New York City eaters are experiencing a whole new form of sticker shock. The city now mandates that chains with 15 or more locations nationwide list calorie counts right on their menus.
In a July 16 article on MSNBC.com, author Roni Caryn Rabin told of a woman who lamented the new rule during a visit to T.G.I. Friday's: "'I'm so upset,' she said, noting some entrées - like the Jack Daniels ribs and shrimp dinner - contain almost 2000 calories, and the desserts were more of the same (the brownie obsession is 1500 calories). 'I wish they wouldn't have done this.'" Ignorance is bliss, with a side dish of heart disease.
Here in Burlington, most chefs aren't about to advertise the calorie content of their creations. Boloco, Burlington's hip new burrito place, has found a "middle way." Although the info isn't plastered on the long, skinny joint's walls - which offer Technicolor renditions of nearby landmarks such as Church Street, Lake Champlain and the ECHO Center - Boloco is part of a chain that is posting detailed calorie counts online. Its website is home to the "Nutrition Builder," one of the niftiest sources of such info I've ever encountered.
Just click on the ingredients that you stuffed into your burrito and watch as the site calculates the damage. On a whim, I virtually blended buffalo sauce, Caesar dressing, hummus and seasoned croutons: The concoction would contain 468.38 calories and satisfy a whopping 153 percent of your daily iron needs. More to the point, a large Buffalo chicken burrito weighs in at 1062.28 calories, while a lighter chicken Caesar wrap has about half as many.
Who cares? I do. To write this review, I downed a couple of normal-sized burritos plus bites of six others, part of two salads, one meat-and-cheese "snack," six smoothie samples and an order of chips and salsa. (A partial chocolate-chip cookie was in the mix, too.) In total, over two meals, I consumed about 3842 calories' worth of food - enough for two days. Luckily, most of it was delicious.
Each wrap boasted its own bold flavors, from the sweet 'n' spicy Bangkok with seasoned baked tofu, to the cooling Mediterranean with lime rice, feta, cukes and olives. Boloco offers ample opportunity for customization, a key to pleasing picky eaters: Any combo of fillings can be served up with tofu, chicken, steak or carnitas (pork braised with a rich blend of spices until tender). Or you can DIY. My favorite invention of the week was a heady, heavy mix of steak, black beans, corn salsa, guacamole and cheese in a white flour tortilla. It was gooey and great.
In the past, I've griped about the blandness of starches wrapped in other starches - tortillas and rice, which dilute the flavors of other ingredients, don't do much for each other. But Boloco's white rice stood out with a zingy hint of lime.
Two small complaints: Some of the burritos were built with all the beans banking on one side and the meat on the other, making for uneven bites. Also, many of them were lukewarm on arrival. It's true that the place was hopping, but with eight young, organic-cotton-clad staffers taking orders, tending chicken breasts on the sizzling grill, and swaddling fillings in wraps and foil, I expected the middles to be hotter.
One of my faves was smoking when I picked it up: a carnitas-and-cheese "snack." At Boloco, a snack is defined as something like a scaled-down burrito - or rolled-up quesadilla, perhaps - filled with proteins and fats, but no rice or veggies. The options include any of the three meats with cheese, plain old cheese, and a couple of curveballs: PB&J and Nutella. I opted for the pork, guessing the "snack" would give me full enjoyment of the meaty flavors. And I was correct: In the absence of other filling, the shreds of pork really shone, making this one savory treat. It was even better dipped in a side of guacamole.
At many restaurants, the guac is loaded up with lemon or lime to help it maintain a pretty green color - the vitamin C prevents unsightly brown oxidation, but the unfortunate side effect is a pucker-inducing product. At Boloco, this wasn't the case: the green stuff had a silky smooth base with a few surviving chunks of avocado, as well as tiny tomato bits. It may have lacked garlicky bite, but it was perfectly serviceable slathered on a burrito or a corn chip.
Boloco's salsa, which you can get on the side in generous portions, is a fresh concoction of what appear to be dense Roma tomatoes, onions and cilantro shreds. Eaten with chips, it had a slow heat that increased in intensity with the first few bites, but leveled out before it became uncomfortable.
The ingredients in the chicken Caesar salad didn't go so well together. I ordered one to go: A mere half-hour later, the croutons had gone spongy and gross. The dressing was oily and sweet rather than tangy with lemon and garlic. To add insult to injury, the nutty Parmesan had been swapped out for salty feta. Bad choice.
The Chinese chicken salad tasted better, though it had no apparent kinship with Chinese cuisine. As in the Caesar, the chicken bits came on a bed of Romaine. On top went slivered almonds, crunchy noodles, scallions and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Though too heavy on the oil, the sesame and soy dressing was a hit. But the serving size was twice as big as needed.
Thirsty? To balance all the savory meats and starch, Boloco serves up fruity smoothies in 10 flavors. I particularly enjoyed a purplish Berry Blitz, made from apple juice, blueberries, bananas and raspberry sorbet that left me with a post-lunch sugar rush. It was more complex than the sweet and tropical Mango Passion.
A "Milkshake," devised by a friend and made to order, was like a banana split in a glass, combining bananas, strawberries and chocolate with skim milk and non-fat fro-yo. Sadly, the vanillin-scented slurry wasn't decadent enough to be worth the calories it contained. (Yep, I know exactly how many.)
The much healthier soy smoothie, by contrast, tasted too strongly of its non-dairy origins to be a delight, despite hearty doses of calcium, fiber and vitamin C. At least we know those things are good for us. Fans of "nutriceuticals" can get their smoothies blended with a few mysterious "enhancers," such as "brain builder" and "vitality," for a mere 32 cents each. Asked what's in the "fat burner," a staffer replied, "It's a powder." Well, that clears things up! Whatever is in that powder, I'm holding it responsible for my post-prandial insomnia. Calls made to corporate headquarters re: the ingredients were not returned.
Boloco may be a chain, but it's a chain with flavor. The calorie counts may unnerve those who aren't used to seeing them, but at least they don't confront customers on the menu. Yet. Meanwhile, some of us are glad to know, for once, exactly what we're eating.
Where there are students and a thriving night life, there will be burritos. In the Burlington area, we don't lack for Mexican-flavored joints that roll up their main offerings with spicy salsas in a flour tortilla.
The senior member of the group, New World Tortilla, has a location in Essex along with two in the Queen City, one of them inside UVM's Dudley H. Davis Center. Which makes sense, because Groovy UV is the fraternal owners' alma mater. Back in the '90s, New World's Thai chicken and Vera Cruz burritos satisfied hungry students from a campus food cart.
Last year, a biz by the name of Bueno Y Sano gave a tasteful face-lift to the old Auggie's Island Grill location. BYS specializes in DIY, with shrimp, lots of fresh veggies and seitan on the menu, making it perfect for the health-conscious consumer. The salads and quesadillas are worth the trip, too.
And now there's Boston-based Boloco, a chain with a "green" bent. The Church Street biz trumpets its eco-friendly policies and folds up its tofu and humanely raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free meats in eight flavorful ways. Or you can invent your own. They corner the market on smoothies, too.
How about a comparison?
Basic Burrito Cost: $5.23 sm./$6.17 lg. includes the fixings
Sample Flavors: Classic, Cajun, Bangkok, Mediterranean; with your choice of protein
Premium Ingredients: Carnitas, corn salsa, caramelized onions, black-bean hummus, seasoned tofu, chorizo (in planned breakfast offerings)
Non-wrap Offerings: "Snacks" with meat and cheese, Nutella or PB&J; salads, smoothies. Breakfast wraps coming soon
Business Structure: New England chain
Hours: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. daily, for now
Basic Burrito Cost:$5.50 with rice, beans, cheese and sauces; each add-on costs $1 to $4.25
Sample Flavors: Thai chicken, East/West, or your own creation
Premium Ingredients:Grilled portabellas, shrimp, chickpeas and red curry, seitan, grilled tomato and garlic
Non-wrap Offerings: Quesadillas, soft tacos, salads, chips 'n' dip
Business Structure:Family-owned mini-chain
Hours: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Davis Center: N/A
Basic Burrito Cost:$5.35 to $6.95; meat-free options are cheaper
Sample Flavors: Thai chicken, sesame pork, beef, vegan beans and rice
Premium Ingredients:No DIY. Pre-set options include items such as ginger slaw, seasoned ground beef, bacon, homemade tortillas
Non-wrap Offerings: Tacos, quesadillas, rice plates, daily specials
Business Structure: Local family-owned mini-chain
Hours: N. Winooski Ave. location: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., closed Sunday. Davis Center location: 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Essex location: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Monday to Friday; 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday.