Restaurant review: Chiquito Bar and Mexican Grill
Victoria Square, Belfast, tel: 028 9043 6770
Belfast enjoys an unusually happy relationship with Mexico. We go nuts for a good burrito and the city has a quality portfolio of value-for-money, independent outlets including Boojum, Chalco's and Kurrito, the city's first Pakistani-Mexican fusion restaurant.
According to Samina Kauser, owner of Kurrito, Belfast is unlike any other city in Ireland or Britain in terms of its burrito offers. We are ahead of the curve, even by London standards, according to Samina.
My teenage daughters are big burrito fans and judging by the queues the citizenry is very keen on those served up across the city. I view them as a wholesome addition to the fast food stable of burgers, pizzas and fish and chips.
The contents of a Belfast burrito features fresh vegetables, locally sourced chicken, beef or pork, healthy pulses and, by and large, pass as nutritious and very tasty.
There's a nice competitive tension between fans of Chalco's and Boojum over which is more authentic and the same exists now for Kurrito and its copycat, Slums.
And we don't just enjoy the fast-food versions of Mexican. Judging by the success of Acapulco in east Belfast and its finer versions of fajitas, tacos and quesadillas, we like to take our time and savour the flavours properly. Acapulco makes quite a big deal of its beef fajitas made from the tail-end of quality (locally sourced) fillet.
Which begs the question, how does Chiquito, the Mexican-themed restaurant chain, get away with these prices?
The restaurant at the very top of Victoria Square is a pleasantly themed, bright and well-attended operation with friendly servers and comfortable seats. There are even branded sombreros lying about the place in case you want to dress up as a bandito. I did.
But that's where the craic ends. Because the sense of being on an industrial conveyor belt is overwhelming. It's everything to do with the style of menu design and the sense of corporate centrality. It's like pulling into a petrol station.
The advantage of these chains is the promise that the quality will be of a level which has proven acceptable over the years.
I've been working on the promotion of the Marco Pierre White restaurant in the Park Avenue Hotel, which is also part of a chain, albeit a much smaller one (which is why you won't see a review of it here). But the difference is that MPW is a person whose standards and quality are clearly acknowledged, established and have to be matched. That's the deal. I don't know who Chiquito is, nor for that matter Cosmo or TGI Friday.
In Belfast, this matters because we have an exceptionally well-developed and unusually successful portfolio of independent restaurants, which now includes two which have Michelin stars. We are keen on these, but there is a question mark over whether or not our children enjoy them.
A quick look around the three restaurant chains mentioned reveals the numbers of families with young children present. If you're in a shopping centre with the children these places are convenient with room for buggies and proximity to all the shops, cinema and children's favourites.
They are big, they are more Disneyland than Harlem and they are no-fuss. And the menus appeal is magical to the under-18s.
This means that your Chiquito 'street-style' burrito at £7.95 will fill your child up - although not with quite the same ratio of meat, vegetables and rice as the independents offer. Chiquito's burrito is by far dominated by rice with a rare glimpse of meat, even if the menu claims it is packed with Texan style cheese sauce, refried beans, cheese, lettuce as well as Mexican spiced rice.
Habanero-style chicken wings are charred and blackened, and, according to my running mate today, a food broadcaster from Limerick, carcinogenic. I enjoy them nonetheless as I like the mix of crunchy burnt, bark-like meat and the softer, moist muscle within.
A halloumi salad features a skewer with three pieces of cheese and some onion and pepper. Halloumi would be more popular in the Middle East, but it must be easier to source than the Mexican stuff, which, paradoxically, is very on trend in London restaurants right now (look up Gringadairy and their fabulous Queso Oaxaca).
A quick chat with the manager reveals a very business-focused approach to the operation. That's fair enough, but when the full weight of a 75-restaurant chain's corporate ambitions seem to be prioritised over the client experience, you can't help but think that the principle of hospitality has been sidelined.
And, anyway, for a superior yet 30% cheaper burrito (£5.50), Boojum, Slum's, Kurrito and Chalco's are your only hombre.
Habanero wings £3.00
Burrito street style £7.95
Halloumi salad £7.45
Heffe Wiesen beer £4.45
Glass white wine £4.25