I Went to Ohio to Track Down Chipotle's Secret Burger Lab
On a scale of one to looking to disappear forever, the city of Lancaster, Ohio would surely rank pretty high up there as a place to hide something, or yourself—located a good clip off of the main highway connecting the fast-growing state capital of Columbus with the Buckeye State's rural southern reaches, Lancaster is as average, as easily-ignored a place as you could expect to find in a region that is already considered fairly average. Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with that.
Precisely because of the area's relatively unremarkable demographics, considered to be some of the most typically American in all of America, Central Ohio has long been used as a testing ground for new retail and restaurant concepts. From full-blown new ideas to smaller menu or product line tweaks, residents of the region are somewhat accustomed to being treated like guinea pigs. This explains the presence, on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Lancaster's Memorial Boulevard, of a shiny, modern burger joint that looks like it's gone missing from an upmarket Bay Area suburb. Here, stuck between a pawn shop and a strip mall with a check cashing joint and a place that will buy your gold, is Chipotle's semi-secret burger laboratory/restaurant.
Called Tasty Made, there's only one of them—since 2016, Chipotle has been here in Lancaster, testing the waters, asking the question, if Chipotle did burgers, what would that look like? So far, the answer seems to have been, hang on guys, we're not sure. After a year or so of tepid reviews, the company tapped Richard Blais for a menu revamp, which rolled out just before Christmas.
A partnership with Blais makes sense—while he might be best known on a national level for his Top Chef appearances, Blais has a pretty good track record on the fast-casual side of things, most recently in San Diego, where he operates the wildly popular (if rather unfortunately-named) Crack Shack. Could Blais help Chipotle make lightning strike, here in Ohio?
Walking into Tasty Made, even on a frigid winter day, I feel as if I've been transported to the West Coast, rather specifically into a more futuristic In-N-Out Burger—the walls are white, the lettering on everything bright red; banks of giant windows let in an impressive amount of natural light. It is warm, friendly and bright in here. The cast of characters behind the counter was exclusively young, more California-energetic than one would typically expect in the Midwest. On this dark, cold afternoon, Tasty Made was cheerful, inviting. So where was everyone? Just after lunch time on a weekend afternoon, there were only two or three other people in the dining room. Was there something wrong with the food?
There certainly wasn't anything objectionable about the prices—a hamburger at Tasty Made costs just $2.45, and comes with steamed onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard; you can add cheese for thirty cents more, and extra patties for $1.50 each. French fries are twice-cooked and tossed with sea salt; for $1.95, they were serving up incredibly generous portions. (For just $1.05 extra, you can dress them up with the house secret sauce, grilled onions and slices of melted American cheese, which is about the most blatant rip-off of In-N-Out's Animal Fries I've ever seen.) That's it, really, except for the shakes, which again are rather generously sized, considering they're only $2.95 each. Malt powder is fifty cents more.
Expecting very little for my money, I ordered a cheeseburger, single, regular fries, and a chocolate shake; a generous amount of food came out in almost record time. The fries, served in a paper boat, were some of the best you could ever ask for at a fast food restaurant, perfectly double-cooked as promised, using great-tasting potatoes. (If you are one of those people who loves Five Guys for the fries, these are so much better.)
The chocolate shake was another surprise—superbly creamy, long on flavor and blessedly short on icyness and gratuitous sugars, this is what you want from a value-priced fast food shake, but so very rarely get. (If one were to put Tasty Made's chocolate shake next to In-N-Out's, the latter would absolutely not win, I can assure you.)
And then, the burger. The bun was certainly promising—obviously, some thought had been put into it, this was definitely a cut above the supermarket grade stuff that certain gourmet fast food chains have managed to legitimize. It was soft, pliable, but it was also real food. And that's where the magic ended. Biting in, I felt like i was eating a glammed-up version of a McDonald's cheeseburger, except that typically, you can get two of those for the price you'd pay here for one. I left slightly confused—shouldn't a burger place be all about the burger?—but I also knew I'd have to come back. I had to know more.
On visit number two, nearly a week later, I wanted to try three things—I wanted to learn more about the actual burger, I had to put those not-Animal Fries to the test, and I wanted to get to know the various sauces on their condiment bar, which are mostly house made. This time, I got a Tasty Made, one of two signature burgers offered on the very short menu. There wasn't really anything special about it, except the fact that it cost $4.25; basically, this was a double cheeseburger, topped with raw onions, pickles, lettuce and a lot of condiments. I got the fries, those fries, and I made a couple of trips to the bar for curry mustard, buttermilk ranch dip, a smoked barbecue sauce, and a cup of the house special sauce, which is made with ketchup, mayo, vinegar, pickle relish and secret spices, one of which is probably paprika.
The sauces were exemplary, each of them pretty close to put-those-in-a-bottle-and-sell-them delicious. My loaded fries came out looking like a gourmet version of the In-N-Out staple, and were superior in every way to the original, save one exception—the onions were so worn down from steaming, they'd all but turned to sweet mush; a little fight (and bite) left in them would have taken the dish over the top. The burger was, once again, sadly, the burger, just a larger version of the one that had originally been such a disappointment.
This time, I took my food to the corner, where I could dissect it without getting funny looks—I wanted to see exactly what was going on in there, underneath so many cheap and unnecessary condiments. What were they hiding, I wondered? Honestly, I couldn't tell you, because stripped of everything, this was actually a delicious piece of meat—thin, yes, maybe slightly overcooked, but the base is absolutely there. Now they just need to figure out how they're going to present the thing. That, or Chipotle could just launch a chain of restaurants selling french fries and milkshakes. I'd show up, for sure.