Empire Burritos and Santa Fe Peppers
Where burritos come smothered in déjà vu
By and large, I’m not a fan of chain restaurants. I just can’t get onboard with corporate-formulated burgers and pasteurized food “experiences.” But there are exceptions. Sometimes a chain comes along that serves genuinely good eats you can’t find in every other joint on the block. Chipotle, for example, has long been my go-to burrito place when I’m craving something other than a pulverized pinto mash-up. More than once I’ve thought it’s too bad Albuquerque doesn’t have one.
Then my inbox began filling with gentle suggestions, and eventually adamant urgings, to drop in on Empire Burritos and Santa Fe Peppers. According to reader Briana Coyne, “Frito pie is not the panacea for hunger, Santa Fe Peppers is.”
Well, ya’ll said jump, so I did.
Just to clarify things, Empire Burritos and Santa Fe Peppers have the same owner and menus, but two names, three locations and three different sets of operating hours. That one threw me for a loop, too. With three locations—two Empires and one Santa Fe Peppers—these guys are technically a chain, albeit a local one.
I’m going to get the negative stuff out the way first. Damn near everything about Empire/Peppers reminded me of Chipotle. Contemporary-
Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but this place was like Coming to America’s McDowell’s.
The similarities continued as I made my way down the line, mostly in the bean, rice and salsa choices. Black or pinto, white or brown; these burritos are constructed exactly like Chipotle’s.
Now, I know this style of burrito is not owned by Chipotle, nor did they do it first. But it’s the combination of things: atmosphere, attitude and product. I have to admit, though, the food stands on its own—for the most part, anyway.
All ingredients are prepared fresh—no vacuum-packed poultry or flaky dehydrated beans. Everything is cooked from its natural state onsite.
The menu consists of burritos, tacos, bowls, nachos and quesadillas. All are available with the same formula: meat, rice, beans, veggies, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Simply choose your meat, bean, rice and salsa and they wrap it up for you in a flour tortilla (albeit an unremarkable one).
Chicken and steak can be ordered grilled or chipotle-roasted "Empire"-
A big surprise comes in the form of the vegetarian burrito. I'm an unabashed carnivore, but I do enjoy soil-dependent life-forms. With a spicy pepper-and-onion mix and all the trimmings, there was no love lost for the missing meat. Black beans—and I recommend always going that route, as the pinto beans fell flat—brown rice and every Southwestern condiment on the menu come together in a crisp and refreshing hand roll that would make PETA proud.
A tilapia burrito doesn’t fare as well. Normally mild to to the point of veering toward bland, the fish I was served had a strong fishy flavor that couldn’t even be disguised by a combination of all five salsas. In case you’re wondering, that fishy flavor is a result of decomposition. As amino acids accumulate and break down, an unpleasant murky flavor develops. A general rule is that the higher the fat content, the more amino acids. Add time out of water and you have a stinky fish. Tilapia, largely a freshwater fish with low amino acid content, takes a while to get to the funky point.
On a lighter note, all of their salsas are great. The tomatillo salsa stands out with sweetness balanced by slight tartness. Another favorite is the sweet corn-and-jalapeño salsa, where cilantro and a hint of smoke make for an intricate and lively concoction.
What can I say? It’s no Chipotle. I feel a little dirty admitting it, but this is the first time I’ve favored a big business over a little guy. That said, Empire Burritos/Santa Fe Peppers is good enough to merit my recommendation. They're homegrown alternatives to an alarming dearth of fresh ingredients in the burrito biz. But if a shiny new Chipotle opened up, I’d probably eat there first.