Battle of the Burritos

At first glance, the existence of three Mexican fast food restaurants a stone?s throw from one another seems redundant. Can CMU and Pitt students really be eating enough Mexican food to sustain three similar restaurants within the same area? I put Qdoba, Baja Fresh, and Veracruz to the test by sampling under-$10 meals at each establishment and seeing how each of them measured up.

Veracruz is the most authentic of the three, featuring large Mexican murals outside of the restaurant and a bright Mexican decor inside. The walls feature graffiti in Spanish and neatly framed photographs of the owner?s family. Veracruz is the only non-chain restaurant of the three and tries to compete with the others by offering a 10 percent discount to students. Not surprisingly, it was the only restaurant of the three to be owned and run by Mexicans. The best way to describe Veracruz is that the food is reminiscent of the stuff from the taco/pupusa trucks that are neighborhood landmarks in Hispanic neighborhoods across the country; the food is served greasy but inexplicably delicious. This is definitely the place to choose if you are looking for a true Mexican meal, as Veracruz also sells a variety of sugary, fruity Mexican sodas and has a glass case filled with a variety of Mexican candies. Adding to the authenticity was the Mexican music in the background and the Mexican TV station on the television.

Veracruz serves up Mexican standards: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos, as well as stuffed baked potatoes. Unlike other fast food places, Veracruz offers a ni?o-sized (very small) burrito, the perfect amount for people wanting a snack before class or a light lunch. At Veracruz I decided to go for something old and something new. I ordered the new fish taco platter, a bag of chips and salsa, and Sangr?a Senorial, a sangr?a-flavored non-alcoholic soda. The total bill for all of this food was $8. The chips and salsa were excellent; the chips came in a large brown paper bag dotted with grease. The accompanying salsa was the best of the three restaurants? offerings; it was thin and not too chunky, with enough spices and heat to provide a good complement to the chips. The sangr?a soda, available only at Veracruz, is similar to all Mexican sodas, with a sweet and unidentifiable fruit flavor. The fish taco platter proved to be a disappointment. The soft tacos were filled with lettuce, salsa, a little cheese, and small fish chunks. The fried fish pieces tasted like fish sticks; they were extremely bland and did not add at all to the flavor of the taco, resulting in a taco that simply tasted like salsa. The taco platter at Veracruz comes with rice and beans and more chips. These too were disappointing. Veracruz?s rice was extremely greasy and bland, and the beans were standard but nothing special. I had to heavily season these two items with one of the many hot sauces on the tables. On a previous trip, I had sampled the taco salad at Veracruz, and I can attest to its quality: Like much of the food there, it is good and filling and has grease as a major ingredient, something that the customer should be prepared for. However, Veracruz is the cheapest of the three restaurants, especially with its student discount, and it most closely approximates what Mexican fast food really is.

The next stop was Baja Fresh, a little further down the street. Baja Fresh, a subsidiary of Wendy?s, is part of a nationwide chain with over 300 locations. Baja Fresh attempts to serve extremely fresh, made-to-order food and has a large health-conscious menu that they call ?Lifestyle Choices.? The interior looks like an upscale fast-food restaurant. The counter is staffed with friendly uniformed employees, and the dining area has a self-serve soda fountain and salsa bar. I decided on the Baja fish taco and the grilled vegetarian burrito, which totaled about $8. As I waited, I sampled the salsa bar featuring a variety of hot, mild, and medium salsas, including the Baja salsa, which was very tasty and different from the usual tomato-based salsas. Having spent time in Baja California and eating fresh fish tacos there, I had high hopes for the Baja fish taco. I was pleasantly surprised with Baja Fresh?s version. The taco came in a soft shell with crispy cubes of freshly fried fish topped with chopped cabbage and a ?special sauce? very reminiscent of Thousand Island dressing. The Baja Fresh fish taco was very good, much better then the Veracruz version. The grilled vegetarian burrito was also excellent, and included freshly grilled vegetable strips along with standard burrito ingredients. The burrito was all one could ask for ? generous portion size, good ingredients, and served warm. Previous experience with the Baja Fresh taco salad showed Baja Fresh to be health conscious, as the standard taco salad shell was much less greasy than those at similar restaurants. This ethos proved to be true in all of their cooking, which turned out to be the fresh healthy version of Mexican classics. The only downside to Baja Fresh was its atmosphere. In everything from the cheerful cashier telling me my order would be ready in 6?8 minutes to the black and white checkerboard floor, Baja Fresh was the most sterile of the three; the atmosphere seemed closest to a fast-food restaurant where people come to eat hurriedly and leave. Baja Fresh shines in the high quality of its ingredients and the variety of its menu.

Making a left out of Baja Fresh back toward CMU, I made my final stop at Qdoba. Qdoba is also a national chain with over 100 restaurants and is a subsidiary of Jack-in-the-Box. Of the three, the Oakland Qdoba was the most like an actual restaurant, with roomy booths, carpeting, and soft lighting. Qdoba was also the only one to offer a small selection of bottled alcoholic beverages for sale. Qdoba?s emphasis is on customization. Customers are prompted to choose their burrito, the type of beans they want, type of salsa, and cheese or sour cream. The menu features the same Mexican standards as the other two ? tacos, burritos, and nachos ? as well as soup, kids? meals, and ?signature burritos.? I opted for two vegetarian tacos, a cup of tortilla soup, and chips and salsa, with the whole meal running around $7. The chips and salsa were fairly standard. In a taste test, the Baja Fresh and Qdoba chips tasted virtually the same, while the Veracruz chips were thicker and tasted more like corn. One drawback of Qdoba was that all of the salsas I tasted that were supposed to be medium to hot ? salsa verde, salsa rojo, and roasted chile corn ? tasted extremely mild. The tortilla soup with crispy tortilla strips on top was good but nothing special and a little too salty. The vegetarian tacos proved that, in fact, the whole can be less than the sum of its parts. The tacos were fairly bland, with just rice, beans, guacamole, and corn salsa. Each bite tasted like one of the individual ingredients, making it difficult to judge as a whole. It wasn?t necessarily bad, it just wasn?t good either. Qdoba may not have had outstanding food, but it had the others beat in atmosphere. Qdoba?s atmosphere accommodated people in a hurry as well as people who wanted to stay and enjoy their meal. Their sale of alcoholic beverages also promoted a more relaxed atmosphere in which patrons could nurse a beer and nibble some nachos.
The verdict of this taste test was positive. Oakland can support three Mexican fast-food restaurants. All of them seem to fill a specific niche. Veracruz is the student-friendly dive, with an authentic Mexican feel; Baja Fresh is the healthy, fresh fast food spot; and Qdoba is the relaxed, comfortable Tex-Mex restaurant. None of them is perfect, nor is one significantly better than another. Whatever your mood, there is a Mexican restaurant on Forbes Avenue for you. Just choose wisely.

Alisha Bhagat