By all calculations, Tinga is a restaurant. It has the tables, the chairs, the waitresses and kitchen, the menu and food to prove it. But the food – burritos are this Mexican restaurant's forte, along with quesadillas, tacos and nachos – invites comparisons to the titans of the more fast-food-inclined Mexican establishments, such as Qdoba (right around the corner) and Chipotle (sprouting up everywhere).
In this light, Tinga is stuck in purgatory, torn between identities as a "real" sit-down restaurant, and a place to grab a quick bite and burrito. But with a deep, flavorful menu, Tinga ultimately wins out over its fast food competitors, and both the portion sizes and the chow are worth paying the extra bucks.
The inside of the well-lit restaurant is narrow and corridor-like. It is painted with a color palette that was trendy when Tinga moved to Westfield seven years ago, and still remains cool today. The kitchen is almost part of the seating area, which gives the place an even more casual feel. There are inviting murals, and when we paid a visit, there were shelves of small white skulls designed by students of McGinn and Coles elementary schools to celebrate Mexico's "Day of the Dead" festival.
The service, meanwhile, was brisk and businesslike. The waitress didn't spend much time checking up on us, but that's the type of place Tinga is.
All meals come with well-done (not too greasy) tortilla chips and a standard salsa. Most of the entrees come a buck or two under $10. Of course, because Tinga is a restaurant, you pay a higher price (the classic chicken burrito is $9.25, at Chipotle it usually runs a little under $7). But even if it weren't for the quality of the food and the atmosphere, each burrito comes with more meat, beans and rice than you'll end up with at chain burrito joints (the standard burrito at Tinga is 12 inches). Plus, you can order a "bar size" burrito from Tinga's lunch menu for $5 (the foot-long version is $6.99).
Among the burrito choices are creative varieties of chicken and beef, but also BBQ brisket, BBQ rib, shrimp, portabella mushroom and spinach. We ordered the "chicken Tinga burrito" and the "blackened catfish tacos", another item you won't find at Chipotle or Qdoba, or at most other restaurants for such a low price ($9.95).
The chicken Tinga burrito was a well proportioned and tortilla-wrapped mess of char-grilled chicken, chipotle salsa, tomatoes, onions and of course creamy black beans, Spanish rice and Monterey Jack cheese. All of the ingredients were evenly spread throughout the burrito – sometimes not the case at Qdoba and Chipotle – and the whole thing came together deliciously.
Fish tacos are my all-time favorite Mexican food, so I was eager to try Tinga's catfish tacos, which came inside of a soft taco, inside of a hard taco. The combination led to an easy crunch, which fit the effortless bite of the fish. The catfish wasn't "blackened" as much as it was "lightly fried", but it was very tasty. At the bottom of the taco lay a stream of Monterey Jack cheese, but by the end of the meal the cheese had hardened separately in an unpleasant way. Chipotle mayonnaise came on the side, and although it didn't pack a punch, it did complement the catfish well. Overall, it was a very complete dish, with a side of the same creamy black beans and Spanish rice Tinga thankfully uses in mostly all of its dishes.
Compared with its cheaper competitors, the food at Tinga is satisfying – it doesn't fill you full-to-bursting, and compared to its fast-food competitors, the cuisine feels natural and slow-cooked. Generously proportioned and reasonably priced – especially for downtown Westfield – your meal will be worth every peso, as long as you stick with the classics and come with an empty stomach.