Chipotle is okay I guess. They are spacious and well air conditioned. The bathrooms are usually clean, the music is awful but at least you can ignore it, the prices aren't completely outrageous. The burritos are pretty big, and you can customize them to your liking. They have orange soda about 80% of the time.
The Mexicali Blues, a far more authentic south-of-the-border eatery located in Arlington, is awesome. There are two main reasons why Chipotle can only be considered okay while Mexicali gets much higher marks. Reason number one: Mexicali serves alcohol. Reason number two: Aside from bathroom cleanliness, everything else.
The atmosphere of Mexicali is similar to many places in Arlington, the atmosphere of an informal, unique, slightly trendy eatery for people to dine during the day, and to return to later so they can get their drink on. It's small, and gets pretty packed around dinner hours, enough so that having to wait a bit for a seat wouldn't be inconceivable, although I didn't have to. There's a bar at one end with a television showing CNN, the rest is dedicated to small tables and cast iron chairs.
The atmosphere is fun and informal, but the atmosphere is also LOUD. At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday the sound waves ricocheting around the packed room were enough that I had to speak just shy of yelling to make myself heard across the table. Of course, this is to be expected at an eatery where a shot of tequila is listed as an appetizer. That's not to say that it's full of red-faced businessmen and puking college students. It didn't strike me as the type of scene at all — at least not at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday. Everyone was behaving themselves, but virtually everyones drink was brightly colored as well.
But enough of this scene stuff, the food is what matters and at Mexicali, the food is good. The fare consists of the Mexican standards we all know and love, along with some variations such as a selection of Salvadorian food. I got the Ultimate Burro ($8.95) — the “Ultimate” moniker is not hyperbole — which is everything you could want or expect. It comes with guacamole — really good guacamole — grilled steak/chicken, sour cream, salsa, jack cheese, rice and beans. It is roughly 23% larger than anything I've seen at Chipotle, which is enough to qualify as ultimate in my mind. Everything, especially the guacamole, was outstanding and it's a good thing you can take what you don't eat home with you, or else I would have left two-thirds for some lucky raccoon to feast on. The burritos also come in shrimp and vegetarian varieties.
The Carnitas ($11.95), grilled pork rubbed with spices, were excellent as well. Unlike so many of their skewer-grilled brethren, they weren't too dry and not at all stringy. It came with the ubiquitous rice and beans and some really excellent tortillas.
Mexicali doesn't break much new ground with its menu, but they do what they do very well. All the sauces and dips are house made, the meat is well prepared and the drinks are very well mixed. Don't settle for okay, don't settle for anything less than ultimate or awesome, and make it your next stop when eating in Arlington.
2933 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201
Hours: Sun. – Thurs.: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Fri. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Late Night Menu: 11 p.m. – 4 a.m.