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Vegan burrito-lovers, rejoice! Chipotle Mexican Grill, a popular Tex-Mex fast-food restaurant (with over 1400 branches worldwide), is testing out tofu at select locations. The vegetarian tofu option, dubbed Sofritas, is now on the menu at all California Chipotle restaurants and will be available in the Pacific Northwest by the end of July. Why did the mega-chain decide to change up their menu, and what does it mean for eaters around the country?
What’s the Deal?
What’s in a name? Sofritas comes from sofrito, a Spanish word meaning, “gently fried.” In Spanish and Latin American cooking, sofrito is an aromatic combination of sautéed garlic, peppers, onions, and tomatoes often used as a base for stews, rice and beans, and meat dishes. Chipotle’s Sofritas takes its name (and some ingredients) from this culinary tradition. The dish contains braised shredded tofu, tomatoes, chipotle chilies, roasted poblano peppers, and a blend of spices.
Chipotle spokesperson Danielle Winslow says the nutritonal profile of the tofu option is similar to that of Chipotle’s grilled chicken, but our research using the brand’s website proved otherwise: A serving of Sofritas contains 145 calories and 11 grams of protein, while a serving of chicken contains 190 calories and 33 grams of protein. Neither option is particularly light on sodium for those watching their intake. (A serving of chicken has 370 milligrams of sodium, while a scoop of Sofritas boasts a whopping 715 milligrams per serving — the most sodium in any Chipotle protein, and about one-third of the U.S. government’s daily recommendations for adults.)
Sofritas is definitely designed to appeal to vegetarians and vegans. Previously, Chipotle’s protein options included grilled chicken, beans, steak, and barbecued beef and pork. The Sofritas itself is vegan, and Winslow assured me restaurant crews take pains to use separate utensils and cook surfaces to avoid cross-contamination with any animal products. Like many Chipotle ingredients, the dish is also made to appeal to eco- and health-conscious eaters. For example, their meats come from animals raised without chemicals, cheeses are free of bovine growth hormones, and some products are even organic and local. The tofu comes from Hodo Soy, a well-known non-GMO producer located in Oakland, California. Winslow attributes some of Sofritas’s success in California to Hodo Soy’s existing fan base, as well as the Bay Area’s existing food culture.
Why It Matters
Anyone who’s ever been to a Chipotle restaurant knows it's set up like an assembly line: choose a burrito wrap, bowl, taco shell, or salad base and go to town with customizable ingredients and toppings. Restaurant workers add meat, rice, beans, salsas, cheese, and veggies according to the customer’s preferences.
Like any convenience food, there are benefits and potential downsides. The pros? Customize ingredients to go as healthy (or heavy) as you want. The cons? Burritos can be ginormous, and many proteins and toppings are loaded with sodium.
Adding tofu to the menu signals Chipotle has been paying attention to what customers want. The June debut of Sofritas marked the first time in 20 years Chipotle added a new protein to its established menu. Before tofu was introduced, black beans or sautéed veggies were the only vegetarian filling option (the pinto beans are flavored with bacon).
“Chipotle has always been popular among vegetarians because… our menu allows customers to pick and choose exactly what goes into their meal,” says Winslow. Chipotle executives are hoping that the tasty tofu filling will have crossover appeal for non-vegetarians, too.
Is It Legit?
You betcha, though right now it’s still in limited release. According to Winslow, Sofritas has already exceeded expectations. The tofu option originally debuted for a short test period in the San Francisco Bay Area. The trial proved successful, and Sofritas is now available throughout the Golden State (tofu meals currently make up four to five percent of the chain’s sales in California). On July 29, Chipotle is bringing the tofu revolution to the Pacific Northwest.
From that point on, it’s a numbers game. If Sofritas is as successful in Oregon and Washington as it’s been in California, the company will consider introducing it in other regions throughout the country, giving vegetarians throughout the United States more options. While Sofritas definitely has some drawbacks (high levels of sodium and limited geographical distribution come to mind), Chipotle’s decision to add tofu shows that some food companies do pay attention to customer needs and are actively working to help people make smarter food choices — or at least give them more options.
Update: After discussing concerns about Sofritas (namely, the sodium content) on Twitter with some readers, I heard back from a Chipotle representative, who will pass our feedback along.
Would you order tofu at a Chipotle restaurant? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.