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New Qdoba Grill joins the trend to 'fast-casual'

As a marketing strategy, Qdoba Mexican Grill is pure genius. And as a restaurant, it's not bad either.

The Colorado-based chain, which opened in 1995, is at the fast-growing intersection of two trends in the restaurant business: a boom in "fast-casual" restaurants and increased interest in ethnic eating.

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Fast-casual restaurants are slightly more expensive than fast-food joints and generally use fresher ingredients, but they don't have sit-down service. Accordingly, patrons at Qdoba order at the counter, and the meals are assembled from ingredients that are made in-house. The chicken is marinated there, the chips are fried there, and the salsas are diced and seasoned there.

The chain opened its first Maryland location in a Timonium shopping center in May and has plans with a local franchiser to open 19 more Maryland locations.

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The interior of the Timonium store looks a little like Panera Bread, another member of the popular fast-casual club. It has warm, rust-colored walls, sleek silver tables, rustic-looking tiles on the floor and black lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

The menu at Qdoba includes "signature burritos," such as one made with poblano pesto, as well as tacos, fajitas, quesadillas and taco salads served in tortilla bowls. To make sure everyone's happy, a few vegetarian entrees are offered, and there is a $2.99 kids meal of a taco or cheese quesadilla, served with a drink and a side of chips.

Seeing the pile of preformed tortilla bowls waiting to be filled, we decided to skip the salads and go right for the rolled meals. Those bowls may have been made on the premises, but we doubted they could stay fresh long sitting out like that.

We placed our order with one of the staffers behind the sleek counter, then had the fun of orchestrating the details. First, we were asked if we wanted pinto or black beans. Then we got to choose from five salsas, ranging from mild pico de gallo to very spicy fiery habanero. Did we want sour cream? Or cheese? If so, how much?

I guess the business models are big on giving customers a say.

The burrito is then assembled, rolled, wrapped in foil and served on what looked like a tin pie plate. If we were watching our carbs, we could have had the same ingredients in a bowl instead of a tortilla.

Diners pour their own drinks from a fountain that includes the usual sodas, plus a chemical-tasting lemon-free lemonade. They bus their own tables when they are through.

Though there's clearly a formula at work here, it can work only if the food tastes good. And most of it does taste good - in a fast-casual chain restaurant kind of way.

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We especially liked the cilantro lime rice and the beans that were in our burritos. The guacamole, a creamy, chunky scoop of green, was my personal favorite. And the chips were crunchy, with a pleasing hint of lime.

The poblano pesto burrito featured a savory mix of ingredients, and the fajita classica burrito had small pieces of nicely marinated chicken along with the red onions and bell peppers. But the flour tortillas in which they were wrapped were tepid, turning soggy and cold before we could finish eating.

The tortilla fared better with the steak quesadilla because it gained substance when grilled with the inch-square bits of tasty but chewy meat.

For dessert, the only choice was a few cookies that were wrapped and for sale at the counter.

With its low prices and appealing food, Qdoba will probably expand as quickly in Maryland as it has in other parts of the country. I wouldn't be surprised if business schools are already studying it as a success story.

Qdoba Mexican Grill

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Where: 2157 York Road, Timonium

Call: 410-252-4424

Open: Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Soups and chips: $.79-$2.69, entrees $4.79-$5.99

Food: **

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Service: *

Atmosphere: * 1/2


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