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Little Rock goes crazy for Chipotle 

Is the fuss deserved?

Central Arkansas has freaked over Chipotle Mexican Grill. Since the Denver-based chain opened its first Little Rock restaurant Aug. 16, the crowds have been unbelievably large. Friends have reported lines snaking so far out the small eatery's door that they turned around and headed home. We decided 2:30 p.m. Saturday was as safe a bet as any, but the line still reached the door and never shortened in the 45 minutes we were there.

Chipotle does the few things it does quite well — meat, rice, beans, guacamole, salsa, cheese, sour cream and not much else, served in a flour tortilla the diameter of a pizza crust, thrown in a bowl, stuffed in soft or hard tortillas as tacos or piled atop shredded Romaine.

Three of the four meats are definitely off-the-charts good, the guacamole is very respectable and the salsas are bold and flavorful. The rice and beans are, well ... rice and beans.

While well executed, this isn't a new concept for local diners — think Blue Coast Burrito, Moe's Southwest Grill and the late Flying Burrito.

So why has all of greater Little Rock decided Chipotle is a must-try-as-soon-as-possible spot? We figure some have enjoyed Chipotles in other cities and now can get a local fix. Others surely have heard raves from friends. Maybe still others are impressed by Chipotle's commitment to using ingredients sourced locally, "naturally raised" meats, a focus on organic beans and its overall "Food With Integrity" theme: "our commitment to finding the very best ingredients raised with respect for the animals, the environment and the farmers." And Little Rock always flocks to new places.

But still.

It's hard to believe the crowds will stay this big for too much longer. There just doesn't seem to be enough variety to keep people coming back regularly. But who knows? Plus, there are only 40-something inside seats and 20-something on the patio, so it doesn't take a massive throng to pack the place.

Our group of six had about 15 minutes to ponder the rectangular cardboard menus you grab when you walk in the door — if/when you can get in — before we got to the head of the assembly line and it was time to make the call. It wasn't hard for us to cover all the bases.

After you choose your ingredient container, you name your meat. There is marinated "grilled" chicken that actually is griddled, and it's $5.95 no matter which way you get it. The others are $6.35 — steak, Barbacoa (beef much like spicy pot roast, braised and shredded) and Carnitas (shredded pork done just like the beef). Then you give thumbs up or down to cilantro-lime rice, choose between black or pinto beans, choose your salsa, decide between sour cream or shredded white cheese and choose or eschew guacamole (remember this will add $1.80, not an unsubstantial add-on, percentage-wise, to a $6 entree).

No one will leave Chipotle hungry, but if quantity is a priority for you, go for the burrito. One of our party had the steak burrito and another chose the veggie ($5.95), which is the only item where guacamole comes gratis. The steak was the weak meat of the bunch, based on a couple of bites. It was not strongly flavored and was a little tough.

The other three meats are fabulous. The griddled chicken was smoky, tender and well-spiced/herbed with a Southwest blend that must have included cumin and chili powder. The two pot-roast-style meats were flavorful, tender and almost a little too juicy, as the runoff in the bottom of the wax paper-lined basket made the hard tacos soggy.

Three tacos come in an order, and you can mix/match meats and toppings, making for three very different taste sensations. The roasted chili-corn salsa — one of four choices — is really more like a relish, and it definitely added some flair to a carnitas taco that would have been good even without it.

We got sides of the medium and the hot salsa, both tomatillo-based. At $1.65 for a very small plastic container, they seemed a bit pricey, but both were boldly flavored and had some good zing. The guacamole — the same $1.80 for a small container as for adding to a meal — is chunky and a bit salty, which we enjoyed. Beer ($3.35 and $3.90) and margaritas ($4.25) are on the menu, but covered with a "Liquor License Pending" sign. It seems odd that the local franchisees couldn't get the paperwork in order to get this procedural matter handled before opening day. But surely "pending" soon will yield to "secured."

When you get to the cash register you will see order forms to fax to Chipotle when you want to grab your meal to go, as well as a "Burritos by the Box" order form for groups or parties — $7.85 for each of the four meat and the one vegetarian options, including guacamole, salsa and chips — with a minimum order of six.

One point that really can't be debated is the food-for-the-money quotient. Six diners — with entrees, small drinks and side salsa/guac added — had a total tab of $53, even after four of the six unwittingly agreed to the extra $1.80 for guacamole. And there were plenty of leftovers for most to haul home.

Will the Chipotle craze endure? The chain has more than 1,000 locations in 38 states, and is moving in on 20 years since its founding, so who's to argue that it won't?

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