I took a bite out of my hulking carnitas burrito and savored its rich saltiness and the almost-melted texture of the pork. A piece of food-heaven, this sandwich wrap is truly crowned the king of its competitors. I know what I’m about to say is sacrilege of some high form here in Southern California, but I have to admit that my love for a Chipotle carnitas burrito trumps all mamá y papá burrito shops here. Yes, I’m speaking about the national burrito chain, Chipotle.

I’ve had this continuing battle between my taste buds and my brain since I moved here almost a year ago. One of the things I greatly anticipated upon entering the gates of the San Diego area was its overflowing plethora of Mexican street food – tacos, burritos, quesadillas. Considering this area is not only famous for them, but is one of the areas where this particular cuisine was given birth, you’d expect that fare of this sort would, well, be astounding. I haven’t found astounding yet. Nay, I’ve barely found good. As I’ve oft said to my dear wife, if this is authentic Mexican, then I don’t like Mexican food. Most of the food I’ve heard regaling tales about has, in my view, fallen very short of all the expectant applause. Most of the time, the flavors are off if they are even present at all. Also, I’ll admit with great embarrassment that I’ve had more than a handful of bouts with the toilet after eating some of said foodstuffs. Yet, I have held out hope for the one, single amazing taco shop that puts me over the edge. I’ve made attempts – good, honest attempts – at trying the food and trying oh so hard to like the food to no avail. It runs contrary to how I feel about the food I eat – it’s the local specialty, so I should find some good in it. It’s difficult, though, to me for whatever reason. I feel that my taste buds rarely fail me and that I can truly taste good food (Shut up, Detroiters! White Castles and Coneys do taste good!), but when it comes to San Diego burritos and Chipotle, Chipotle takes the cake, as they say.

If you read the soda cups they dole out at Chipotle, you’ll get an idea from where this great beast comes from. When I first tried Chipotle a few years ago, I did so with much trepidation. They were co-owned by McDonald’s and their integrity was suspect because of this. Also, in Portland, anyone can basically find a better, local alternative to most chains, anyway. Once we moved from Portland, though, we didn’t have a chance to partake in any more Chipotle mainly because Iowa is lame like that (Yes, I have often heard people there say quesadilla like kezadilla, Napoleon Dynamite style). However, it was during this time that McDonald’s divested from Chipotle and it became a company all on its own, operating how it wanted to. Yeah, the aforementioned cups will deny that Chipotle is a chain and that they’re just a bunch of burrito shops. But, call a pig a pig: Chipotle is a chain. But, the difference is that Chipotle is one of the few major fast-food chains making an attempt to make major changes to the business model that chains have followed for decades: they’re bringing naturally raised, free-range meats and other organic ingredients to the masses. And, it’s working. This is what’s scaring the pants off of all the competition.

Chipotle, from the time I began eating at their establishments, has heavily promoted their all-natural, free-range pork carnitas. Already having been a carnitas fan for quite some time, having this alternative overjoyed me. The fact that free-range pork was readily available for such mass consumption was a revelation as well because it meant that demand was high and that the market was not just expanding, but exploding. This is the benefit of corporate chains taking the reins of “good food.” Showing that not just freaky au natural hippies are interested in such insane ideas as humanely treated animals boosted the market so much so that in certain markets, such as Portland, all of the meat on Chipotle’s menu is free-range. Their beans, in addition, are partly organic. Why partly? Well, just as the meats started slow, the beans have done so as well. Chipotle is incorporating their organic black and pinto beans a percentage at a time until the supply can catch up to the demand. It’s a tool that larger corporations can use to influence farming and food supply at large. Chipotle is, without shame, using this tactic for the good of their business, of course, and for the good of the customer and for the ultimate good of the environment. As an example of a large-scale purveyor using large-scale free-range and organic farms, Chipotle is painting a picture of an ideal form of the mass-market organic evolution.

If you take the time to peruse through Chipotle’s website, you’ll learn a lot about their business practices. They’ve taken every step from design to art and to music to make the casual eating experience more than just schlupping gross food to the masses. Each Chipotle varies in design and uses recycled materials throughout their buildings in addition to energy-saving methods of operation. Taking the small-scale hip restaurant to the mainstream looks to have worked to a certain extent, but atmosphere, while always important, doesn’t hold a candle to food quality. Chipotle manages to make sure both figure into their bottom line.

While I may still search for the ultimate street food here in SoCal, I’ll find it difficult to beat what I find in Chipotle each time I fill myself there to the proverbial brim. With a large scale company paying such close attention to how it serves what it serves and where what it serves comes from, it’s inspiring to see how this could (and does) affect the mainstream.

But, how does this affect the small farmer? How can we remain local with such booms in national chain activity? San Diego has proven to be a model for this struggle as I visit farmers’ markets here that fall far from my expectations of the local, organic experience that I came to expect. I’ll examine the conundrum of the national v. local organic farms debate right from where corporate organic farming thrives and the locals get the shaft.

Until then, thrill your taste buds and stimulate your brain: eat the good stuff.

Read: Organic Evolution