Burrito joints are as common as coffee shops on State Street these days. Just last week another quickly expanding chain restaurant landed in Madison.
Moe’s Southwest Grill offers customers a wide array of Mexican options, ranging from the traditional fajitas to flavorful taco salads, frozen margaritas and tap beer. The cheerful “quick-casual” restaurant is culturally confused — the walls are decorated with paintings of American music legends, flat-screen televisions broadcast ESPN and Frank Sinatra plays in the background as college-aged customers chow Mexican-inspired food served in plastic trays.
And unlike its competitors, Moe’s demonstrates the type of attentive, friendly service that is a rarity in this fast-food nation. When I opened the front door to Moe’s, my friends and I received a warming greeting shouted in unison from the entire line of burrito chefs: “Welcome to Moe’s!” Have you ever been personally welcomed to Qdoba or Chipotle?
Like the colorful atmosphere and the exceptional service, the quirky menu is far from ordinary. Creative names of food options are intended to make the customer chuckle. The most comical are The Joey Bag of Donuts burrito stuffed with rice, beans, your choice of meat, cheese and salsa ($5.29); the huge Homewrecker burrito packed with rice, beans and your choice of meat, cheese, salsa, guacamole, sour cream and lettuce ($6.29); and the I Said Posse, a vegetarian quesadilla filled with cheese, beans, sautéed vegetables, salsa and sour cream ($3.99). Included in the price of all entrees (except the salads) is a generous side of festive tri-colored chips.
At all three competing restaurants, the burrito-building concept is the same: the first server on the line starts off your order with your choice of black or pinto beans and chicken, steak or tofu. The second person adds whatever toppings you desire — shredded cheddar cheese, chopped tomato and cilantro, sliced black olives, chopped onions, homemade guacamole, cucumber sticks, iceberg lettuce and marinated vegetables (additional 79 cents). And the third employee places your food in a basket or bags it to go.
I’ll admit, the burrito line at Moe’s looks just like that at Chipotle. However, Moe’s chefs pay a bit more attention to detail. Unlike at Chipotle, where chefs are stingy with toppings, Moe’s adjusts toppings to fit customer’s wishes (Moe’s seems to have less rigid policies on how much cheese to scoop out than Chipotle, a restaurant owned by the McDonalds Corporation, a company whose employees worship the “Speedee Service” manual).
I’d recommend avoiding the salsa bar. All three salsas — the green tomatilla, the standard mild and the medium — were bland and watery, in an almost hot-sauce consistency.
While I was impressed with the unique décor and the accommodating employees, the food, with the exception of the salads, left something to be desired.
The star of the menu was the Close Talker, a large salad comprised of lettuce, beans, cucumbers, salsa, shredded cheese, black olives, and grilled chicken, served a tortilla bowl with a side of Southwestern Vinaigrette ($6.29). I have had taco-type salads at both Chipotle and Qdoba, but the Close Talker stands out; all of the ingredients were fresh, the chicken was marinated and grilled to near perfection and the vinaigrette had a nice kick to it.
The Bag of Joey, the Homewrecker and Triple Lindy were nearly identical in taste. After a few bites of each, I still couldn’t pinpoint distinctive qualities among the three burritos: each was mildly spicy, slightly warm and ordinary. As someone mentioned, the quesadilla, filled with steak, beans, shredded cheese, salsa and sour cream ($5.29) “had all the right ingredients, but just weren’t tasty.”
Moe’s Southwestern Grill is an inviting new addition to State Street, offering healthier menu selections than its greasy competitors. Although the burritos were not memorable, I would go back for the Close Talker salad, the extraordinary service, the upbeat atmosphere and the reasonable prices.