the whole burrito thing, my choice was clear, but both J. Legume and Michele, who I was dining with, went for bowls.
Look, two bites into this already hyped burrito, I realized that it’s the type of dish that will potentially change lives: by changing someone’s perspective on tofu. I could see my siblings (my brother, in particular, thinks that vegans should skip fake meats and eat more vegetables) enjoying this, no problem. It’s remarkably flavorful and deliciously saucy. I quickly began to ‘get’ Chipotle’s appeal.
It didn’t change my life, but I think it will appeal to thousands of vegans and non-vegans alike, which is the point.
Hot, hot, hot
I do enjoy my heat (not that I’ll insist on a Ghost Pepper-infused Bloody Mary, but I dig pickled jalapeño on my sandwiches and had already sampled the filling on its own), and added the so-called ‘Hot’ tomatillo-red chili salsa on mine (which yeah, came with a warning) and found the overall heat and flavor of my burrito enjoyable. It reverberated with each bite and never overtook the rest of the flavors. The spices from the salsa and Sofritas melted in and gave a decent amount of heat. Sure, there are those people who pour the same hot sauce on everything after decades of smoking, and those who want everything to taste the same, but that’s not me. The purpose of heat is sure, to make things hotter, but to elevate the entire experience, bringing a slightly new flavor (and not just of the hot sauce) to the dish.
If you’re one to skip the hot sauce, Oregonian Foodday writer Grant Butler recommends subbing half of your Sofritas for more black beans when heat is a concern. I also concur with his similar thoughts on the questionable lack of decent hot sauce at the chain (similar to my beloved Veggie Grill). Like I said, if you enjoy heat to tingle your taste buds and bring the burrito together, go for hot salsa. They also offer a fresh tomato salsa, roasted chile-corn and tomato-green chili varieties for the mild and medium folks.
Blame the hype, but as a first-timer, I found myself expecting a monstrous burrito twice this size that wold fill me for days. Silly me.
The one true gripe I heard at our table and on the internet since?
That the Sofritas does not include complimentary guacamole, while the vegetarian burritos and bowls apparently do. I see what they’re doing here, but who doesn’t want fresh guacamole when it’s available? I didn’t think to add it while I was ordering, and we still had some on our table, but it would have made things even better. There is quite a salty, spiced element to the filling, and the guacamole would do well to balance it out.
Still, that’s a whole lot of burrito. And those chips are crack.
Okay, forget what I said about thinking the burrito was small. Here’s J. Legume’s devoured bowl.
Later that night, once I had digested and was back home curled up on the couch watching the second season of Lost Girl with J. Legume, I realized I was still thinking about those Sofritas.
They made a positive, tasty impression at the time, but I didn’t expect this. I’m a local diner at heart, but found myself wondering, “When’s my next road trip”? (aka Sofritas excuse, or opportunity).
By this point, I was content.
The burrito got the best of me. Or vice versa.
Isn’t it something that the vegan option at a national fast food chain isn’t just a surprise relief, but actually….good?!
Final notes: While I ultimately enjoyed my Sofritas experience, let’s remember, I’m vegan. My personal reasons for being vegan include my own sense of ethics. Noticing the hunks of meat and chicken and bacon-cooked pintos alongside the vegetables, rice, Sofritas and salsas was pretty gross. As is realizing that families around you are digging into the same. For years, I used to walk by a downtown McDonald’s on my way to work and seeing people hunched over Big Macs was always disheartening. I’m all for people eating more tofu and vegetables and that much less meat, but it remains was a surreal experience. I have countless vegan options in my area, and now there’s one more that won’t become a part of my routine, but I certainly support its expansion. Personally, I make a point to spend my money at local establishments with similar values and delicious offerings that I’d be sad to see closed. If you have options, the decision of where to spend your money is so, so important.
With that said, the complimentary meal card I received, free and delightful as it may be, rubbed me the wrong way…because I don’t think any hog ‘farming’ is humane.
The back of the card was an ode to Mr. Willis’ crusade to ‘help’ hogs. Depressing reminder.
It makes one remember: this is freaking Chipotle we’re talking about. A lot of vegans and vegetarians (remember, people choose this lifestyle of a variety of reasons) clearly choose to eat there. Many, many will continue to openly disagree. However, I can see a lot of vegans and vegetarians-to-be, and even those who will never commit, experiencing an entirely new side of tofu (as a vegan option) at this chain.
And that’s the point I hope my sharing of this experience and all these rants was focused on: changing lives by changing dining habits.
Chipotle’s menu move could be huge for the progress and acceptance of veganism into the mainstream. This means legit vegan road trip options and everyday inspiration for folks without vegetarian coop cafes in their neighborhoods (yet) to embrace vegan lifestyle and dining options. It’s controversial, no doubt, but even if it’s simply the same folks eating a little less meat and ordering a tofu burrito now and then, it’s a movement.
Will mainstream vegan options inspire or simply capitalize? Only time will tell, and I’m remaining optimistic.
It’s fascinating to imagine Sofritas as a nationwide menu item in areas where it may become the only vegan dinner option in town. On-wards.