stalking the wild burrito
when you grow up in a culturally rich and diverse part of the country -- or any country for that matter -- you come to take for granted the foods available to you. once you move out of that area, or even your comfort zone, it doesn't take long to realize what is or is not specific to that region and quickly discover what it is you miss.
after a good four decades in california -- half in southern, half in northern -- i was ready for a move across the country. or so i thought. when i sat down and imagined the people, places and things that i would miss i never took into account the seriousness of the geography. yes, having never really known a season i was (and still am) ecstatic to actually know that there are, indeed, as i was taught in school, four distinct seasons in new england. a lifetime of watching the sun set
on the ocean had to be replaced with the weirdness of watching it rise
over a different ocean, but easily so.
but then came the food.
all over the west it isn't hard to find mexican food in all its many shades of authenticity, style and price. the proximity to mexico and the many workers, documented and otherwise, that comprise a good majority of the population makes it difficult to justify the taco bells and del tacos and other fast-food style mexican eateries to all but the most sheltered. if your introduction to a taco is that soggy 99 cent shell harboring barely-spiced ground beef, processed shredded cheese product, flavorless lettuce and equally tasteless tomatoes with a small foil packet of chemical hot sauce than it becomes a revelation to find a man on a street corner selling 50 cent tacos out of a small push cart or from the back of a truck with chunks of real beef (or chicken) steeped and slow cooked in traditional spices on a pair of warm corn tortillas with perhaps some crumbled mexican cheese on top and a salsa fresca with the strong taste of onion and clilantro.
the same rings true for a quality burrito, enchilada, tamale and anything else you may (or may not) be familiar with as the staples of ouir neighbors to the south.
my first glimpse into the problem of authentic mexican food in the boston area came with the search for a burrito. these are not rocket science, they are simple tortillas filled with simple ingredients, rolled and served up with chips and a choice of salsas. it was a relief to find early on a place called anna's taqueria
which reminded me of home; they have the same signage, layout and prices as a place i was familiar with in the bay are called gordo's
. a quick internet search shows that they were, indeed, founded by the same person. (i like how the wiki cite for anna's indicates that the info may be biased.)
that said, i was satisfied that i'd found my "base", my bottom rung of acceptability in satisfying burrito cravings. the problem is, once i started doing the research, this was the place people fell all over themselves as calling extraordinary. from various on-line review and restaurant comment spaces the only nay-sayers in the bunch were, well, people who knew better and they fell into two different camps: west coast and southwest. there is a difference between tex-mex and coastal and the rivalries between them are fierce but both sides would have to agree that what gets called mexican food east of the mississippi is a bit disappointing.
i gave up pretty quick in hoping for better because i had to acknowledge the simple fact that the further away from the source, the lower in quality and experience. you can't push off crappy ethnic food where there is a thriving population that not only knows what to expect but what to pay
for said comfort foods.
that said, an impassioned, unobjective gringo's guide on what to look for when stalking the wild burrito:
- the maximum you should pay for a burrito is $5, deluxe, so full that a grown man has to fight to finish it. anything above that is taking you for a ride. and if the basic, stripped-bare, no-extras burrito is above the $4 mark then you need to proceed with caution.
- if anywhere on the menu a cheese sauce is mentioned, leave at once.
- if your burrito doesn't come with free chips, then the chips you pay for had better be made on the premises, should leave some oil spots on the paper as proof, and come with enough salsa fresca that it doesn't run out before the chips do.
- it's not necessarily a bad thing if the napkins have symbols to show you how to eat a burrito. just like authentic sushi bars serve chopsticks with instructions on how use them and... oh, wait. no, it is a bad thing.
- if they cannot carry beer (tecate, dos xx's, san miguel, corona and pacifica are all exceptable) the drink of authenticity isn't mexican soda (jarrito's brand) but a fresh made aqua fresca, including horchada. i can't really stand the stuff, but it's a sign the people know what they're doing.
- and if they sell coke bottled in mexico, buy it: it tastes better than the domestic product. maybe because the last time i checked they still used sugar and not corn syrup.
- hispanic-looking employees are not to be viewed as proof of authenticity; being outnumbered by hispanic diners, on the other hand, generally is proof.
- beware of expensive decor. this is usually funded by sales of a $9 burrito. instead, look for a mexican calendar around the cash register.
- you should have a choice of beans: whole pinto, whole black and refried. never order the refried.
- a burrito should not be covered in sauce on the outside, or with guac or sour cream externally, or have cheese on the outside melted under a heat lamp. wrong, wrong, all kinds of wrong.
- that said, authentic burritos don't have rice or beans in them. try one mexicali style with meat, cheese and salsa (and perhaps an optional guacamole or sour cream) just to see what is possible. and for those watching carbs, it's a boon.
- the only choice you should have in tortillas is size, not color.
- salsa bars are a newer phenomenon that some of the more authentic places are beginning to include. this can be good, but if all the offerings look watery (like they came from a jar) then they also probably taste like vinegar. fresh salsas -- and fruit salsas can be both good and extremely hot -- should be experimented with. if they're free to take, then try a couple different ones.
- a burrito is eaten with the hands. anyplace that serves a burrito with a knife and fork probably gets a lot of requests from people who eat them that way. reason enough to avoid them.
- i have encountered many an argument about the open-ended versus closed-ended burrito. the ultimate answer is: it's what's inside that counts.
- you'll never find a good, much less authentic, burrito in a food court.
- if you can't see them making the burrito then something's not right. this isn't about "trusting" the workers not to poison your food, its that the burrito is an assembly line food and there's no reason it can't be done in real time. order, watch, pay, eat.
- chicken, beef and pork, in chunks, either slow-cooked or grilled. never ground beef, and certainly never seafood unless you are in a coastal city where the fish were caught within the same day.
all in all, i'd welcome views from those in other cities and what their burrito experiences have been. any other general "rules" you go by? and for the sake of dog, if anyone in the boston area can hip me to a real burrito hang i'd reatly appreciate it.