Queso has recently appeared on the menu at Chipotle NEXT Kitchen, a corporate facility grandly described on the facade as a “Menu Exploration Restaurant.” The buff-colored building at the corner of 13th Street and 6th Avenue has raised tables surmounted by steel lighting frames that make the tables look like lab benches, creating a crazy-scientist vibe not unlike Il Laboratorio del Gelato.
When I arrived around 1:30 in the afternoon, the place was crowded with excited Chipotle fans waiting in a long line that snaked up to the counter. Behind the counter two dozen uniformed employees hurrying around the kitchen, and a couple of obvious supervisors and consultants overseeing the activity.
The queso is available in two sizes ($3.45 for 4 ounces, $5.25 for 8 ounces), and consists of a plastic cup of the yellow substance and a paper bag of chips. The ingredients are listed on the signboard: “Cheddar cheese, jalapenos, tomatillos, spices and other real ingredients. Contains no added flavors, colors, gums or other industrial additives found in typical queso.”
Perhaps they are patting themselves on the back too hard, because Chipotle’s queso is notably bland, with virtually no heat or discernible chile flavor despite that it’s flecked red and green. The queso is also a bit grainy, but has a slight tart edge, perhaps from the tomatillos, an ingredient that might be profitably deployed in other menu items.
The chips are way too salty so that they burn the lips, maybe to make up for the lack of salt in the queso. They also have a lime-y aftertaste, which may be welcome to some. The quantity of chips is generous; the quantity of queso is not.
Queso is also available as an addition to the burritos. Two ounces of queso ($1.25) slathered inside a burrito gets lost among the other ingredients. So here’s the hack: Buy the four-ounce side of queso, pour it over the top of the burrito, and you have a good approximation of the burrito mojado.
Once at the NEXT Kitchen, I couldn’t help trying the other Chipotle experimental offerings. Drawn from the usual swirling machine and decorated with a lime slice, the frozen lime margarita ($6.20) was low on alcohol, though as a slushy it did a good job of delivering a cool-down on a hot day.
The new bunuelos ($1.95, a good deal!) were not the usual deep-fried flour tortillas dusted with sugar, but small, cinnamon-dusted chips: not bad at all, but not real bunuelos. The real payoff was the dark chocolate dipping sauce, which was delicious, with a bitter edge. It made me wonder: Could I make a chicken mole burrito by unwrapping the chicken burrito and pouring the chocolate sauce inside? Stay tuned.