SOUTH PORTLAND — Affandi Afiff no longer needs to drive to New Hampshire for his burrito fix.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, a nationwide fast food chain that serves burritos, tacos and chips, will officially open its first store in Maine today at 359 Maine Mall Road, near the Wyndham Portland Airport Hotel.

In the past, Afiff thought nothing of driving to the Chipotle in Newington, N.H., for lunch. It’s that good, he said.

Afiff was one of hundreds of customers who had coupons good for free burritos at the store’s pre-opening event Monday. In the last few days, Chipotle’s staff handed out 600 of the coupons in the surrounding area.

“I gotta have it spicy. I love it spicy,” said Afiff, 30, of Westbrook, while devouring a burrito as big around as his arm. It was stuffed with chicken, black beans and rice, and topped with extra hot salsa, just the way he likes it.

Outside the store, the smell of spices and simmering steak, chicken and pork filled the air.

Inside, customers waited in a fast-moving line that at times reached the door. while diners sat on stools at stainless-steel tables. Loud, bass-heavy music blasted from speakers, giving the place a hip, energetic atmosphere.

Chipotle is primarily a burrito joint, selling chicken, steak, pork and vegetarian varieties for less than $7. The burritos are made to order; customers can chose to have their tortillas stuffed with rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and a host of other vegetables.

The store in South Portland also serves beer.

Meg Young of Naples and her friend Deb Maxcy were driving on Maine Mall Road on Monday when they noticed that Chipotle was open for business.

“We pulled a U-turn,” said Young, 38. “I said, ‘Oh my God, I love that place.’ ” Young and Maxcy didn’t have invitations, but Chipotle’s staff let them in.

Standing outside the store with her lunch, Young said the restaurant brings much-needed variety to the area. Other places nearby are “ho-hum,” she said, lacking excitement and novelty.

“We need something new. We need good places to go,” she said.

Steve Ells launched Chipotle with a single restaurant in Denver in 1993. By 1996, he had opened five more stores.

McDonald’s began investing in Chipotle in 1998, and became the company’s largest investor by 2001. Shortly after Chipotle went public in 2008, McDonald’s sold its shares.

Expansion has continued, with the chain adding about 120 stores every year for the last several years, said spokeswoman Katherine Newell Smith. The chain now has more than 1,000 stores.

Smith said that in 2010 the company has opened 43 stores from Virginia to Maine.

She said Chipotle uses sustainable ingredients and supports local farmers. All of its chicken and pork, and most of its beef, comes from animals that are humanely raised and not given hormones or antibiotics.

Chicken served at Chipotle stores on the East Coast comes from Bell & Evans, a natural foods supplier based in Fredericksburg, Va., said Smith.

Smith said the company has the “same ethos” as many Maine residents. Both are “interested in sustainably raised ingredients and are involved in green issues.”

Jim Draper, the general manager in South Portland, said the store has hired 27 staffers, most of them full time.

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]