Chained heat

Aug 14, 2002 at 12:00 am

A hand-written note on the wall at Starbucks alerted my friend Margaret to Baja Fresh, a Tex-Mex fast-food chain that she was already familiar with from her native California.

The slogan on the wall is your signal that there is something different about Baja Fresh: “No microwave! No can openers! No freezers! No lard! No MSG!” You can eat food that is fast and tasty, and not overwhelmed by a dunk in the deep fryer. And cheap. My family of three had a hearty dinner one evening for $21.

Grilled chicken and steak are featured in most of the dishes. Then you decide whether you want it rolled up in a burrito, or an open-faced taco, or a roll-it-yourself fajita. Choose again for flour or corn tortillas, and again for a side of black beans, pinto beans or Mexican rice. A heaping pile of corn chips (deep-fried) and a lackluster side salad of chopped romaine also comes with most entrées. Quesadillas and nachos are on the menu, as well as two salads.

The ambience at Baja Fresh reminded me of the highway rest stops during a recent drive home from Maine. Bright lights, menu on the wall, line up to order, self-serve drink bar, plastic tableware, etc. “Number 83 is ready, please,” comes over the sound system at intervals.

But if I were at a highway rest stop and it was pizza to the right, Burger King to the left or Baja Fresh straight ahead, I’d go for the Baja Fresh every time. The food is much more interesting, and more healthful. (You can find a complete nutritional breakdown at Don’t kid yourself: “Burrito Dos Manos” is 1646 calories, and nachos with steak is 1958!).

I love fajitas and ordered a combo ($7.25) that comes with chicken and/or steak, grilled green peppers and onions, and is served with tortillas, beans, rice, guacamole and sour cream. Tacos can be ordered with fish (red snapper) or shrimp (wild, not farmed). Ordered à la carte, they are $2.25 and $2.35, respectively, while the chicken and steak variations are $1.85 each. Taquitos are smaller, stuffed and rolled and fried.

The he-man dinner on the menu is the burrito “dos manos” (two hands). A huge tortilla rolls into a neat package stuffed with chicken or steak, rice, beans, cheese and grilled peppers, chilies and onions. Sliced in half, it can be maneuvered with very little dripping down your chin.

Baja Fresh excels with its salsas. All are made fresh several times a day. Roja is a spicy red salsa, verde is mild and made of tomatillos, Baja is a roasted tomatillo salsa (my favorite), and pico de gallo is made of chopped tomato, onion and cilantro. The Baja salsa makes a wonderful fat-free salad dressing. Also available at the salsa bar are several types of hot peppers that should be sampled cautiously.

The guacamole is good too. Need I say that it is made fresh, from real avocados? An 8-ounce serving is $3.25 and comes with plenty of corn chips.

Party packages are available and come in a number of combinations serving six to eight people for $30 or so.

On one side of the room are high-top tables, and on the other, regular. I noticed that customers self-select — the young and hip on the high-top side, while families and older couples sit across the room and watch them.

Baja Fresh started in 1990 as a mom-and-pop eatery in Conejo Valley, Calif. It now has 169 franchises in 16 states and is coming soon to Rochester Hills, Farmington Hills and Southfield. Baja Fresh was recently acquired by Wendy’s International. President and CEO Greg Dollarhyde (have you ever heard a more appropriate name for a capitalist?) says, “I believe Wendy’s will be a great partner who will share [our] vision and our values.”

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].