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Plato's Burrito Cave
by Adam Cadre

January 8, 2000

Fig. 1: Burritos hate imperialism!

Think of the primal food unit.  Is it an apple?  A loaf of bread?  Or perhaps you are a junkfood-swilling American pigdog, and conjure up images of a hamburger or a pizza.  Well, I'm from Southern California, and so for me, there's no question: the primal food unit is the burrito. In the future, when we've all switched to the silver jumpsuits and gallivant from place to place in our flying space-cars that fold up into a brief-case, don't be handin' me no food pills--when I stretch out my hand at chow time, I expect you to slap me a black bean burrito with all the fixins.

But today, when our cars still need roads and we don't wear silver jumpsuits--heck, we rarely even wear pants--we can't simply expect the perfect burrito to magically appear in our hands; instead, we must head down to the burrito shop.  Now, when I say burrito shop, I have a specific sort of place in mind.  I do not mean a Mexican restaurant, where you sit down, munch on chips and salsa, and order a heavy meal and perhaps a margarita.  Nor do I mean a fast-food outlet, with talking chihuahuas hawking over-salted microscopic fare whose list of ingredients is chock-a-block with space-age polymers.  And I don't even mean an authentic taqueria, usually a counter at a carniceria and/or tortilleria where you can order up a concoction of refried beans and ox tongue.  I'm thinking more along the lines of a certain sort of burrito shop, perfectly capable of dealing with Spanish-speakers but catering chiefly to gringos--menu boards and pamphlets in English, breaking down the list of ingredients for each item, harping on words like "fresh" and "healthy"--order at the counter, hit the salsa bar, pick up your basket, enjoy a filling lunch for four dollars.  Like porn, you know it when you see it.  And when you see it, you must have it--just like porn!

I have been to many a burrito shop in my day.  I have yet to find the perfect burrito.  But I have seen enough variations on the theme that the perfect burrito exists for me as a Platonic ideal.  It is real to me in a way that my car keys aren't.  Can I describe it?  Perhaps not. But I can detail the ways in which all the burritos I've loved before have deviated from it and shattered my achey-breaky heart.

First, a quick note as to filling.  You can go to a wraps shop and get just about anything folded into a tortilla and handed to you: Thai chicken, kefta kabob, Maine lobster, an angry weasel, or the contents of stall three of the employee washroom.  Even in a real burrito shop, you've got your chicken, your steak, your pork, your fish, and a whole array of other choices.  Me, I'm a vegetarian, so these options will have to be covered in someone else's essay.  I'm not even going to discuss the various incarnations of the "veggie burrito": though I do just love the seven-veggie blend at Pachanga/City Mex, you're much more likely to stumble into a minefield of lettuce, odds n' ends of bell pepper, mismanaged zucchini, and other such hard-luck stories.  No, I'm talking about your basic bean burrito, the default burrito, the cheapest oblong item on the menu.

But before we start talking insides, let's step outside for a minute and have a look at the tortilla.  Now, everyone knows about the great corn/flour divide, but even within the flour category, you've got a couple of varieties.  Some tortilla recipes use baking powder, which leads to a soft, fluffy tortilla chiefly used for fajitas.  I love 'em! Grab them fresh off the skillet and eat them plain, or dipped in honey, or what have you.  But a burrito really needs a thin, Sonoran tortilla, the sort of tortilla you're likely to find in your supermarket.  A lot of burrito shops find them in the same place, and there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that.  But you can't just open a package of tortillas and start wrapping!  An unprepared tortilla is scarcely edible.  Nor does simply throwing the tortilla onto the grill count as adequate preparation.  A Sonoran tortilla from a package must be steamed.  This leaves the tortilla slightly spongey, meaning three things: it can expand and contract a bit without ripping, making it more capable of holding fillings; it becomes more adhesive, again sealing in the good stuff; and the tortilla itself becomes a pleasure to eat.  An unsteamed tortilla is stale bread.  The moisture is what lends it life.

So that's the skin; now come the guts.  In a bean burrito, either black or pinto beans will do just fine, but either way, they must be whole. A burrito should be filled with chunky goodness, and if you're not going to use hunks of flesh for this purpose, the beans have to do the job.  Go with the refried stuff in a bean burrito and you're left with a tube of sweet bean paste--a delicacy in Japan, to be sure, but when I eat a burrito, I want to head south of the border, not across the Pacific.  (Note that different rules apply to the microwave burrito, which I consider a different animal altogether from the burrito shop burrito.  It's like macaroni and cheese vs. penne puttanesca: there's a time and place for both.)

A burrito filled with whole beans can be quite juicy--heck, if it's not, then something's wrong.  And when dealing with an Old Skool Mission-style burrito, with just pinto beans and cheese, one does not chew so much as slurp.  But in most cases you want something to absorb that excess liquid, and that's where the rice comes in.  The rice is there for texture, and for mop-up duty; flavor is a bonus.  Which is why you want just enough rice to take care of the juice problem, and not a grain more.  Far too many times have I bitten into what looked like a burrito, only to find that it was a tube of rice with other ingredients added apparently just for a splash of color.  Why?  Because rice is cheap.  This is a burrito assembled by a banker.  Away with thee!

Now we come to cheese.  Again, since I'm from California, the word "cheese" for me defaults to Monterey Jack: when that latex-garbed hand sinks into the cheese bin, I expect to see a fist full not of orange but of white.  The more orange I see, the more worried I get.  And while it's not a life or death thing, I prefer my cheese melted--biting into a pocket of cold cheese in a warm burrito isn't my idea of fun.  How to melt it?  Sprinkling the cheese on the tortilla before closing the lid of the steamer does the trick just fine, thank you very much.  Steam, people!  The steam is the key!  A key, anyway.

But don't get the wrong idea--the contents of a burrito should not be of a uniform temperature.  Salsa, for instance, is meant to be chilled, and if I find a piece of tomato in my burrito, I expect it to be crisp, cool, and saturated with lime.  "Salsa" might not even be the right word in this context: you don't want the stuff you dip your chips in poured into your burrito, nor even the most delicious of your roasted negrita salsas.  It's pico de gallo all the way, baby.  Ask for it by name.  And if you see more onions than tomatoes, or tomatoes sadder than Michael Stipe's mascara-dripping crush, have no qualms about vowing revenge.

And while we're in a condimental mood, I like to round out a burrito with guacamole and sour cream.  What can I say about guacamole?  Hope for the good stuff.  The making of good guacamole is an alchemical process I don't entirely understand.  But assuming you do have the good stuff at hand, make sure you actually get some if you order it. Guacamole, unlike rice, is expensive, and some burrito shops will try to get away with charging you for a thumbnail-sized dollop.  With sour cream, on the other hand, they're usually more generous--too generous. You don't want the other ingredients swimming in the stuff, and more to the point, you want the appropriate kind.  The sour cream that goes into a burrito should be sweet--tart sour cream can ruin a burrito--and creamy, not thick like frozen yogurt. Ideally, it should be not unlike a raita, only without the little cucumber bits. I've been known to order a burrito without sour cream and add my own at home.  I've also been known to rock the microphone, but that's another story for another time.

So there you have it.  The steamed tortilla, the whole bean, the appropriate amount of rice, the melted jack cheese, the cool pico de gallo, the generous helping of guacamole, the right sour cream. Someday, someday, I will find the burrito shop which serves this perfect burrito.  My soul shall rejoice, and I shall walk in, heart a-flutter, and promptly order the nachos.[HOME]

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