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Staff photo by Chris Zelk / An order of three street tacos from California Tortilla. From left, Korean BBQ, California Sunset, and Carnitas.

California Tortilla is the latest local entrant of fast-casual eateries specializing in healthy ingredients and a customizable dining experience. The Maryland-based chain has dozens of restaurants along the East Coast, but the Hixson location, which opened in late October, is the company's first in Tennessee. CalTort, as it's also known, is similar to popular Mexican-style eateries such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Baja Fresh but occasionally ventures into other international flavors.

If you go

› Where: California Tortilla, 5215 Highway 153

› Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Monday-Sunday

› Price range: $3.49-$10.99

› Alcohol: No

› Phone: 423-602-8226

› Website: californiatortilla.com

 

THE SPACE

California Tortilla is the most recent addition to the small shopping center on Highway 153 that houses Mike's Tavern, FirstWatch and several other shops. It features a well-lighted, open dining space with few frills and seating for approximately 75. The decor leans toward avocado green, with chrome and blond-wood tables throughout.

 

THE MENU

I could eat Mexican food literally every day, so CalTort's array of tacos, burritos, salads, quesadillas, nachos and bowls had my immediate interest. In addition to a half-dozen specialties and about as many other choices, one of the things that sets this place apart from others is a build-your-own bowl with nearly a dozen potential ingredients from which to choose. Bottled and fountain beverages, fresh-brewed iced tea and desserts are also available. With most dishes priced in the $8 range, California Tortilla offers good value considering the quality of the ingredients.

 

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Staff photo by Chris Zelk / California Tortilla's bacon chicken club bowl.

THE ORDER

We settled on the bacon chicken club bowl ($8.59), build-your-own bowl ($8.59), an order of three street tacos ($10.99) and a small side of tortilla chips and guacamole ($3.09).

The chips and guac were surprisingly good to be that cheap, with thick chunks of avocado throughout the decent-sized portion and an ample amount of fresh, crunchy tortilla chips.

Grilled mesquite chicken and steak, pork carnitas, blackened chicken, taco beef, blackened fish and veggies are anchor choices for the build-your-own bowl that can be completed with several sauces and quite a selection of slaws, vegetables and grains. We chose blackened chicken, Mexican quinoa, mango salsa, romaine lettuce, jicama slaw, black beans and fajita veggies for the build-your-own bowl. The flavor was excellent although the blackened chicken was a bit dry. The bacon chicken club bowl is a simple dish but has lots of flavor. It comes loaded with grilled mesquite chicken, ranch dressing, jack cheese and bacon tossed with romaine and tomatoes. Portions for both bowls were about what I would expect for the money.

For the street tacos I opted for variety, sampling the Carnitas, California Sunset and Korean BBQ, and I chose soft corn tortillas instead of flour as the starting point for all three. CalTort clearly logged some hours in the kitchen perfecting these tacos. The flavor profile was really something for each of them.

The Carnitas is made with pork carnitas, fresh avocado, jack cheese, enchilada sauce, an onion-cilantro relish and topped with shredded lettuce. I opted for grilled mesquite chicken for the Korean BBQ, which is rounded out with jack cheese, a sweet and spicy Korean barbecue sauce, slaw, fajita vegetables, sriracha and green onions.

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Staff photo by Chris Zelk / California Tortilla's build-your-own bowl with Mexican quinoa, blackened chicken, mango salsa, romaine lettuce, jicama slaw, black beans and fajita veggies.

The California Sunset comes with grilled mesquite chicken, avocado, Spicy Sunset sauce, melted jack cheese and the onion-cilantro relish.

All were to my liking, but the Korean BBQ was best; the barbecue sauce, in particular, really brings everything together to make a great, unconventional taco. It's a tie for the other two — they were both equally good and filling.

 

THE SERVICE

CalTort's food is made to order at the counter. There was a small line ahead of us that moved very quickly, and the counter staff got everything right with the order.

 

THE VERDICT

Before this visit, a friend mentioned that he recently tried California Tortilla's food and found it to be bland, but that was not my experience. The only thing I would change would be for the restaurant to sell beer, which I consider a must-have with Mexican food. For those with a yen for Mexican and not a lot of time to wait for it, CalTort is a step above traditional fast food.

Email Chris Zelk at czelk@timesfreepress.com.

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