Friday, September 10, 2010

Qdoba's leap onto the lettuce-wrap bandwagon

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 5:16 PM

We should have known when we saw the napkins.

Amid the towering plastic containers full of chicken, veggies, sauces and lettuce leaves, the fat paper bag looked promising. Tortilla chips? Or, since Qdoba is avowedly aping P.F. Chang’s with its new Mexican Lettuce Wraps, perhaps they invented the world’s first Mexican Fortune Cookie?

No. The fat paper bag was full — full — of napkins.

We might have been tempted to decry the waste of paper, but the chuckling Qdoba rep* knew what he was doing. By the midpoint of the orgy of dipping, saucing and crunching that followed the wraps’ arrival in the Indy lunchroom, the only consensus was that this was not a meal you’d want to eat in front of your boss.

Full disclosure: I’m an intern here at the Indy, and therefore everyone can be said to be, in some way, my boss.

Fortunately, they were far too absorbed by their own food to worry about the lack of grace with which I was eating mine. Lettuce wraps might be a healthy alternative to the average Buick-sized burritos one finds at pop-Mexican lunch joints like Qdoba, but neat and clean they aren’t.

However, given an ample supply of napkins, they’re well worth a try.

Qdoba’s wraps come in three varieties. Like Barbie, each component comes encased in its own plastic packaging. Also like Barbie, each variation has several different, individualized accessories.

Lettuce looks very green when encased in six pounds of black plastic.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Bright green lettuce approaches neon status when encased in six pounds of black plastic.

The garden veggie wrap, boasting a zucchini-corn-black bean mixture in place of animal protein, came with ranch dressing and a light, yogurty-tasting guacamole, while the two chicken options came with mango salsa and barbecue sauce, respectively.

Lovers of Qdoba’s chicken mango salad will rejoice that they can now get their fix in something other than a giant fried-tortilla bowl. Though the accompanying chicken tasted like it had spent a bit too long in cryo before landing on my lunch plate, the sweet-tart, oniony taste of the salsa made up for the lacking moisture. The lime-cilantro dressing didn’t hurt, either, though the salsa delivered more flavor and a fresher taste.

The barbecue, which supposedly had been acquainted with ancho chiles at some point, was a disappointing one-two punch of saccharin and capsaicin. However, the accompanying cucumber-tomato salsa was a standout for flavor and texture, with juicy chunks of cucumber and little bright-red shreds of what looked like bell pepper.

Our crew of taste-testers spent a while speculating on just how chain restaurants like Qdoba manage to provide themselves with well-ripened, flavorful fruits and veggies day after day. Had those mango chunks been in the deep freeze? Did the blushing tomatoes owe their color to a healthy dose of ethylene gas? Their flavor and texture said otherwise. We were impressed by both the quality and variety to be found in each of the three black takeout boxes.

And that encapsulates the main appeal of Qdoba’s lettuce wraps. Unlike the version served at P.F. Chang’s or its take-away sister, Pei Wei, the main ingredient of the (quote, unquote) Mexican version is fresh, colorful plant matter. As you can see if you look at the prominently placed Qdoba advert** on the Indy homepage this week, this means a satisfying lunch portion will set you back just 350 calories. Of course, they can also be treated as starters before you dive into your Buick-sized burrito, which is probably what Qdoba hopes you’ll do on Friday the 17th, when the wraps will be free with the purchase of a drink at all of its five Colorado Springs locations.

Just don’t bring your boss.

—-

* It was amazing, actually. I’d never before seen a guy so jazzed about driving through Colorado Springs on a hot day with a car full of Mexican takeout.

** Of course we’re in their pocket. They gave us a free lunch.

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