Small Plates, Friday, 12/15

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At long last Chipotle has arrived in St. Louis -- sort of. The first area location of the Denver-based burrito masters opened today at 2028 Highway K in O'Fallon (636-240-7276).

Chris Arnold, Chipotle's "director of hoopla, hype and ballyhoo" (as he's described in a company press release) told me that fifteen minutes after opening, the place was full. During a "free day" yesterday, Chipotle gave away approximately 1,600 burritos at its new location, Arnold says.

Chipotle is the rare fast-casual restaurant chain -- really, the rare chain, period -- to earn both popular and critical respect. Its popular acclaim isn't hard to fathom. For under $10 you get a massive, freshly made and damn-tasty burrito. It's two meals' worth of food -- if you're not a glutton like I am.

(You may want to restrain yourself, though. According to the nutrition information on the Chipotle Web site, a burrito with nothing but rice, black beans and chicken would total 919 calories, 31 percent of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat and a whoppin' 87 percent of your RDA of sodium. You can also play around with nutrition info and other stuff here.)

Chipotle has also earned respect for its commitment to sustainable agriculture and naturally raised (i.e., vegetarian diet, no antibiotics or hormones) beef, pork and poultry. Although the percentage of naturally raised meat a given Chipotle uses depends on local availability, Arnold says the St. Louis market is one of only a handful in the nation that features only naturally raised meat.

Of course, Chipotle isn't doing this for merely altruistic reasons. Naturally raised meat tastes better. In fact, according to Arnold, this is why Chipotle made the switch. Founder and CEO Steve Ells wanted to improve the chain's carnitas recipe, so he tried pork from Niman Ranch, near San Francisco. He was hooked.

Still, naysayers may grouse, it's a chain. Consider the economies of scale, though. As Arnold points out, when Chipotle started sourcing pork from Niman Ranch, it had about 50 stores, and there were about 50 independent farms under the Niman Ranch umbrella. Today, there are more than 500 Chipotle locations -- and more than 500 Niman Ranch-associated farms.

For now Chipotle plans to open three additional area locations: in Creve Coeur, Chesterfield and in the city. St. Louis can probably expect more locations in the future. Arnold says existing markets account for 80 percent to 90 percent of the company's growth.

Ian Froeb

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