Burritos aren't Mexican anymore.
They started out Mexican. Sonora and Ciudad Juárez cherish long burrito histories; the name derives from rolled tortillas packed onto the backs of burros. From the small, soft, simple, meat- or cheese-only versions popular for well over a century in border towns, burritos grew fatter and more elegant — spurting sour cream, cheese, and rice — as they traveled north. Burritos started out Mexican, but now they're Mexicanesque. Mexicanismo, but putting a Spanish spin on it is no longer required.
Like Yorkshire pudding and pot pies and pad Thai, burritos began as an identifiably native dish. But it goes against human nature to leave anything in its original state. We are too improvisation-bent, too insatiable, and too commercial: Hey, say we added olives — would it sell? So even in their countries of origin, dishes diversify. Hop a border or two, and they talk in tongues and cross-dress. This is lovely. This is creepy. I have eaten, in London, pea pizza. In Lompoc, my eggroll came with mayo on the side. Food evolves. So consider the tofu burrito.
At Best Burritos in El Cerrito, it starts with the familiar: a large tortilla onto which an exquisitely polite cook/server spoons rice, boiled beans, chunky house-made salsa, and julienned lettuce and onion. Then, sautéed to order and poured atop the rest go plump, juicy bean-curd cubes marinated in a light sauce whose sweetness dresses up the bean curd's intrinsic blandness and cancels the sour tang that fermentation brings. Watching this burrito being built, you see salsa. Then tofu. Then think: Nooo. The server offers cheese, sour cream, and guacamole too, all optional. And you think: Hmmm.
Eighteen years ago, it seemed like a perfectly natural idea to Won Eon — and it has paid off. A chef in her native Korea, she bought a burrito shop after arriving here and immediately began experimenting. Asian-American customers craved Asian flavors in convenient comfort-food shapes: Eon followed their advice.
"People said, 'You're Korean. You know all about Korean food. Why not put it in there?' I wanted to make it healthy," she says, "so I didn't use MSG. Then I put in a lot of garlic and used only fresh vegetables and fresh meat."
If one of Eon's tofu burritos was the first burrito you'd ever heard of, much less the first you'd ever tasted, you might believe this is how they always were. Satisfying, fortifying filling folded into a fat, tight, dinner-size pillow. The piquant, sweetish salsa with its tomato shards echoes similar notes in the marinade. Just close your eyes. It works. Now, that's a compliment.
Robin ordered what was listed on the menu as a "teriyaki/bulgoki beef" burrito. Classic California moment: the mostly-Spanish-speaking cook/server striving to explain, in English, that teriyaki and bulgoki are the Japanese and Korean versions of pretty much the same thing: thinly sliced meat marinated in soy sauce and sugar. Robin found the meat tender with just a few fat bits, poised at what she called the perfect tightrope point between savory and sweet. Bright garlic-bursts bolstered and brightened both the sweetness and salt. Also sautéed to order, white mushrooms, shiitake, and portobello packed Tuffy's three-mushroom burrito, exciting and muskily rich against mellow rice and black beans.
Regular-size burritos satiated us. If we'd ordered the large size, we would have had leftovers.
A few miles down San Pablo Avenue at the Hot Shop, Wahid Najat crafts crossover burritos too. He had worked in the room-service division of the Milpitas Holiday Inn — his first job after arriving from his native Afghanistan — for ten years when, seventeen years ago, a friend who was changing careers offered Najat his burrito shop.
"I'd learned a lot about food at the hotel," Najat says. Confident, he immediately began expanding the shop's traditional menu — adding Cajun burritos, sweet-and-sour burritos, barbecue burritos, scallop-and-salmon burritos, and more, devising original sauces whose components he will not divulge. "The ideas all came from in here," he says with a mysterious grin, pointing at his head.
One wall bears a huge Mayan-pyramid mural. Other touches include a chess set, plastic peppers, and a trellis hung with fake grapes. A mustachioed Mexican marionette leans matily against a TV blaring a soccer game, but ambience is not why one eats here. The burritos are huge. Mine is heaped with barbecue-sauced vegetables. Tuffy's overflows with marinated artichokes. Both outspan their large china plates. So bodaciously stuffed are these babies that they quickly come loose, disgorging hillocks of ingredients and rather undermining the original purpose of burritos. These are too exuberantly hefty to tuck into your pocket and transport, intact. But size matters. So who's complaining?
Flavors do not merge here as brilliantly as they do at Best Burrito. Artichokes are tasty enough amid beans and rice, but artichokes would probably be tasty anywhere that wasn't chocolate cake. In this context, they're like the oddly hatted foreign tourist trying to blend in but clearly not feeling at home. Najat's assertively zingy barbecue sauce companions with rice and beans a bit better, and would clearly pack an even better punch with meat. On a second visit, our vegetarian tropical and Thai burritos were Brobdingnagian but oddly indistinguishable, flavor-wise, from each other. The addition of marinated meat, of course, would clear this up.
La Cascada is the most Mexican and least Mexican-ish of the three, with authentic salsa music resounding against a chalkboard menu that includes carnitas, chorizo y papas, huevos revueltos, and other comidas clásicas. But here too, amidst sunshine-and-saguaro-themed decor, exotification is afoot. That menu also offers curried-veggie burritos, tofu fajitas, peanut-saté-sauced Thai burritos, and roasted-eggplant "Mediterranean" burritos. We savored the first two, finding them subtly yet sophisticatedly flavored. Peas bridged two cultures perfectly in the curry version, whose spinach-tortilla wrapper further reinforced the sense that curry could and should have been served this way for a thousand years. Grilled onions and red and green roasted peppers lent spunkily earthy color, texture, and flavor to the always-obliging tofu, which was packed with professional precision in a tomato-flavored tortilla. La Cascada's offerings are significantly smaller than their counterparts at Best Burritos and the Hot Shop — so much so that their large wrappers are forced to fold over and over around themselves, yielding whole mouthfuls of nothing but tortilla at both ends like rebukes. But they're also significantly spendier. Taking tiny bites to make yours last longer, you think: A meatless burrito shouldn't cost seven bucks. But then you think: It's international. I'm eating the dazzling evidence of human ingenuity. I'm eating the whole world. And then maybe you think: Okay.
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