Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect location of the most recent Chipotle.
Attention, aspiring Wichita restaurateurs: We’re good on build-your-own burrito places.
It started with the 2003 Chipotle invasion that resulted in five Wichita restaurants, the last of which opened at Maple and Ridge in 2012. It continued when Freebirds World Burrito entered the market in 2013. We now have two of those. And that doesn’t even take into account the several mom-and-pop burrito spots sprinkled around town, from Poblanos on South Greenwich to Bento Cafe at Central and Ridge.
This spring, Wichita added two more restaurants identical in approach with only slightly different menus: Blue River Mexican Grill at 2341 N. Greenwich and Qdoba at 430 N. Rock Road. At both of the new restaurants, customers watch as staff members construct burritos, tacos or salads to their specifications from a bar stocked with meats, veggies and other toppings.
Neither is an improvement on what Wichita already had, and neither will satisfy those looking for something different in their burrito-building lives. But both are bright, clean and well-designed, and they offer an alternative for people who don’t already live within a few miles of such a restaurant.
Blue River operates in a strip development that’s so new, it’s not even full yet. The restaurant looks great from the curb, with an upscale stone front, an attractive blue sign and a large, gated patio boasting blue umbrellas that match the sign.
The inside is just as attractive. The tasteful stonework has been continued into the dining room, which also employs blue neon lighting to illuminate the front counter and accent the walls. It has a painted cement floor, recessed lighting and natural sunlight.
Blue River is amply staffed. During a weekend lunch visit, we were greeted by a smiling crew of at least six people. They were ready to answer questions and offer suggestions.
The menu, posted behind the counter, lists familiar options. Customers can choose from burritos, bowls or tacos and fill them with chicken, steak, carnitas, barbacoa (shredded beef) or vegetables. They can top their creations with cilantro lime or brown rice, black beans or pinto beans, a variety of salsas, cheese and sour cream. Guacamole is extra.
Blue River does offer a few extra touches, mostly in the form of unusual salsas. Pineapple tomatillo and fire-roasted tomato are two unique offerings, and it has a Southwest Ranch sauce, which is sort of a salsa/ranch dressing hybrid. Those who order chips and dips get a bag of blue and yellow corn chips, which is a nice touch.
Another offering that makes Blue River unique is its crispy flour taco shells, which are offered in addition to the standard corn shells and have been drained of grease enough to make them shelf stable. They were flaky and substantial enough to handle a full stuffing.
Otherwise, the food was just OK. The meats were fine, though none stood out. I didn’t care for the carnitas, which were shredded, lacking any crispy edges, and over-saturated in a red sauce that covered up the natural flavor of the pork. Also, the lettuce was a bit wilted and the guacamole had the flavor of not-so-fresh garlic. We ordered flour tacos with carnitas, a barbacoa bowl and a chicken burrito, and the combination of ingredients in all were edible but not memorable.
Qdoba’s dining room was just as attractive as Blue River’s and had several nice touches of its own, including some aviation-themed wall hangings and a charging station for cellphones set up next to a community table fitted with stools.
The staff wasn’t nearly as accommodating, though. Only four people were behind the counter. Two of them were restricted to adding toppings while one of them took orders on her own, an inefficient system. On a previous visit, over lunch, the counter had more staff. This was the dinner hour.
Qdoba also offers burritos, tacos and bowls made with chicken, pulled pork, grilled steak and shredded beef. But it adds several options, including nachos and quesadillas. Ground beef is one of its meat choices, and the restaurant is famous for its willingness to drench anything in queso, which comes in three flavors: three-cheese, bacon jalapeno and queso diablo. It also offers “smothers,” which are sauces that come in flavors of savory queso, smoky chipotle cream and bold red chile.
Two other nice touches: Qdoba serves “Mexican gumbo,” a tortilla soup waiting to be fortified with the customer’s choice of meat and salsa, and it gives diners the option of a “Craft 2,” which means they can pick smaller versions of any two entrees (except burritos) for one price.
The main problem on our visit was that the food on the line had clearly been sitting too long. The ground beef in my daughter’s tacos had simmered so long, its texture was sand and its flavor nonexistent. And all of the cheeses and sauces on the line had formed a hardened film over the top.
We liked our chicken tacos, served in crunchy corn shells with corn salsa on top. The salsa had a distinct smoky flavor, and the three-cheese queso added texture and moisture. The queso also contributed to the success of the nachos, which we ordered with pulled pork. The pork was juicy, not over-sauced and shredded into big, wet strands, and nicely absorbed the drenching of queso on the top.
And even though the steak in our steak quesadillas was starting to disintegrate, it was tender and worked well in our quesadilla, which was cut into quarters and served with a plop of sour cream on the side.
The smothered burrito, though, should be better than it is. It’s a mess of a meal, served in a bowl with a knife and fork, and the queso “smother” is too thin to add much to the proceedings. My advice: Stick with the regular burrito and ask for queso over the rice on the inside.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
☆☆ out of four
Where: 430 N. Rock Road, 316-425-3554
Type of food: Build-your-own burrito
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Cost: Smothered burritos, burritos, nachos, tacos, quesadillas and taco salads are $7.80 with grilled chicken, veggies or ground beef or $8.40 with pulled pork, grilled steak or shredded beef. A Craft 2, which offers smaller versions of two menu items, excluding burritos, is $7.80.
Blue River Mexican Grill
☆☆ out of four
Where: 2431 N. Greenwich, 316-440-3958
Type of food: Build-your-own burrito
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Cost: Burritos, bowls, tacos and quesadillas are $6.75 served with chicken, $7.45 with steak or barbacoa, $7.15 with carnitas and $6.50 with veggies. Guacamole is $1.95 extra.