It’s noon on a Tuesday. I walk into a crowded Chipotle, and I’m so anxious that my stomach is churning. Earlier that day, I’d come across something called a quesarito, which is a full-blown Chipotle burrito wrapped inside a quesadilla, a 1,540-calorie fallen angel that one Redditor had claimed was hiding deep within Chipotle’s secret menu. So I say the word–“quesarito”–half-expecting to be laughed out of the restaurant. Instead, the girl’s eyes open wide, like she’s seen a yeti. Then her face goes deadpan.
“We don’t have that.”
“You don’t? But it seems like … maybe you do?”
An urgent smile betrays her. “No, but if we did have it, it wouldn’t be between the hours of noon and one.”
It was only then that I realized my horrendous faux pas. Like Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, my first steps into a decadent clandestine society had been both naive and far too public. A moment later, it was as if the topic was never broached. I ordered a mere chicken burrito and quickly ate it in shame. Meanwhile, my hunger for the elusive quesarito only grew.
Two days later, I’m on the phone with Chipotle’s communications director, Chris Arnold. I waste no time. I need to know. I ask him about the quesarito. “I don’t know what that is, and I’ve been here a very long time,” he assures me. “There is no secret Chipotle menu.”
I’m still not sure if he’s lying to me, but I like Arnold immediately. Unlike most big corporate chains I’ve spoken to, nothing he’s telling me is filtering through a legal department or some paranoid suit. And when he talks about burritos, cheese, and salsa, I can almost hear him salivating through the phone, just a bit, just like I am.
But a nice guy or not, I’d need to break him. I knew the quesarito existed–it had to. If this took an hour, then so be it. If this took a week, so be it. If this took my career, so be it. I’d seen Zero Dark Thirty, and I was going to ride Arnold until the truth spilled out like bean juice from an improperly wrapped tortilla. “Another reporter from St. Louis was asking about it,” he admits without prompting a second later, “from the Riverfront Times.” With that, Arnold was ready to talk. And the conspiracy would go deeper than I could ever have predicted.
It is worth noting that the very concept of a secret menu is a bit absurd. After all, why would a restaurant try to sell food that nobody knew about? Case in point, In-N-Out’s secret menu–with options like ordering fries “animal style”–has become the worst-kept secret in America. Nowadays, they even post this menu on their site, calling it the “not-so-secret menu” with total self-awareness.
But when I ask them about it, even In-N-Out denies its existence.
“We don’t consider any of the items commonly referred to as ‘secret menu’ items to be part of a separate or ‘secret’ menu. In fact, we don’t see ourselves as having a ‘secret menu’ at all,” In-N-Out VP Carl Van Fleet writes. “The, so called, ‘secret menu’ items are simply variations in methods of preparation for our basic menu items. We only serve burgers, fries, and drinks and we’ve always made each burger exactly the way a customer orders it.”
Interestingly enough, In-N-Out admits to inventing the name “double double,” but Van Fleet says they have no clue who first coined the term “animal style,” which began popping up in their stores as early as the 1970s. “We truly never sat in the office and decided to name variations on our burgers,” he promises. And it was only in the last decade that someone–“not from In-N-Out”–began saying they had a secret menu at all.
No doubt, the press has been nothing but a good thing for In-N-Out. Even if they didn’t coin it, the secret menu has become nearly synonymous with the burger chain. It’s fun, like an inside joke that the whole world is in on. And you only have to peruse In-N-Out’s website to spot an added benefit of promoting a menu that’s not a real menu: In states like California, nutrition information for every item on their menu board is disclosed for legal reasons. But most of these “secret” menu items–full of burgers stacked four tall and fatty foods slathered in delicious thousand island dressing–are immune to current disclosure laws.
“For example, if a customer orders their burger with ketchup instead of our spread, or if they order their cheeseburger with an extra slice of cheese, we don’t (and are not required to) list calories for that variation,” Van Fleet confirms. “Basically, since the so-called ‘secret menu’ items are just variations of our basic menu items, that is how they are treated.” Notably, In-N-Out discloses the nutrition information of its carb-light “protein style” burgers but no other “not-so-secret-menu” variations.
Back on the phone with Chipotle, Chris Arnold spills it. “We have 800,000 customers a day, all of whom order different things,” he says, referring to my secret super burrito. “Unless it’s an issue for guys like you, it doesn’t come across my department.”
Over the next few minutes, we browse this popular Ranker page together, and Arnold checks off the things that Chipotle could plausibly make on the list. While he maintains that the restaurant has no formalized secret menu, he admits that two off-menu items we see have become extremely popular, even in Chipotle’s own offices: nachos and quesadillas. [Note: A quesadilla actually is on the kid’s menu now.] What’s particularly odd, however, is that the line’s machinery isn’t really customized to make either. Without a flat-top grill, quesadillas are typically made in the low-temperature tortilla press (and there are generally only one to three presses per Chipotle, which can lead to backups during busy hours). Without a broiler, nacho cheese can’t really be melted, but employees can get close by ordering the toppings so the cheese sits directly on top of hot beans.
Despite their popularity, neither nachos nor quesadillas are inside any Chipotle operations manual. Instead, employees teach one another the popular off-menu requests through a sort of “oral history.” And Chipotle engineered a side-based menu for custom requests that’s “flexible enough to meet the sorts of requests we get from customers, but not enough to game the system.” Anywhere from one to three sides can be ordered at various tiers of cost. Everything is treated the same to make checkouts quick, save for meat, which always counts as two sides. If a customer orders something with four or more sides, managers have authority to just roll that order into a burrito or any other menu item it most closely resembles. “Pricing is structured to be flexible, because our restaurants are structured to be flexible,” he explains. “We essentially have four things on our menu, but there are more than 60,000 ways you can put things together.”
The sentiment is remarkably similar to what Starbucks tells me when I inquire about their secret menu I’d spotted through Googling. (In terms of search-engine optimization, In-N-Out, Chipotle, and Starbucks top the secret menu list.) Starbucks denies any secret menu, too, but just like Chipotle (and to a lesser extent, In-N-Out), they consider any ingredient they have in the store to be fair game, offering “more than 170,000 ways baristas can customize beverages.” They’ve set up pricing for modifications like soy milk and protein powder, but more basic requests like extra foam or extra syrup are on the house–just like Chipotle will let you add every salsa they’ve got to a burrito bowl without nickel-and-diming you.
These customizable burritos, burgers, and beverages might not seem like a very big deal. But compare this trend with fast food of yesteryear–heck, compare it to the McDonald’s or Burger King of today. Fast food has changed and we’ve barely noticed. Chipotle specifically isn’t trying to sell us on a Big Mac, a single creation built for universal appeal, but a mosaic of complementary flavors that can be mixed and matched without consequence. “I think of it as the customer’s the brand manager,” Arnold says. “The experience of the public is something different for everyone, like an iPod in a way. How many billions and billions of iPods are in circulation, and yet no two [playlists] are alike. You buy a burrito, I buy a burrito. We pay the same thing for it, and they’re two very different things.”
I made another run at the elusive quesarito at 3 p.m. one afternoon. There was only one other soul eating at my local Chipotle, while a skeleton crew manned the line. Perfect.
But this time, when I requested that elusive burrito-wrapped-in-a-meal, the man behind the counter legitimately had no idea what I was asking for. There were no coy smiles, no winks and nods. Just cluelessness and an openness to burn some clock and make my quesarito dreams come true. After several minutes–literally–of negotiating the ins and outs of what, in my mind’s eye, a Chipotle quesarito entailed, he sandwiched two tortillas around a thick pile of shredded cheese and tossed them into the press.
“If this looks good, I’m making one for myself later,” he said.
The quesadilla looked innocent enough as it was topped with chicken, rice, beans, and a variety of salsas. But it was when the Creator tried to actually roll the quesarito that I began to understand its mass. With a restrained grunt, he gave up on any semblance of finesse and just shoved the super burrito into an undersized piece of tinfoil, a pig in a mylar blanket.
I paid–$12.87 with a figure-friendly Diet Coke–and lifted the quesarito from the counter for the first time. It was the weight of a small animal, bending its red plastic cage with a hunger to break free. I took a seat and unwrapped the foil, cautiously. I was greeted by a freak of dairy fats and carbohydrates, a sticky, glistening, leaking, bulbous food monster. An employee, wiping down an already clean table in my quiet corner, gave up any pretense of work to watch my first bite.
“That’s a knife and forker,” he said. I stared him down like a lion claiming the first taste of a fallen gazelle, then picked it up with my bare hands. The flavor? Not like any Chipotle burrito you know. It was like a two-pound cheese-stuffed croissant, absorbing all that addictive acidic tang that defines Chipotle and swapping it for pure unctuousness.
I can’t describe the minutes (or hours?) that followed. But for the first time in my entire history of burrito consumption, I actually couldn’t finish what was on my plate.
The quesarito had bested me. Long live the quesarito.