This recent BoingBoing post which covers a Massachusetts Superior Court Judge's ruling that a burrito is not a sandwich, has driven me to make a few statements about burritos.
- I love 'em. They satisfy in a way that only a food you pick up all at once and push into your face like you're working a push pop can.
Most burritos are basically the same. Let me explain. A truly bad burrito makes itself known right away. It's full of dry rice, or tough flavorless meat, or it lacks the usual condiments, or it's got no spices or seasoning. You take one bite and you know it's a mistake.
But if a burrito isn't bad, then most other variations in quality blend together. There's just bad burritos and not bad burritos. The thing about a burrito is that it blends together so many flavors. You get the rice and the beans and the meat and the salsa and the guac. all at the same time. What you end up with is a wonderful flavor, but it tends to mask the subtle variations that would turn a decent burrito into a great burrito. If the meat is marinated for a long time and cooked perfectly, that nuance is lost somewhere in between the sour cream and the beans. If the guacamole and pico de gallo are fresh and tangy, we can't notice the way we could if we ate them on a corn chip. It's not that there aren't differences in quality of preparation or ingredients between burrito places, it's that they're hard to pick out because of all the background noise.
- The end result of this for me is that burritos become about the economics. Given two burrito places, one standard and cheap and the other with a great reputation for quality but a higher price-point, I'm going for standard and cheap every time. It's not worth my money because I can't taste the difference. Now, I've learned that this isn't a particularly popular point of view. In Berkeley and San Francisco people are fiercely loyal about their burritos, probably because there are many good burrito joints. And that's fair enough, especially because there are many cheap AND high quality joints. But when I hear someone raving about how amazing someplace is, I wonder about how the blind taste test. Is it really a better burrito, or does it just seem better? But I guess it doesn't matter in the end since people should eat what makes them happy.
- Having just knocked down the pursuit of a better burrito somewhat, I do have some caveats. First, I think there IS such a thing as a better burrito, and it's one with less ingredients. The best burritos I've had are ones that stick to what they want to highlight and don't muddy it up with a lot of other flavors. You get some amazing tender carnitas, some rice, and some pico – maybe add guac. for richness. It could also be that the truer measure of a place is the taco because it's harder to fake. A good fish taco has three ingredients: the fish, the cabbage, and the aioli. If any one of the three isn't excellent, you'll know
- The second point I want to make is that what makes a truly good burrito joint isn't always the burrito, it's the condiments. Specifically salsas and hot sauces. (I owe this insight to my wife, Tamar.) Cancun in Berkeley, for example, has not bad burritos (hee hee) but an excellent and diverse salsa bar. For me, that makes it worth going to, but not necessarily taking a burrito away from.
Okay, well, that's a lot on burritos. As I said, I know many people have strong opinions on this, so bring it on!!