Upon walking into George Lopez's new Chingon Kitchen, you get a very Chipotle-like vibe, as there are employees standing behind a glass wall, asking what you'd like on your burritos before they begin to build it right in front of you. You slowly shuffle down the line, telling them to fill up the tortilla with carne asada, rice, beans, guacamole, and salsa. You already know the drill, as we've been trained well by build-your-own chains like Subway, Blaze Pizza, and of course, Chipotle.
"Chipotle would be proud... We try not to let them touch none of our shit," -George Lopez
While the ordering format at Chingon Kitchen might be similar to that of the popular pseudo-Mexican chain, that's where the similarities end, as George Lopez put together a quick service restaurant that's actually a Mexican grill.
Imagine that, a build-your-own burrito restaurant that indeed makes you feel like you're eating Mexican food.
As you stand in line, you can see tortillas being handmade from scratch, an inviting sign for "Homemade horchata," and if you peek at the back end of the kitchen you'll see a giant vertical spit where the al pastor meat is being grilled. Right next to it, a wood-fire grill with slabs of carne asada being prepared.
Everything is made in-house, fresh, and almost feels like your abuelita is in the kitchen.
Lopez made it a point to be directly involved with the menu, making sure the flavors met his standards. He took familiar sights and sounds from both Mexico and the streets of Los Angeles, bringing them to life inside the San Manuel Casino, in Highland, California.
"You won't see anything like that anywhere but a truck,"Lopez said, glossy-eyed as he stared down the al pastor. "I wanted al pastor like in the streets of Mexico. That's how we're going to do it."
Lopez boasted about the importance of his food having authentic Mexican flavors, and that just may be the chip he can play to eventually compete with the likes of Chipotle.
"The most important thing I wanted to stress was that the food look authentic, that it taste authentic, and it would enhance the vision of Mexican food," Lopez said. "It would have people embrace the concept of eating something they might not be familiar with."
Yes, this is just one restaurant, inside a casino that's about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, but the potential of growth and expansion should excite fans of both Lopez and good Mexican food.
Lopez told Foodbeast that he is absolutely thinking about expanding Chingon Kitchen, and that should scare competitors, because the man has not only built a core fanbase in the Mexican community to rally around him, but actually has good food as the restaurant's foundation. Make no mistake, this is not your typical gimmicky celebrity restaurant.
"I see them [being] in casinos," Lopez asserted. "I also see them in airports. Felipe Esparza (fellow comedian) was at the airport, like, 'Hey, put one in terminal 1 at LAX.'"
Not to kick Chipotle while it's down, but setting aside all its food poisoning misfortune and plummeting stock, as someone who grew up in Los Angeles — a city rich in Mexican food and culture — calling Chipotle a "Mexican Grill" always felt like a stretch.
I've had my fair share of Chipotle burritos, and don't hate them, but there is nothing inherently special about them, and there definitely isn't much that screams "Mexican food."
It doesn't help that it has become associated with getting white girl wasted:
That's where George Lopez comes in, with his first stab at a more convincing version of Chipotle. How his Chingon Kitchen will look as a chain remains to be seen, but he's off to a hot start, and even took a playful jab at Chipotle, saying in a very George Lopez stand up tone, "Chipotle would be proud. We try not to let them touch none of our shit," giving a concerned look that many used to make when Taco Bell was the butt of diarrhea jokes.
In 1993, Chipotle founder Steve Ells followed his dream of opening a fresh fast food restaurant concept on the shoulders of Mexican culture. Big ups to the man for building an empire on hipster burritos, but any time someone says they're craving Mexican food, then proceeds to go to Chipotle, Frida Kahlo loses an eyebrow hair.
The fact that Ells is a white American doesn't immediately discount him from trying to sell Mexican food, but he in no way did it justice with Chipotle. He had a chance to represent and serve Mexican communities on a grand scale, and instead took safer routes by Americanizing key images of the business. Thankfully, you get just enough traces of Spanish influence in the form of their "carnitas," "barbacoa," "guacamole" and "tacos," to make it seem like it is honoring Mexican cuisine, but that's really where it begins and ends, as nothing else makes you feel like you're enjoying a piece of Mexican culture in your tastebuds.
George Lopez, regardless of where he goes with it, opened Chingon Kitchen with the intention of giving it due diligence. He grounded the restaurant with a taste of Chicano culture, along with incorporating the familiar "build-your-own" format made famous by Chipotle.
In all honesty, Chipotle should have been the "Mexican grill" where you got a good al pastor taco on the go. It should have been the restaurant that not only introduced Mexican fast food to a national consumer (and please don't try to tell me that Taco Bell did that), but did it in a way made that you feel like you were at a taco truck in East L.A., or a mom and pop restaurant in Chihuahua, Mexico. It should have been a lot of things, but most of all, it should have just been Mexican food.
George Lopez's Chingon Kitchen has a chance to be what Chipotle never was, and fans everywhere should rejoice in the prospects of trying his version of carne asada, his version of al pastor, his version of rotisserie chicken, and his version of what Mexican food should look and taste like, because it will be a lot more genuine than those burrito bowls and tofu sofritas that can land you in the E.R. at any given moment.