Will Self goes to Chipotle, and finds the culinary treasures of the Sierra Madre far away

Chi-pôte-lay isn’t only frequently mispronounced. It’s also continuously misconceived.

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It’s spelled “Chipotle”, as in the Nahuatl name for the fiery jalapeño chilli, but pronounced “Chi-pôte-lay”, which a recent ad campaign for the chain apparently makes great play of. We’re talking the Chipotle Mexican Grill, here – and frankly that’s about as Mexican as the outfit gets, given that it was the brainchild of a professionally trained chef, the child of a pharmaceutical exec who was born in Indianapolis, raised in Boulder, Colorado, and found his inspiration scarfing Mexican street food in San Francisco’s Mission District – although he was working as a sous chef at Stars, an über-tony eatery, at the time.

Chi-pôte-lay has had a few tussles with immigration officials over workers who were hired with duff papers – and one assumes that these folk, together with many more of their workers, have Mexican origins. Oh, and some Mexican dude was reportedly refused a drink once in a branch of Chi-pôte-lay, because it wouldn’t accept his Mexican passport as ID.

Steve Ells, who got the whole burrito rolling in 1993, has a long-standing commitment to environmental sustainability, humane farming... blah, blah, bleurgh. It’s not that I’m agin such things – far from it – and nor do I feel that those who prioritise these concerns above the requirement for absolute economic equality are class traitors (what class – to whom could they be betrayed?)... Nevertheless, there’s still something faintly nauseating about Ells salsa-ing away with nearly $30m last year while his very modest-wage peons sweated over identical metal tubs full of guacamole, rice, lettuce, salsa, spicy beef, pork and chicken, together with a few other pinto beans and bobs at some 1,700 locations the world over... 1,700!

That’s what it’s like, the chain-restaurant-reviewing business: you notice a new, corporate-looking food outlet and think to yourself, “Mmm, I wonder if that’s the beginning of a chain?”... Then you turn away and, before you know it, you feel its heavy links clanking around your neck...

Still, at least the Chi-pôte-lay that I went to in central London had a smooth ramp and well-maintained handrail for dis- or differently abled customers integrated into its entrance, rather than stuck round the side (or inexistent), and that was nice...

The next positive was the decor and the lighting quality: mid-tan woodblock floors, darker-wood laminated furniture, zinc-topped counters, round downlights and the otherwise harsh neon strip lights wooden-box-shaded above those counters. Interior lighting is so odd... When you stop to think about it, it has taken electric lighting about a century to get to the point where it can replicate the warm tones and steady permeability of gas...

Anyway, Chi-pôte-lay felt very soothing indeed. Still more soothing was the menu’s simplicity: you can have combos of all those ingredients listed above in tacos, a burrito or a bowl... There were drinks to one side in a cooler and brown-bagged tortilla chips, together with dips (in the aforementioned modular dispensers) by the till... Guys in aprons flame-grilled in the background and other guys in the foreground assembled the meals... That’s it...

I like Mexican food well enough. (Do I really mean this? No, what I mean is: drunk or stoned, I have scarfed a few late-night burritos in LA and San Francisco and other points in the American south-west, much in the spirit with which Brit revellers neck kebabs.) But there is a world of difference between the culinary treasure of the Sierra Madre and some mass-market slop fired up with a few handfuls of chipotle and a dash of Tabasco...

I had the pork, brown rice, pinto beans, lettuce, guacamole... My companion chose the chicken burrito with mild salsa... We sat at a counter fronted by a large, plate-glass window that looked out on to Tottenham Court Road... On the far side the ghost of Foyles bookshop past had taken up residence in the corpse of Saint Martin’s School of Art...

My food came in a brown, oval, eco-cardboard dish that was a little too kidney-shaped for my taste... The food tasted all right – a little bland... You might say: “Well, that’s because you didn’t have the proper Mexican bits... ” But I think it a fair judge of an establishment how it serves basic ingredients, basically cooked... On that basis, I’m happy to award Chi-pôte-lay four fat, gold, spicy stars – and as far as I’m concerned it can begin pathway-planning its expansion to 3,500 outlets worldwide...

My companion was less hortatory. He stubbed out the nub end of his burrito on the little space blanket of silvered paper it had been wrapped in and sneered: “Basically, it’s a very slightly upmarket Subway.” I caught the full force of his critique with immediate effect and thought: “He’s right!” Bland isn’t good enough, given that it’s £19.95 for blandness that might well cost a tenner elsewhere... And especially when it cloaks such a chilly exercise in simulation...

Chi-pôte-lay isn’t only frequently mispronounced. It’s also continuously misconceived.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires