This isn’t the story of a blown away newcomer.
I eat at El Diablo, or El Diablo Burritos as it’s officially known, at least once a week. When I walk in the greeting I receive from the employees has recently changed from “How are you?” to “How have you been?” They don’t know me, but they know me. I’m there that much.
El Diablo has been a part of my life for nearly five years. I hardly remember a time without it.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, El Diablo is a quick-service restaurant that offers burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, salads and quesadillas. Partners Roger Andrews, Dean Vilone and Shannon Stevens co-founded it in 2010. Since then, the brand has expanded to four restaurants, including a location on Newark’s Main Street — the third installment.
That description probably sounded a lot like Chipotle, because it is. Ask any student about El Diablo and they will almost inevitably bring up how it compares to Chipotle. It feels only right to pit the local devil against its national counterpart.
In the bleak moments I remember before El Diablo came to Newark, I was as big a Chipotle fan as they come. Before Chipotle even came to Newark, I was downing hard shell tacos at a Chipotle location in Sarasota, Fla., on family vacations. The revolutionary Washington D.C. brand had made it there before anyone even had heard of it here.
The chicken reeled me in, but the cheese kept me wanting more.
Soon Chipotle took over the laundromat next to Margherita’s Pizza and vacation could be any day I wanted it to.
But after a while it felt staid. Its chicken was still flavorful, every now and then the white rice had the perfect twinge of lime and the cheese was still a highlight, but the infatuation phase was over. It was no longer my family’s little thing, it was everyone’s thing.
Enter El Diablo, directly across the street no less, and its massive white ceramic bowls loaded with elements Chipotle never dreamed of — I was immediately back in love. The chipotle ranch dressing, the pickled onions (R.I.P., the cherry-churred onions are good but not the same), multiple cheeses — they’d thought of everything! I’d scorn when I saw people still carrying Chipotle’s paper crests topped with an aluminum lid. Those “bowls” paled in comparison to El Diablo’s behemoths. For an extra two bucks, I could get all of this and never leave hungry.
“Do the others just not like flavor?” I’d ask myself.
The chicken plays in the background as the melding of cheese, pico de gallo, onions and chipotle ranch takes center stage. If chicken isn’t your tempo, you’ll find the typical stylings of steak and pork plus extras like bacon and chorizo.
But the accents, the excitement, come in the form of the toppings. The corn salsa. The pineapple salsa. The aforementioned onions. Each brings it own flair. Each perfect for a different palette.
In many ways, the discourse surrounding the great Main Street burrito debate (or should it be deemed the burrito bowl debate? If you’re not bowling it in 2018, what are you doing?) has stooped to political-esque levels. When I explain to others why El Diablo is my go-to, my point is rarely heard out. (We get it Qdoba fans, they have free guacamole). Burrito lovers are fierce in their loyalties.
I will say Chipotle should always be appreciated for its role as the grandfather of El Diablo. Without Chipotle, there is no El Diablo. The pepper logo established and perfected the assembly line service technique, but with fresh ingredients. Fast food with the quality of sit-down.
But, like with most things we encounter as consumers, it evolves. El Diablo is the evolution of Chipotle. That’s my case. It delivers individualized tastes that Chipotle and its 2,400 shops cannot.
But as much as my El Diablo fandom drains my wallet, the picture of what’s inside those transparent garage doors isn’t complete without acknowledging what Chipotle, the elder statesmen in the burrito quick-service game, does better.
The pricing is a start. A chicken bowl, burrito, tacos or salad costs $6.85 at Newark’s Chipotle. El Diablo’s figure for its deluxe offering has crept to $9, a $.50 increase from when the Newark shop first opened in 2015. If you want a gooey quesadilla, toss in an extra quarter, the equivalent to 12 minutes of parking in Newark.
There’s the chips and salsa, both less expensive and more flavorful. And I do sometimes long for the juicier pico de gallo.
A Diabs loyalty program would be nice for us diehards. (One of my favorite experiences this year was receiving my tenth Poke Bros. bowl free.) But the good folks at El Diablo know they don’t need to.
I’ll always come back.
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