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Tex-Mex taste test takes on three Arsenal Street contenders

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Starting today, Jake Pucci takes over as the Times’ restaurant reviewer and food writer. A staff writer who covers the police beat, he spends his spare time exploring the north country and will report on the food and drink of the region. Check out his Eater’s Digest blog on our website at http://wdt.me/eatersdigest.

WATERTOWN — It’s easy to see three similar restaurants serving similar ingredients in oversized flour tortillas and assume the items taste pretty much the same.

But just as McDonald’s fries look similar to, but taste way better than, Burger King fries (or do they? Foreshadowing a future review, perhaps?), looks can be deceiving.

So I hit Arsenal Street in Watertown, a well-known hot spot for burritos, in search of deliciousness wrapped in foil.

Moe’s Southwest Grill occupies a coveted corner spot of the Stateway Plaza, right off Interstate 81. Chipotle Mexican Grill, though not part of Stateway, is just across the parking lot in the City Center Plaza.

But for my first stop, I made the trip across the border of I-81 to Taco Del Mar.

Taco Del Mar

A newcomer to the north country burrito scene, Taco Del Mar opened only in late March. In fact, it’s so new that there’s no Yelp entry for it, and a Google Maps search brought up a photography business.

Mar, meaning “sea” in Spanish, is vying for a Pacific Coast vibe — or as the Taco Del Mar website says, for customers to feed their “Inner Baja.”

Though decidedly far from the Pacific Ocean, the thatched-roof tables and rusted-roof overhang above the preparation area will be a nice distraction from the cold reality that is winter in the north country. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag a long surfboard-shaped table.

A margarita or a cold beer would have completed the image, but unlike the next two establishments, there was no alcohol available.

Each establishment offers burritos and, for our lower-carb friends, entree-sized salads, both of which will be reviewed. For the sake of an even comparison, pork carnitas was the protein of choice for all three burritos, as were pinto beans and nearly as many fillings as could be rolled up in their flour cocoon.

For the salads, shredded beef, called barbacoa at Chipotle, was the pick, except at Moe’s, where a lack of a shredded beef option led me to choose their grass-fed sirloin steak. Black beans were the choice for all salads.

Taco Del Mar is smart and has daily specials, because if there’s something better than tacos or a burrito, it’s getting it cheaper or getting extras. On Sundays, a kids meal comes free with each “favorite” ordered — which is every menu item except sides and kids meals. Is bringing a kid a prerequisite for taking advantage of this offer? The fact that I got a free cheese quesadilla, small drink and a portion of tortilla chips or a cookie seems to be an emphatic no. Just be sure to mention the deal, as it was not mentioned by anyone there until I asked.

But on to the burrito. For $6 plus tax you get a Mondo Burrito with your choice of meat and fillings. In addition to the shredded pork and beef, steak, chicken, vegetarian (includes guacamole) and fish are available. This is this only place that offers fish and features it in taco form as a Friday special.

Sour cream is 50 cents extra; guacamole will run you a buck.

The additions are fairly standard, with a few interesting choices. The pico de gallo was refreshing, with plenty of cilantro. I’m a cilantro fiend, so I was happy to see chopped cilantro as an available filling, which was largely leaves and only few stem pieces. A nice start.

But even a squeeze of fresh lime (nice!) couldn’t wake up an otherwise unexciting burrito (not so nice). There was a fair-sized portion of the pulled pork, which — spoiler alert — finished second in the pork tasting. It was moist and in good-sized pieces, if a bit bland. Otherwise, the rice, a seasoned white rice mix served as filler only, and the beans, though tasty, overpowered the rest of the burrito.

A cross cut revealed that roughly half the burrito was rice and beans.

The salad, also $6 plus tax, was served in a scallop-edged tortilla shell with the same topping choices. Though a picture on Taco Del Mar’s website shows a salad in an evenly golden brown shell bursting at the seams with vibrant fillings, the reality was a spotty brown shell that felt a bit meager. On top of a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and choice of black, pinto or refried beans sat my picks of shredded cheese, pico de gallo, pickled jalapenos, chopped tomatoes and more cilantro.

The shredded beef was good, if a bit too mild. The texture was meaty and not mushy, a problem that often befalls meats served from steam pans on an assembly line.

A side of salsa verde came as a dressing, but was dull green and lacked the fresh and acidic bite needed to boost the muted flavors.

The cheese quesadilla that came free under the false pretenses that it was for a child was a simple tortilla and shredded mild cheddar combination that was served alongside a pinch of shredded lettuce, a bit of pico and a scoop of sour cream that somehow came free with this choice but not the others. Nothing exciting, but gooey, melted cheese — especially unexpectedly free gooey, melted cheese — is nothing to scoff at.

Chips, tacos, enchiladas, nachos, a tortilla-free Baja Bowl and quesadillas round out the menu at Taco Del Mar. There’s also the option to tell your burrito to “get wet” with a slather of queso or enchilada sauce. A temptation for another day.

chipotle

While Taco Del Mar is clear about its Pacific coast theme, Chipotle opts for an industrial chic look, with exposed rafters and high-top bars with backless stools. Just like walking into an Apple store, I felt sophisticated just entering, in the way that a restaurant can be described as “smart.”

Though Chipotle is aesthetically pleasing, my having to part a sea of people waiting to fill soda cups to make it to the ordering line revealed that the layout of the already cramped restaurant could use some attention. More than one person was standing absentmindedly near the large glass windows, perhaps not realizing that a waiter was not about to come out of the kitchen and take their order.

Both the burrito and salad run $6.85 for the carnitas and barbacoa options. Grilled steak is also available at that price, while cubed grilled chicken, vegetarian and a new item, sofritas, run 40 cents less. For those wondering, sofritas is described as shredded organic tofu, braised with “chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices.”

The vegetarian option includes guacamole, but if you want chicken, beef, pork or tofu, a scoop of the green good stuff will run an extra $1.95.

Chipotle does earn points for its rice, which comes flavored with lime and cilantro and in both white and brown varieties. Bean choices are either black or pinto, and the grilled pepper and onion blend retains just the right amount of crunch. Pico de gallo, two types of tomatillo salsa and a white corn salsa join the standard sour cream, shredded cheese and lettuce fillings.

I’ll be upfront and say that I expected Chipotle to win this competition. Chipotle pushes its “Food With Integrity” initiative, which means that the meats are raised without antibiotics or added hormones, and the vegetables are all organic and, when practical, local. The dairy comes from pasture-raised cows not treated with synthetic hormones and are fed an all-plant diet.

But the carnitas was mushy and had a strange note reminiscent of cream of mushroom soup, which sounds more pleasant than it actually was. The barbacoa on the salad was a bit better, with nice spice and firmer texture, but the 4-ounce portion left me wanting more.

Both Chipotle and Taco Del Mar items were hampered by uneven construction. There are few things worse in the world than a burrito with an uneven distribution of fillings, which sounds hyperbolic, but is a real problem. The first quarter of my burrito was rice, which while tasty and definitely the best rice out of the three, was still rice.

The salad was flavorful, though. Chopped romaine was a nice upgrade from shredded iceberg and included a spicy chipotle-honey vinaigrette dressing. It looked healthy, even if the large splattering of sour cream would indicate otherwise.

Speaking of healthy, this was the only salad to not be served in a fried tortilla shell. While I’m sure this saved many calories, if you wanted a healthy salad, you would have not plopped beef, cheese and sour cream on top of your greens. A low-carb option is nice, but a low-carb requirement seems limiting.

Chipotle’s website says that when the meat cannot be “naturally” sourced, the individual restaurants will notify customers. After seeing no such alert to that while I was there, a check of the Chipotle app I downloaded on my phone after visiting revealed that the steak at this location was sourced conventionally.

Moe’s

Onward to Moe’s. As I walked through the door, I was greeted with an enthusiastic “Welcome to Moe’s!” and stares from other customers. In unison, they turned their heads toward the door, as if I was the first person to ever dine at a Moe’s or as if they themselves had not received the same exact greeting only moments before they dug their faces into the burrito, taco or salad of their choosing.

After causing an apparently unique spectacle that was repeated thrice more by the time I reached the first step in the three-step burrito process, I was ready to challenge the burrito rollers behind the counter.

There are three burrito options: the Homewrecker, Joey Bag of Donuts and Art Vandalay. Not wishing to take culinary advice from an importer/exporter of latex or what a Google search determined to be a large dancing man from an early ’90s radio station commercial, I risked my stable home life and opted for the first.

For those not in the know, the Art Vandalay ($6.49) comes without a protein choice, but with guacamole. The Joey Bag of Donuts ($7.49) includes the choice of steak, chopped chicken, pulled pork, ground beef or tofu, but no guacamole. The Homewrecker ($7.99) includes it all. Sour cream comes free with each.

Even at first glance, it’s clear that there are many more choices at Moe’s than there were at the previous two locations. For those who don’t want their cooked onions and peppers commingling, they’re separated here and even joined by cooked mushrooms. These vegetables were cut bigger than those at Chipotle, strong enough to be a nice textural contrast to the softness of pulled pork, rice, beans and sour cream.

Cucumbers, fresh and pickled jalapenos, black olives, tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce, cheese, corn salsa and my trusty cilantro round out the impressive filling selection. There was only one type of rice available, but it was applied in such a small quantity that the textural difference between white and brown would have been difficult to decipher.

As for the salad, dubbed the Close Talker, the tortilla shell was just as outstanding as the show the name is based on — “Seinfeld.” Evenly gold and puffy, it retained its crunch to the last bite and did not crumble under the daunting amount of chipotle ranch dressing on top. It was far more substantial than the flimsy shell from Taco Del Mar.

The pork here was the best of the bunch too, by far. The portion seemed more generous, and the burrito as a whole simply smelled more appetizing. With the cheaper ingredients like rice and beans taking a backseat to the more premium ingredients, it felt like a better value. Add in the included guacamole and sour cream and it’s cheaper than the Chipotle burrito and only 50 cents more than the Taco Del Mar, plus it includes chips.

Lots of chips: $1.25 will buy you a portion of lime- and salt-seasoned chips at Chipotle that’s half the size of the portion Moe’s doles out with each item. With both the salad and burrito coming with free chips and five varieties of salsa, one could make a meal out of chips and salsa alone.

My favorites were the mild green tomatillo salsa and the medium Who is Kaiser, with a nice chunky texture and a bit of sweetness from the diced onion.

I’d welcome Moe’s any day.

Have a tip or suggestion? Email Jake Pucci at jpucci@wdt.net or follow him on Twitter at @Eaters DigestNNY.





Ratings:

Moe’s — 3

1222 Arsenal St.

Watertown, NY 13601

681-6046

www.moes.com

Moe’s wins three spoons for having clean flavors and a proper meat-to-rice and -bean ratio. The choices of salsa and mountain of chips that come with each entree don’t hurt either.



Chipotle — 2

1290 Arsenal St.

Watertown, NY 13601

786-2813

www.chipotle.com

Chipotle comes away with two spoons because while the salad was quite tasty and the vinigarette served alongside has the right amount of heat, the burrito left much to be desired. Too much rice, off-flavored meat — and guacamole costs $2 extra.



Taco Del Mar — 1 1/2

21290 County Route 202

(Corner of Arsenal Street)

Watertown, NY 13601

405-4391

www.tacodelmar.com

Overall blandness and the lack of the options offered at the other two restaurants are to blame for Taco Del Mar earning a spoon and a half. The daily specials add some value, and I give props to them for offering fresh limes during a lime stortage, but it’s not enough to overcome a lackluster taco shell and a burrito that cried out for more meat.



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