Years ago in a laboratory at Washington State University, Chipotle founder Steve Ells assembled a team of scientists, chefs, and dreamers in pursuit of a better tortillas. Many thought it to be fool’s errand; surely there was no way for non-GMO tortillas to be produced on a mass scale! Why, if Ells removed the baking soda, wheat bran, fumaric acid, calcium propionate, sorbic acid, and sodium metabisulfite from commercially prepared tortillas, every Chipotle in America would inevitably collapse under the weight of millions of misshapen, moldy tortillas.
But while Big Tortilla laughed, Ells got to work. He recruited plant geneticist Dr. Stephen Jones and a doctoral student named Bethany Econopouly, whose groundbreaking research in wheat breeding would soon change the course of fast casual dining. Realizing that his vision of a non-GMO supply chain meant commercial yeast was verboten, Ells tasked baker Jonathan Bethony with formulating a magical, shelf-life-extending sourdough starter from which all Chipotle tortillas would one day be born. When it was discovered that Bethony’s starter was too finicky for industry—demanding the sort of accurate temperature control and lengthy fermentation time no tortilla factory could provide—Don Pancho Authentic Mexican Foods of Salem, Oregon, stepped up to the plate, building the starter its very own climate-controlled room. These innovators’ names should be taught in schools, as they are the heroes we have to thank for the food industry’s most perfect tortilla. Chipotle’s tortillas are flaky and flavorful, with just the right amount of elasticity to swaddle a burrito like a precious child, and they’re made with nothing but flour, water, starter, oil, and salt.
There are no commercially available tortillas that can compare to the ones born of Chipotle’s single-minded obsession. When I make a quesadilla or enchiladas at home, I must always settle for inferiority. I’ve searched high and low for tortillas that rival Chipotle’s, and once I finally discovered their incredible origin story, I knew my search was at an end. No company would ever be able to replicate them, and Chipotle would likely never reveal its secrets nor bring their miraculous tortillas to market. I have even switched my allegiance from burritos to burrito bowls so I can enjoy a pure, unadulterated, fresh-from-the-steam-press tortilla on the side each time I order Chipotle. They do not require meat, bean, guac, or cheese to be resplendent.
Last October, Chipotle finally caught wise to the popular money-saving make-your-own-damn-burrito hack and began charging $0.25 for the (previously free) side tortilla. Many grumbled, but I would have forked over a whole pocket full of loose change if it meant I could get more tortillas. And then one night last week, as I lay sleepless at 2 a.m. fantasizing about Chipotle, it hit me like fiery Tabasco lightning: since tortillas were now officially “on the menu” as a side item, could I go to Chipotle and order nothing but tortillas? I bolted out of bed, grabbed my phone, opened my Chipotle app, and sure enough, it seemed possible:
I filled my cart with 20 tortillas, which, with tax, came out to $5.30—about the same cost as a package of 20 lesser flour tortillas at the supermarket. I worried that since Chipotle had added this option in response to a menu hack, perhaps this loophole would be anticipated by the app and it would reject the order. To be safe, I tacked on an order of a veggie bowl and clicked “yes” on the optional side tortilla, lest the person handling my order question my love of tortillas. I scheduled my order for noon, scanned my face to pay, and received confirmation that my payment had been accepted. In ten hours, there would be a sack of tortillas with my name on them waiting for me at Chipotle.
I arrived ahead of schedule, just in case there was a problem with my order that needed fixing. Sure enough, as I skulked by the bathrooms near the kitchen door, I heard someone exclaim, “How the hell does this woman expect to eat 21 tortillas!” I emerged from the shadows with my hand raised high, launching into an unprompted explanation of my wild tortilla desire, explaining I did not expect them to be individually wrapped (I’m not a monster), and I would understand if they wouldn’t fulfill my order. Perhaps they were moved by my unbridled enthusiasm for tortillas, or perhaps it was simply their consummate professionalism, because there was no fuss or pushback, and they insisted on warming each and every tortilla so they would be perfectly cooked. My weighty aluminum-wrapped treasure strained the handles of the paper bag, but it held up valiantly as I skipped home, radiating delight.
I devoured two hot tortillas like a furious beast, and then set my attention to preservation, hoping to develop a system that would allow me to always have Chipotle tortillas on hand. I discovered that they will be fine if refrigerated or frozen, but need to be warmed slightly before they can be unfurled from their wrappings, which must be done gently so they don’t rip. The best way to store them is by placing them on a sheet of parchment or wax paper and rolling them up, then twisting the ends, tossing into a reusable zip top bag (these are my favorites), and stashing in the freezer. A quick stint in the microwave rescues them from suspended animation, letting them continue their mission as if no time had passed.
To make sure that this ordering loophole would survive further exploitation, I tried placing the same order through Chipotle’s exclusive delivery partner, DoorDash, which canceled it in minutes. I tried again several more times with the same result, so I called DoorDash directly to see what was happening. They told me that they assumed the orders were a glitch because no one would eat 21 tortillas in a sitting; when I told them not to make assumptions about my tortilla habits, they told me they would not fulfill my order, and would refund all of my money in three days.
I cannot guarantee your attempts to score mad stacks of tortillas won’t be similarly thwarted by interlopers, so I offer this advice: use the app, arrive early, and schedule your order during a time when the kitchen is not busy, because the employees might kindly insist on going to the trouble of wrapping your tortillas separately. Additionally, if you’re going to attempt this, you should do so as soon as possible, because who knows what will happen once Chipotle discovers what I’ve been up to? I hope that the bigwigs are understanding, because with all they went through to make these tortillas a reality, they can’t really blame me for falling so in love with them.