Let’s be honest – very, very few human beings in the world have ever sat down and thought about what to eat, and then after much deliberation said, “My first choice…is Baja Fresh!” Just doesn’t happen. What actually occurs in real life is that somebody working in a cubicle says to himself, “Hmm, I work in this shitty office-building part of town where there’s nothing except other office buildings and a horrible, overpriced snack store in the lobby. Where can I possibly grab lunch? Aww, fuck it, Baja Fresh again, since it’s the only place within walking distance and I can drown out their flavorless meat with all the free black salsa I can choke down.”
Baja has had several bad ideas over the last few years, including a “Nacho Burrito” that barely contained any cheese, but recently they’ve actually come back strong, seriously revamping their menu with a build-your-own burrito concept that directly competes with Chipotle (and has more options, less diced red onion). I’d venture to call it the fast food comeback of last year. But when I got a coupon in the mail which displayed the picture below, I was, well…
I’d have to call that image borderline vomitous. But I couldn’t walk away. It had to be tasted. Don’t ask why. This is what I do. Besides, the coupon also promised a 99-cent side of something called “Pronto Guacamole (TM).”
Meat at Baja Fresh usually veers from the dry and chewy (chicken, “steak”) to the greasy-chunky (pork), so I was expecting the latter for these shrimp. And I was astonished. With their charcoal-grill lines and smoky seasoning, these were some highly edible camarones. What looks to be a typically sugary sauce in that grotesque picture was applied minimally if at all, so the cilantro-lime flavor of the dressing – which is apparently supposed to be “avocado salsa”; who knew? – dominated. The rice is part of that whole sea-change in rice we’ve recently sen at fast-Mex chains: gone is the more traditional style Spanish rice, and in its place is bright white rice with lime flavoring (this is now true at Taco Bell and Del Taco as well). It’s a trade off that’s meant to make things appear more healthy, but I don’t think it’s working.
It’s also the weakest part of the dish, seeing as mine apparently had the rice that you scrape off the bottom of the cooker after it’s gone stale at the edges. I’ve been to Asian restaurants where that’s actually the best part – overcooked brown rice fried to a pancakey crisp. Baja Fresh is not one of those, which probably goes without saying. At least we can resort to old habits, and drown it in free salsa. The black beans and corn are nice.
Most surprising was that I couldn’t finish it. Not because of dislike – the shrimp alone make it worthwhile. But it was a portion too big for an individual, which is usually something one only says about a “Six Dollar” burger or X-tra large fries. Before eating it anyway.
Maybe it was the Pronto Guacamole (TM) that did it. I have to give props on this, even though a buck is a lot for a 3-oz portion. I thought I detected a hint of cheese, but Baja’s website doesn’t mention any. Anyhow, it’s chunky and flavor-y and will probably incite you to eat many more tortilla chips than you ought.
Because Lent is coming, fast food chains are prepping a slew of cheap seafood items since they apparently depend on Catholics for most of their revenue (compare to how often they advertise anything “kosher” or “halal”; you can’t). I’d say this is the one to beat, especially if you happen to order it when the rice pot is actually full and not at rock-textured bottom.
I can see an actual sit-down restaurant serving something like this. Not a particularly great one, but one nonetheless.