Freebirds World Burrito may have 89 locations in the U.S., but the closest location to me is 30 minutes away in the Sugar House area of Salt Lake City. And with so many other fast casual Mexican chains such as Cafe Rio, Costa Vida, Chipotle and Barbacoa nearby, I’ve just never taken the opportunity to try Freebirds. But one afternoon as we were leaving a fun run at Sugar House Park, my son spotted it across the street and suggested we stop for lunch.
Like the above-mentioned restaurants, Freebirds has an assembly line counter where you watch your meal being built to your specifications. If I were thinking of opening a new restaurant — which I’m not — I would avoid this concept, as the “big burrito” competition is stiff and the market is saturated. Freebirds, based in Austin, Tx., has been around over 30 years, before many of the other places got started.
Freebirds’ menu includes serves burritos, bowls, tacos, quesadillas, nachos and salads that are made from scratch daily. There are four different burrito sizes, four tortilla flavors, 10 different sauces and 30 additional toppings to choose from. I had a chicken salad and my husband and son had burritos. I’ve lost my receipt so I can’t give exact numbers, but for three adult-size meals and one regular-size soft drink, the bill was about $30, including tax.
A couple of differences I noticed with Freebirds:
- Your food comes in square, cardboard-ish containers instead of the round aluminum pans you get at Cafe Rio and Costa Vida. So it’s hard to compare portion sizes vs. prices. My chicken salad was around $7, and the burritos range in price from about $6.50 to $15, depending on the size and type of protein. I would think that the Super Monster size would be enough for a couple of people.
- My Freedom Chicken Salad came with a generous scoop of guacamole — not a skimpy little dollop. And I wasn’t charged extra for it, either.
- The lettuce was a “spring greens” mix, instead of chopped romaine or iceberg lettuce. Some people like the crispness of romaine or iceberg, but the greens were great for my tastes. The corn and tomato salsas, and strips of bell pepper and onions added more texture and flavor, and probably some healthy nutrition too.
- Our chicken was served cold; or at least, closer to room temperature than hot. I thought it was fine for a cool, crisp salad, but my hubby didn’t like cold meat in his burrito.
- There was a condiments area where you could add your own salsa — marked hot, medium or mild. I like this option when you want to kick up the flavor a little more; or you need a little sauce for more moisture.
- Instead of south-of-the-border ambience, there was more of a “roadhouse” feel. Since the name “Freebirds” was derived from a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, the classic rock music in the background was a good fit. Oh, and there’s a Statue of Liberty riding a motorcycle suspended from the ceiling,, holding a burrito.
A counter was littered with twisted foil “art.” Apparently this is a “thing” that customers do with their foil burrito wrappers. I guess it’s something that resonates with the regulars, but it just looked kinda messy to me.
Freebirds is part of the rising fast casual trend. And it’s not just Mexican food — Rumbi Island Grill, Cafe Zupas, Blaze Pizza, and Panda Express are examples of other cuisines with a fast casual concept. Fast casual is a hybrid between the traditional table-service restaurant and fast food. It’s perceived as less costly and quicker than a restaurant that offers table service, but more healthy and higher quality than fast food.
Based on one visit, I can’t really make a definitive comparison of Freebirds versus any other fast casual “big burrito” place. But if I have the opportunity, I’d certainly stop in again. I’d love to hear from other readers — what’s your favorite Mexican place? And what’s your favorite fast casual restaurant? And why?