Chipotle is going through a painful existential crisis -- here's why you should eat at its biggest Tex-Mex rival instead

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderQdoba makes a tasty burrito.

Chipotle isn’t the shining star it used to be.

Its founder and CEO, Steve Ells, was officially replaced by former Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol in March. Niccol has his work cut out for him as he aims to recover Chipotle’s bruised reputation in the wake of its 2015 E.coli outbreak, and many predict big changes could be on the way.

Yet in spite of its numerous struggles, Chipotle has lingered in the public consciousness and maintained its grip on the Tex-Mex fast-casual market.

Merely two years after Chipotle was founded in Denver, Colorado, in 1993, another Tex-Mex chain, called Qdoba, sprung up in the same city.

While it has labored more or less in Chipotle’s shadow, Qdoba is, without a doubt, superior in nearly every way. It has a more interesting menu, less fuss, and a sterling reputation – not to mention free guac.

Having recently revisited Chipotle to see how the chain is doing, I decided to go back to my one true Tex-Mex chain love to compare:


Qdoba is a national chain with over 700 locations — a far cry from Chipotle’s 2,200-plus restaurants, but nothing to sniff at. It’s the same idea as Chipotle: fast-casual assembly line with burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, and the like. Qdoba also has taco salads, quesadillas, and soups, though — a key difference.

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Source: Qdoba


I decided to get a simple chicken burrito to compare to my recent Chipotle burrito review. Nothing fancy, and almost exactly the same ingredients: chicken, cilantro rice, black beans, pico de gallo, salsa verde, guac, queso, cheese, and lettuce.

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But before even tasting the burrito, I noted that Qdoba already has a huge advantage over Chipotle: the guac and queso are free add-ons. That’s right, free. Chipotle’s guac can cost over $US2 as an add-on, and so does the queso. Tacking nearly $US4 on to your burrito, just for some delicious cheese and cool, refreshing guacamole? That’s heinous.

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So, Qdoba already has that going for it. The burrito is solidly wrapped, and I notice that there are no tears or sogginess, unlike Chipotle’s.

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There are no salsa juices seeping through, making it easy to keep in the foil without errant and unexpected drips.

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It feels only a little bit smaller than Chipotle’s standard burrito, which seems like a more manageable meal. It may just be my personal preference, but Chipotle’s burritos are way too hefty.

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There are six proteins to choose from for a base: two types of chicken, pulled pork, steak, brisket, and veggies. Of the two chicken choices, I opted for the tequila lime seasoning over the grilled adobo — it adds a clean, bright citrus flavour to the burrito. The chicken is juicy and extremely flavorful.

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Plus, the cilantro rice brings further brightness to the taste. The ratios are spot-on, with beans, rice, chicken, and add-ins all evenly spaced and properly placed. The tortilla manages to stay firmly wrapped and avoids sogginess, and while my quip with Chipotle’s burrito construction lies with the ingredients I chose — queso, guac, a more watery salsa verde — the same ingredients were chosen here, with much cleaner results.

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And the queso — oh, the queso. As I’ll explain later, it’s miles beyond Chipotle’s attempt. It’s perfect in a burrito without being overwhelmingly rich. When added to Chipotle’s burrito, queso weighs down the flavours; in Qdoba’s, it elevates and complements them.

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And the guac is on par with Chipotle’s, easily. I’m not sure it outshines, but considering it’s a free add-on to the burrito at Qdoba, that makes it the clear winner. Saving money tastes just as good as guacamole.

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On a taste note, however, I really appreciate the red onion that Qdoba adds. It brings a bit of a bite to the smooth avocado, as well as some textural contrast.

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Then there’s the queso. Delicious, perfect queso. Chipotle’s first iteration was… well, ghastly. The chain’s second attempt is a marked improvement; however, it can’t hold a candle to Qdoba’s.

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This queso is rich, velvety, and smooth. It smells exactly as it should: a strange, yet overwhelmingly alluring, liquid cheese aroma filled with spices and savoury deliciousness.

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There are two kinds of queso at Qdoba (Need I even go on at this point? Qdoba is clearly better): Three Cheese and “Queso Diablo.” The three-cheese queso has a savoury smokiness to it, and while it does pack a little punch, it’s more of a flavorful spice than a fiery heat.

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Chipotle’s main obstacle with finding the perfect queso was of its own doing: the confines of purely organic ingredients are tight. Meanwhile, do we know that everything that’s in Qdoba’s queso is organic? No. Do we care? I sure don’t — not if it means having access to such perfect queso.

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In my opinion, Chipotle cannot possibly be as good as Qdoba. There are too many factors in which Qdoba has the upper hand: better pricing, better queso, and a more interesting menu.

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So while Chipotle continues to hobble along, I can only hope Qdoba manages to take the lead. Keep trying on that queso though, Chipotle, and maybe you’ll get it some day.

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