Fast Food: Qdoba Mexican Gumbo Stretches the Definition of 'Gumbo'

Fast Food

Would you like fries (or onion rings or chicken tenders) with that?

"Qdoba gumbo is essentially a burrito emptied out into a bowl of underdeveloped broth."


[PhotographL Will Gordon]

Californians never tire of reminding me that because I live on the East Coast I do not have access to proper burritos, and I suppose I have no reason to doubt them. I've been to California a couple times without sampling the burritos, but it seems reasonable that the Mexican and Mexican-influenced foods of the West Coast are better than my options. Lucky for them, then, because I'm so satisfied with the New England knock-offs that I can't imagine how a burrito could be improved.

Even though Bostonians are deprived of real Californian Mexican food, we still have enough Mex-run taquerias and burriterias around that I've never felt the urge to go to Qdoba. I haven't avoided Qdoba on purpose, I've just never trained the fast-food-chain-shopping part of my brain to sync up with the burrito-eating part: I've never been to Chipotle, either. But I found a reason to try Qdoba last week when I saw a poster for their Mexican gumbo.

I love gumbo because it is a very good food and a very fun word; it's hard to imagine complaining about any day in which your diary entry includes "and then I ate gumbo." The name is likely to have originated from either the Bantu word for okra or the Chocktaw word for file (ground sassafras), which both make sense since okra and file are two of the most common gumbo thickeners, with boring old roux being the third.

Qdoba takes a fourth route of not so much thickening the broth as overwhelming it with stuff. The thin spiced-tomato liquid tastes like the runoff of a hundred burritos dripped down a hundred forearms, which isn't as bad as it sounds but also isn't what I expected from my gumbo base.

Even though I try to stay beneath the fray when it comes to debates over the authenticity of individual renditions of regionally beloved foods, I couldn't help thinking, "Wait, how is this gumbo?" when I saw my order being assembled. That's right, the Qdoba guy puts your gumbo together before your very eyes, which is perhaps intended to signal freshness but to me just looked weird. I'm OK with my soup being made ahead of time.

There is very little integration of flavor in the Qdoba Mexican gumbo. It's by no means a bad thing to have for lunch, but it's also probably not what the average gumbo-seeker has in mind, nor is it worth $8. After the broth hits the bowl, Qdoba adds a ton of rice, I'd guess about a cup and a half. They call it "cilantro-lime," but other than a few flecks of green, the rest of us call it "white rice." It's pretty good, though, not as sticky or chewy as it could have been.

Then they add about a cup of pulled pork (or grilled chicken, ground beef, shredded beef, grilled steak, or grilled vegetables); I declined their offer of beans, because my stew was already looking pretty solid. Then they top it with sour cream and shredded cheese and your choice of six salsas.

The pork wasn't as good as the rice. They texture was fine but there was precious little pork character; it could just as easily have been chicken, which is no insult but also not what I was looking for.

Most of the flavor in this dish comes from whatever sauce is added in the form of one of the behind-the-counter salsas or free-range hot sauces by the napkin dispensers. The cursory bits of onion and green pepper do nothing for the broth, which seems to be flavored by dumped-in powders rather than simmered-in vegetables.

Qdoba gumbo is essentially a burrito emptied out into a bowl of underdeveloped broth; it is admittedly not bad, arguably not gumbo, and definitely not something I'll order again.