Iowa's burrito rivalry: Pancheros vs. Fighting Burrito
The answer for most on Tuesday was it wasworth the wait. Stephen Schmidt / Iowa City Press-Citizen
The burrito is the perfect food. Like so many things, Americans have appropriated the burrito by stuffing a tortilla with rice, beans, cheese, salsa and guacamole till it's about to burst. And it's delicious.
Chipotle was the undisputed king of the burrito, but maybe you haven't been back recently because of the E. coli scare. What you may not know is there are two businesses slinging burritos for years that are home-grown right here in Iowa: Pancheros, founded in Iowa City, and The Fighting Burrito, founded in Ames.
If there's a bigger Ames vs. Iowa City rivalry, I don't know about it.
These joints clearly know their audience: college students. Personally, burritos made up roughly 60 percent of my diet while earning a degree. Both restaurants have been serving burritos to the occasional sober student for a combined 36 years.
A secret weapon of both restaurants that Chipotle confusingly lacks is queso cheese. Warm, melty queso goes great with a side of tortilla chips or even inside a burrito, if you're feeling dangerous. And both are a vegetarian's delight, offering soy-based alternatives to chicken, steak or pork.
But what sets these two Iowa eateries apart?
Pancheros is certainly the biggest burrito success story in the state. It started back in 1992, with first locations in Iowa City and another college town, East Lansing, Mich. It began franchising in 2003 and now boasts more than 60 stores in 22 states.
Pancheros bookends its burrito-making experience with two things that make it stand out.
Its biggest strength is its fresh tortillas. When you order, the first thing you see is a little ball of dough enter the tortilla press and then get grilled to bubbly perfection.
After going down the line for the usual fillings, you meet Bob. Bob is the unassuming name for Pancheros' greatest innovation: a tool that mixes all your ingredients together before the burrito gets wrapped. OK, so Bob is really just a spatula. But I appreciate what you do, Bob. At Pancheros, you can say goodbye to bites that are all beans and rice, followed by a bite of nothing but sour cream and guac.
Locations in central Iowa: Altoona (3580 Eighth St. SW), Ankeny (2310 Delaware Ave.), Ames (1310 S. Duff Ave. Ste. 103), Des Moines (2708 Ingersoll Ave.), Johnston (8759 Northpark Dr.), Urbandale (3265 100th St.), West Des Moines (154 S. Jordan Creek Parkway)
The Fighting Burrito
Formerly The Flying Burrito, this Ames staple opened in 2004. It changed its name not (disappointingly) because of a dispute with Gram Parsons' Flying Burrito Bros. band, but because of an existing restaurant.
With only three locations — they've since expanded to downtown Des Moines and Ankeny — it's a more modest chain than its Iowa City-based competitor.
But you don't need to go in person to enjoy a warm burrito — that's right, The Fighting Burrito delivers. Keep an eye out for its tiny green smart car zipping around town.
Naturally you can build your own burrito, but The Fighting Burrito also offers a menu of its "Favorite Fighters," like the Sweet Susan B. Burrito with jalapeno peach salsa or the Jack Trice with gooey homemade queso.
Locations: Ames (117 Welch Ave.), Des Moines (309 13th St.), Ankeny (502 N. Ankeny Blvd. Ste. 5)
Is there a clear winner? Not if I want to keep eating at both places uninhibited. I'm partial to The Fighting Burrito for keeping me fueled during my four years in Ames. But when you're hungry for a burrito, these two Iowa establishments serve a product you can be proud to fit in your face.