- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Americans can’t get enough of the spicy stuff.

The number of Mexican restaurants has jumped in the Washington area in the past five years as the Hispanic population booms and American palates crave tacos, fajitas and other Southwest cuisine.

Mexican fast-food restaurants have taken a place among the top restaurant chains in the country, wiggling into a space between precooked hamburgers and sit-down fare.

Taco Bell is still the top Mexican restaurant chain, bringing in $5.7 billion in sales annually. Behind it are Chipotle Mexican Grill, the West Coast’s Del Taco chain and Baja Fresh Mexican Grill.

“People have come to really admire the cuisine because it’s fresh and has a nice flair to it,” said Eric Hahn, founder of RestaurantEdge.com, a Charlevoix, Mich., restaurant consulting company. “Spicy foods are quite popular. There’s going to be a solid market share available for quite a while.”

Restaurant analysts point to the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population from 12.5 percent in 2000 to 14.2 percent in 2004 as part of the reason behind the growth of Mexican cuisine. With the growing population comes growing interest and familiarity with Mexican foods.

“It’s just become a more accepted, more mainstream culinary choice in this country,” said Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle.

Chipotle, which owner McDonald’s Corp. plans to spin off as an independent company this year, has grown to include 47 locations in the Washington area — the most of any Mexican restaurant chain — since it was founded in 1993.

Chipotle’s closest competitor in this market is Baja Fresh, a Wendy’s International Inc. subsidiary with 30 restaurants in the Washington area. Baja Fresh Chief Executive Officer Brion Grube says the growth of Mexican restaurants and chains is meeting demand.

He doesn’t think the market is oversaturated with Mexican options.

“The fact that it’s a growing concept would speak to its popularity, and competition only makes us better,” Mr. Grube said.

Mr. Hahn agreed, saying Mexican chains are going after consumers who want something different that is beyond traditional American food.

Sam Wang, who opened Mexican restaurant Desert Moon in Tysons Corner Center in October, said diners sought out Mexican food because they were tired of burgers and fries.

“Burgers, pizza and Chinese food has always been the most popular [restaurants] — people are looking for a change,” Mr. Wang said. “Mexican is not as mainstream right now, but once they start eating it, people are always coming back.”

He declined to release sales figures, but said demand has been high.

“A few years ago, you rarely saw Mexican restaurants,” Mr. Wang said. “Now, everywhere you go there is a Chipotle, or now Baja Fresh. In our opinion, there is a market for everyone.”

And everyone, it seems, is hungry for Mexican.

Qdoba Mexican Grill is slated to open its first D.C. location at 10th and E Streets NW in February. The chain has restaurants in Herndon; Gainesville, Va.; and Largo, Md.

Other chains with local restaurants include On the Border, Taco John’s, Chevys Fresh Mex and Don Pablo’s.

The home team Mexican restaurant is Rockville’s California Tortilla, which has opened 15 restaurants in the Washington area since 2000.

“We opened the first in Bethesda [in 1995] and realized there was a market for these stores,” said Pam Felix, director of marketing at California Tortilla, which averages about $1.2 million in annual sales.

The chain plans to open 15 more restaurants over the next two years. Its first restaurant outside the Washington area is slated to open in Delaware this year.

Sit-down restaurant owners are embracing Mexican, too.

A boom of Tex-Mex restaurants in the 1980s led to interest in Mexican cuisine, said Rob Wilder, partner at Proximo Restaurant Group, which owns Austin Grill, Oyamel and Jaleo.

Chi-Chi’s restaurant chain emerged during the boom, but sold its stores to Outback Steakhouse Inc. late last year. The chain had already filed for bankruptcy in 2003 when a hepatitis outbreak in Pennsylvania was linked to a Chi-Chi’s restaurant there.

Mexican fare remains hot in Washington, whether it’s fine dining or fast food.

Since 2003, restaurants Cilantro, Rosa Mexicana and tapas bar La Tasca have opened in the District. Oyamel and Jaleo set up shop in Crystal City in 2004.

“It was a supply-demand situation,” said Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “It was an area that Washington’s ethnic diversity in restaurants was lacking.”

“It’s all over the country, where Mexicans immigrate or the taste has migrated. Now, you’re likely to find fajitas at neighborhood cafes or … McDonald’s,” Mr. Wilder said.

“People want a transporting, authentic experience — they don’t want a generic experience. They want to feel like they’re on vacation for a few hours.”

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