Three journalists were given a mission so preposterous that it just might work. And it did. Erik Adams, Cara Binder and Megan Merritt, all seasoned Arts & Culture writers, were sent on a wild burrito chase to opposite ends of Grand River, dividing their time between Taco Bell, Big Ten Burrito, Qdoba and Panchero\’s. [group]
Unfortunately, one lone writer was brave enough to tackle each restaurant; the other two found the salsa and hot sauce to be too much for the palettes. Luckily for the readers, we\’ve composed a \”universal rating system\” as an easy guide to find the best burrito in East Lansing. So, sit back, grab some sour cream, and be prepared for the most unofficial burrito ranking this side of the Rio Grande.
Erik Adams: The rain was falling hard on the first night of the burrito crawl, so Taco Bell was a very welcomed shelter. [tacobell]The burrito, however, was a little lacking. I was feeling crazy and thrifty, so I ordered the half-pound beef and potato burrito from the value menu. The spices were good, and the potato was an intriguing touch, but typically sloppy Taco Bell ground beef and sub-par rolling made for an underwhelming eating experience. Next time I want potato in a tortilla, I’ll go to Menna’s.
Cara Binder: In general, I’m not a big fan of fast food, but Taco Bell is a different story. I’m pretty much in the mood for it at any time because you can get a tasty and filling meal for less than $3. I know all of the rumors about their meat being of lower grade than dog food, but the thing is- it’s delicious. Maybe dog food is better than we think.
T-bell has bad music, it\’s pretty consistently dirty, the people there are usually drunk, and the service isn’t excellent. I’m not denying this, but I am saying that their burritos are a nice little treat. They have a new one with potato chunks–tastes like a bootleg dub, and it’s quite wonderful. What couldn’t be wonderful if it tastes even a little bit like a dub? I wouldn’t urge anyone to pick Taco Bell over another restaurant. You get what you pay for: poorly wrapped and messy burritos, a couple packets of not-so-hot fire sauce and gross bathrooms, but it is Taco Bell and usually, everyone loves it.
BIG TEN BURRITO
Erik Adams: Normally when I go to Big Ten, I go for the chimichanga (what can I say, I’m a man who likes things deep-fried). But as this was a burrito crawl I was forced to leap out of the frying pan and into the gastronomical explosion of chicken, beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and salsa that is the deluxe chicken Big Ten burrito. [dollar]The superiority of Big Ten’s offerings almost makes it unfair that we went there after Taco Bell. Though a little heavier on the beans than usual, it’s that in-house marinated chicken that’ll get you every time. My only complaint would be that the guac and sour cream seemed focused at either end of the burrito, so the midsection was devoid of that dash of cool deliciousness. And as good as it was, I’ll be sticking by the chimichanga in subsequent visits.
Cara Binder: Friends from Ann Arbor have always raved about their wonderful burritos from Big Ten, so when it moved into East Lansing I tried one right away. Since then, Big Ten has been my no. 1 pick for burritos, and that has not changed since the burrito crawl. I stand by the fact that they have the best food around.
[cara3]Their prices are extremely reasonable, and they take Spartan Cash which for some reason always makes me feel like I’m not spending any money. The burritos are big, the chicken is marinated in goodness, the cheese is melted perfectly, and all of the toppings are fresh. And not only do you get a burrito, you get chips and delectable salsa, which makes any meal better (if you ask me.) The atmosphere is excellent with a long table reminiscent of a grade school lunchroom table. You are absolutely forced to sit next to or across from strangers, so conversation about how wonderful the burritos are or what is on the plasma screen TV comes naturally. This is a nice change from other parts of campus when people avert eye contact and play with their iPod. So, with good prices, burritos so big that you can take some home for later, free chips and salsa, and good East Lansing bonding, Big Ten is my top pick for burritos on Grand River.
Cara Binder: Qdoba became big when I was in high school and everyone was telling everybody else about it. “It’s like Subway except with Mexican food!” At the time, this was a new idea- one that has obviously taken off. [qdoba]The main thing that was being said, however, was how wonderful their food was, in particular- their burritos.
With 11 different burritos, Qdoba wins for biggest variety. It even has the “Naked Burrito” for those still obsessed with the whole low-carb craze. Qdoba burritos have the most flavors packed into a tortilla out of any on Grand River, the most distinct being the cilantro lime rice, which is the base of many of their burritos. The way they wrap their burritos was my favorite. They are short and stout, not the typical long and hard to manage shape. The atmosphere was decent, including some really cheesy artwork, but pleasant music and lots of windows. All in all, Qdoba is a wonderful choice for a burrito.
[ready]Megan Merritt: I should start by saying that the employees of Qdoba have the assembly line technique down to a frightening science. As Cara and I made our choice of ordering a chicken burrito, we were barraged with questions from all angles – \”Salsa?!\” the man behind the glass asked. \”Uh, yeah,\” Cara and I said. \”Beans?! Sour cream?! Cheese?!\” the man and then the girl next to him tersely asked as they moved the burrito down the line, and Cara and I shuffled like uncultured burrito naivetés until we finally reached the cash register. We complied with all their questions, saying \”sure\” and \”go with it,\” feeling a little like Jerry and George in Seinfeld\’s Soup Nazi episode.
Just as the pay-off for Jerry and George was well worth the strict decorum of the Soup Nazi\’s ordering policy, so was Qdoba\’s. The massive burrito was pregnant with rice, black beans, some electric green delicious spice, chicken, salsa, sour cream and who knows what else. The tortilla was overly doughy, sticking to the roof of my mouth, but overall, the Qdoba burrito experience was sublime.
[megan3] If this isn\’t enough to seduce the palette, then maybe the guy sitting next to us with the MSU Republicans T-shirt on will. First he asked us if we were in the Spanish Club, then if we were as liberal as The State News. We sat hushed, eyeing each other. I was trying to conjure wit but thankfully Cara said something to the effect of, \”I guess.\” We said that he must be conservative (T-shirt) and he said that he was moderate despite not believing in minority admission into universities, believing in the right to own and carry arms, etc. While this didn\’t bring a savory flavor, it undoubtedly brought color to our experience at Qdoba.
Erik Adams: Due to a previous journalistic engagement, I missed out on Qdoba and met up with Cara, Jessica (our photographer) and Megan at Panchero’s. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I warmly greeted my half of the burrito. [erik]My first impression: the thing was F-A-T. Very clearly stuffed to gills. Panchero’s makes a big deal about their tortillas in their television advertisements, but I didn’t see anything special, and in fact, noticed a thick dough deposit at the end of the burrito. Containing black beans, white rice and lettuce, the fixins were of a variety I had not yet seen on the crawl. I can’t remember anything about the meat. It all made for a decent burrito, but nothing special. Given my stomach’s status when I got to the restaurant, I probably would have eaten three beef-and-potato burritos, so the fact that I was unimpressed has to count for something.
Cara Binder: I will never understand the hype surrounding Panchero’s. Their burritos have horrid proportions, so at times, you pretty much just have a bite of lettuce. [pancheros]The chicken is cut into very large chunks, which I think makes you have to chew too much for too long. I ended up not even finishing half of their burrito, not because it was too big to fit into my stomach like Big Ten, but because I really did not want to eat it.
They try hard with their décor by putting up lots of artwork, but the art is low rate and shows very little variety. Their lights are cute- I’ll give them that. I do like how they separate the kitchen/ordering station from the dining room so the flow works. But if Panchero’s can’t serve up good food, I will not frequent it for the nice lighting and flow of customers.
Megan Merritt: Ordering was far less stressful than Qdoba, and the fact that the staff asks you questions in Spanish brings a cultural awareness and learning experience to each visit. Cara and I decided to split another chicken burrito, which was regrettably worse than Qdoba\’s. The tortilla was equally sticky and doughy, but the chicken was dry and the exotic spices and originality that encompassed our visit at Qdoba was nowhere in sight. The atmosphere was as bland and dried out as the chicken, with very few people and a laughable song; I believe it was The Cars blaring over the stereo system.
[finished]As we sat and milled over the burrito, I came to the conclusion that Panchero\’s offers a tasteless burrito that will be filling but not fulfilling. The redeeming factor of our burrito was the hot salsa that we were talked into, thankfully. The more authentic experience was more informative, but ironically lacked any sense of native flavor. And the guy in a MSU Republicans T-shirt.