Comparisons between Freebirds World Burrito, a new build-your-own burrito chain in Wichita, and Chipotle are inevitable.
The two restaurants offer the same type of food served in the same setup. And when the new Freebirds opened in June at 410 N. Hillside, it did so across the street from the Chipotle at 505 N. Hillside. (A second Freebirds will open in a Chipotle-free zone at 21st and Greenwich this fall.)
The main differences between the two restaurants exist in both form and substance. Freebirds has a whole lot of flash, including a crazy colorful interior that’s a tribute to the tie-dyed, hippie biker culture. It also offers a dizzying number of choices: Two styles of rice, four kinds of beans, three types of cheese, four flavors of tortilla and extras including roasted garlic, grilled limes and melted queso. Freebirds also is a bit less expensive overall than Chipotle – and kids 12 and under eat free from the kids menu when they dine in all day on Mondays and Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult entree.
Freebirds is indeed good – and it’s a fun place to visit. Still, even though Chipotle feels a little bare-boned by comparison – and you can’t help but make the comparison – its food quality and flavor are better.
• ON THE MENU Freebirds customers build their own burritos, tacos, bowls, salads, quesadillas or nacho platters by traveling down a line where burrito components are displayed behind glass. The restaurant offers four sizes of burritos, ranging from the small-appetite Hybird ($5.49 to $6.29) to the outrageously huge Super Monster ($11.99 to $13.99.)
Burrito eaters can choose tortillas in four flavors: flour, whole wheat, cayenne – which is orange – or spinach – which is bright green. The choices – at times, it feels like there are too many – continue down the line. Spanish or cilantro lime rice? Black beans, pinto beans or refried beans? Fresh or grilled jalapenos? Pico? Corn salsa? Poblano salsa? Fresh salsa? Tomatillo salsa? Hot tomatillo salsa? Death sauce? Habanero sauce?
Sour cream? Guacamole? They’re extra. Cheese? Melted queso? Bacon? Avocado? Also a little extra.
Diners also can choose to pay an extra $2.99 to “make it a meal,” which means the order will include a fountain drink plus chips with queso, guacamole or salsa or a brownie or a chocolate chip cookie.
Pardon me. I need a nap.
Or a margarita. Or a beer. (Fortunately, Freebirds serves both.)
• DON’T MISS DISHES Despite the effort it takes to compose a meal at Freebirds, the results are often worth it. The trouble is that it takes many trips to find the perfect combination because all the extras are so tempting.
The best thing we created was an order of soft tacos with grass-fed steak, which is tender, smoky and well seasoned. We got them on flour tortillas, and an order of two came with chips and salsa for $5.99 – a pretty good deal. Next time, we’d try the soft corn or crispy corn tortillas and would load on more veggies and salsas.
Also good – a burrito on a whole wheat tortilla stuffed with pork carnitas, black and beans, corn salsa, queso, lettuce and crispy tortilla strips. The carnitas had a great flavor, though they’re pretty salty and saucy, unlike the carnitas at Chipotle. The regular-sized burrito was $5.99, and chips and a side of flavorful but sort-of-thin queso, and an drink were an extra $2.99.
Parents take note: We visited on a Monday, and the 3-year-old in our party got a very nice and generous chicken quesadilla with a big side of chips and a drink, and since she was with paying adults who dined in, hers was free. She also could have ordered a tiny burrito. The deal, one of the better kids-eat-free deals in town, is also offered on Tuesdays.
We were least impressed by the chicken nachos, which were $6.99. We chose the white meat chicken (dark meat also was an option), and it was pretty bland. We loaded the nachos with spanish rice, black beans, queso, roasted garlic, roasted lime, tortilla strips, salsa verde, corn salsa, grilled veggies and Jack cheese (all our add-ons cost $2.67), and still, we had to add salt and more salsa to beat the bland. We’d steer away from the white meat chicken next time. And the guacamole that came with the chips tasted a bit of “avocado product” and made us long for the thick, chunky freshness of the Chipotle guacamole.
Of course, the Chipotle guacamole is $1.80 extra. Freebirds’ is 89 cents.
• AMBIANCE The dining room at Freebirds is colorful and loud, due to the high ceilings, cement floors and big crowds. There’s a Statue of Liberty riding a motorcycle hanging from the ceiling and lots of tie-dyed touches and bright paint throughout. The self-serve area of the restaurant where the soda is stationed also has a pump shaped like motorcyele handlebars where customers can get extra salsa and barbecue sauce. It also has squares of foil for those who want to take leftovers to go, and it’s Freebirds tradition for customers to shape those pieces of foil into tiny sculptures – trees, peace symbols, etc., and display them along the wall.
• PRICE RANGE Good. Our meal, which included a burrito, an order of nachos, an order of tacos, three orders of chips and dip, a brownie and a kids meal was $31.62.
• SERVICE The burrito building counter is staffed with many bandana-wearing staff members, who are friendly and helpful and do their best to make the crazy process as easy to survive as possible. Those who build the burritos communicate to the cashier which extras were ordered by making notes with markers on the paper that lines the food baskets. The cashier, however, can barely decipher the scribblings, so the bill is rarely accurate. But on our visits, the mistakes appeared to come out in our favor.