The latest limited-time-only release from Chipotle hit stores nationwide this past week: smoked brisket. According to the press release announcing the new menu item, a beef brisket protein option is one of the menu additions that customers have been requesting the most. The culinary team at Chipotle spent two whole years working on developing a signature brisket recipe, and it’s now out in the wild for you to try at all participating locations.
If you’ve ever cooked beef brisket at home, you know it can be a little finicky. When you undercook it, it comes out tough and chewy. And if you miss the mark and overcook it, it’ll be... tough and chewy. But when you hit that sweet spot at just the right cooking temperature, the point at which the meat becomes tender and fall-apart, you’ll be rewarded with a deliciously flavorful gift. Good brisket is beefy, melt-in-your-mouth, and worth savoring. But the tightrope you must walk to achieve good brisket is the reason I usually let someone else do the cooking—like, say, a restaurant that specializes in barbecue. That way I know the meat will be expertly handled.
With those considerations in mind, I tried the new Chipotle brisket on two different occasions, in both a burrito and a bowl, to see how it fared as fast casual food. I’ve got some thoughts for you.
Sorry, I know. Photos of real food aren’t always so pretty (this lid-off Portillo’s chicken sandwich comes to mind). But here’s a pic, above, of the edge of a piece of brisket. The meat is sliced and chopped into bits, rather than pulled, which I appreciate, since the slices give the meat more of a steak-like feel rather than pulled mush. As you can see, there’s a bit of welcome bark on the outside; bark is where a lot of smoky flavor lives on brisket, along with the rub.
According to Chipotle, the brisket is seasoned with spices such as chipotle peppers, and to finish it off, it’s charred on the grill and dressed with a brand-new chili pepper sauce developed especially for the brisket. Unless you’ve got a really good palate, though, I’m not sure you’ll notice the sauce. I didn’t, that’s for sure. There’s a hint of smokiness past the beef flavor during bites, but it’s easy to drown it out with any particularly acidic salsas. The tomatillo red salsa will, as I learned, obliterate almost all of the smoky flavor of the brisket.
A fact I appreciate about the Chipotle brisket is that it’s not all lean, and it hasn’t been trimmed to hell. There’s visible fat in some pieces, which is nice to see, especially in comparison to Chipotle’s steak. Of course, that fat comes with extra calories, if you’re keeping track of that sort of thing. Chipotle’s website says the brisket comes in at 360 calories, while the steak has 150 and the barbacoa has 160. Personally, I like having some fat in there for the sake of richer flavor, precisely because the other red meat options are lean. Fatty protein is a good addition to the Chipotle lineup.
Unfortunately, the Chipotle brisket does suffer from one key detraction: it’s tough and chewy, exactly as I feared. My first order, a burrito, contained some pieces that were pretty dry and stringy. On my second attempt a few days later, there were a few pieces that were so dried out I had a hard time chewing them. The few pieces that were in good shape, however, were moist and tender. I wish that would have been the bulk of the experience.
Like I said, brisket’s a tricky one. The fact that it needs to be charred before service and then kept heated on a steam table creates multiple challenges, and unfortunately, I can’t see many scenarios in which the meat wouldn’t suffer some injustices in that process. That’s no fun, since properly cooked brisket is a genuine delight.
The brisket is also the priciest protein option on the menu. At my location, it starts at $10.10 for a bowl or a burrito, and if you load it with guacamole too, it’ll put you up to just over $12.50. Meanwhile, a smoked brisket sandwich at the excellent barbecue restaurant in my neighborhood, where the meat is consistently slow-cooked and delicious, comes in at $11.99. Next time I have a specific craving for brisket, that’s where I’m headed.
Overall, my recommendation is to skip the brisket, save a few bucks, and go for your old standby, whichever that might be. Unless, of course, Chipotle brings back the carne asada someday, in which case, definitely give that a shot instead.