What is a life without good fresh-Mex food? A pitiful existence, I’m afraid, devoid of the pleasures of having your burrito deconstructed into a bowl form, or having a mountain of fresh guacamole piled high atop a “light” carnitas salad with cheese and sour cream. In the U.S., we lived in the luxury and convenience of the so-called “fast, casual” Mexican dining experience we all know and love called Chipotle. For many Americans, it’s become the standard of Mexican food. Technically however, it’s a unique build-your-own dining experience that is based on Mexican cuisine, but is heavily influenced by Californian sensibilities (hence, the fresh-Mex, or Cali-Mex label). Meaning, heavy on the fresh produce and meat “with integrity”–from animals that are raised free of antibiotics.
So, with our palates spoiled by the likes of Chipotle and other frickin’ amazing burrito places and taquerias on Mission and Valencia streets in SF, we came to Tokyo with the hope of finding a comparable replacement. We thought there would be a dearth of Mexican restaurants, and we were partially wrong in this assumption. There’s actually quite a decent selection if you check on Tabelog, but few that offer the build-your-own fresh Mex menu items we were craving. So, we did some research, asked around, and have recently tested out 3 of these, so far. Meaning, we’re hopeful there are more out there, so we’re still on the hunt!
Chiles Mexican Grill
Overview: Located on small side street off of Takeshita-dōri, Chiles feels like a chill getaway where you get a Corona and take a breather from the crowds. The restaurant itself is small, seating about 20 inside, but there is also a small outdoor seating area with a picnic table and benches. For what it’s worth, the staff is mostly Latino. Food and drink arrives when it arrives; this is not a typical fast food joint. For larger groups, it’s recommended to call ahead to reserve.
Ordered: Taco Salad with Grilled Shio-Koji Steak (¥1180, or $9.85)
Pros: Flavorful long-grain salsa rice, hearty pinto beans, fresh chunky tomato salsa, charred corn kernels, and creamy guacamole. Arranged abundantly in the taco shell.
Cons: The Shio Koji steak is a Chiles special recipe of beef marinated in shio koji sauce–a fermented mixture of koji (rice inoculated Aspergillus oryzae mold), shio (sea salt) and water. It was under seasoned and overcooked. Rather than being juicy cubes of grilled steak with seared outer bits, it was flat, thin, shawarma-like pieces of beef. Also missing was the acidity that gives Mexican food its brightness.
Ordered: Carnitas Burrito (“Big size”) (¥1080, or $9)
Pros: For just ¥200 additional, you can upgrade from a regular size to a “big size,” which is about the size of a regular burrito at Chipotle. Meaning, mighty large. Ingredients, as above, are fresh and good quality.
Cons: Sad to report the carnitas’ texture was a bit soft and mushy. Were not the chunks of pork with crispy outside and juicy inside that carnitas should be. Again, overall the meat lacked the acidity (lime juice) that is also common with carnitas.
Ordered: Margarita (¥750, or $6.25)
Pros: Very fresh and balanced, not that artificial from-a-mix taste. On weekdays (Tues–Fri), a long happy hour from 4pm to 8pm draws in crowds with all drinks priced at ¥500.
Chiles Mexican Grill, 1-8-24 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo
Overview: Frijoles is the kind of place where a person, enchanted by Chipotle’s build-your-own-burrito while waiting in line model, can feel that all’s well in the world. In other words, this is as close to Chipotle as you’ll get (read: knockoff) down to the signage and packaging deats. A decent Chipotle knockoff is better than no Chipotle.
Ordered: Carnitas Burrito Bowl (regular size) (¥1040 Yen, or $8.67)
Pros: Carnitas were well seasoned with plenty of oregano and bay. Probably the closest thing to the carnitas at Chipotle, with exceptions (see below). Fresh shredded romaine lettuce. Also, since you watch the staff build it in front of you, you can always ask for more toppings of any kind. They’re happy to pile it on for you, within reason.
Cons: Although advertised as a “fluffy” Cilantro-lime rice, what we got instead was a plain, Japanese short-grain, sticky rice. Maybe they had run out for the day? Although pretty good, the carnitas did not have the crispy seared edges we were looking for, nor the depth of porkiness that you’d find at Chipotle. I think the meat is rather lean, and the lack of charred skin and fat is a flavor buster.
Ordered: Carnitas Burrito (regular size) (¥1040 Yen, or $8.67)
Pros: Again, you can control the amount of toppings that goes into the burrito, so it’s highly customizable.
Cons: The regular size is a Japanese regular size, and was about 6 inches long. Again, as mentioned above, the carnitas suffers from the lack of charred skin and fatty pieces during the cooking process.
Ordered: Chips & Salsa (¥220, or $1.83)
Pros: Chips are nicely fried, not too greasy, and not too light.
Cons: Serving size is a meager one-third of the size of chips you would get at Chipotle. The salsa, although fresh, was unbalanced and watery. Specifically, the ratio of raw onion to tomato was too high, making the salsa too oniony to eat.
Frijoles, 6−6−9 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo
Overview: GyG is an Australian quick-service Mexican restaurant chain that is expanding into Asia (Japan and Singapore so far). With its modern taqueria aesthetics, and different menu selection, the feel of GyG is markedly different from Chipotle. For example, GyG offers pan seared fish, spicy grilled chicken, churros, spicy chocolate drink, and a frozen margarita on its menu. The highly anticipated recent opening (April 2015) of its first Japan branch in Harajuku was met by long lines, where a free burrito was given out to each customer.
Ordered: Spicy Pulled Pork Chipotle Burrito Bowl (regular size) (¥750, or $6.25)
Pros: This is not pork carnitas, but it’s pretty damn tasty pulled pork. The best seasoned out of Frijoles and Chiles, this pulled pork is spicy, smoky, and juicy. Both pico de gallo and spicy tomatillo salsas were used, which gives a nice piquant flavor.
Cons: Plain white rice, with the pleasantly rough texture of Vietnamese broken rice (Cơm tấm), unfortunately had no Latin flavors to it. And the lack of fresh produce–such as lettuce and corn–made this less of a burrito bowl and more of a meat and rice dish. For the regular size, there was disproportionately too much rice to meat and toppings.
Ordered: Spicy Pork Burrito (regular size) (¥750, or $6.25)
Pros: Same delicious spicy porky flavors as above.
Cons: The regular size was about a mere 6-7 inches long. A little bit of crunchy lettuce would have added another layer of texture.
Ordered: Grilled Flank Steak Tacos (regular size) (¥800, or $6.65)
Pros: The regular size is a bigger-than-your-average Japanese portion. A generous heaping serving of grilled steak and guacamole. The jack cheese was warm and melty on the chips.
Cons: For a cut of beef like flank steak, it should have been better seasoned. Rather, the beef was both under-salted and seasoned. The beef was also a bit too rare and chewy for my liking.
Guzman y Gomez, 2/F La Foret Harajuku, 1-11-6 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo