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Building a Better Burrito 


Wednesday, Nov 22 2000
Having consumed hundreds of members of the species over the past two decades, I could easily fill this page with thoughts on the burrito (technically, just about anything wrapped in a flour tortilla). A highly portable, often disrespected stepchild of northern Mexican cookery, the "little donkey" has evolved into breakfast burritos, minimart burritos, microwaveable frozen burritos, burritos mojados (sauce-smothered, or "wet" burritos), chimichangas (deep-fried burritos), Thai-style peanut chicken "wrap" burritos, sushi burritos (not advisable), and baked burritos (my college favorite) -- not to mention anything-goes (aka whatever's in the fridge) burritos, the epitome of the free-for-all burrito-making has become.

Or I could fill this page with thoughts on the burritos in my neighborhood (the Mission), where the pinnacle of burrito achievement will set you back a mere $3.88 at (where else?) Taqueria Can-Cun. Of course, burritos can be a contentious subject, and I'm aware that some people feel Taqueria La Cumbre, La Taqueria, or El Farolito makes the best burrito. Actually, I could fill this page with that debate as well. But what's the point? After all, the burrito is a peaceful, life-sustaining creature, and the universe seems large enough for all its myriad forms. And what's more, such a tome wouldn't leave room for the many fine things I have to say about the Financial District's newest burrito emporium, Tlaloc.

Named after the Aztec rain god ("he who makes things grow"), Tlaloc bills itself as something more than your average taqueria -- and with a super burrito priced at $6.55, it had better be. To help investigate, I brought my friend Leah, a rowdy, burrito-eating bohemian who, in addition to having extensive knowledge of the "cylindrical god" (so named in John Roemer's definitive text on the subject, published in this paper on May 5, 1993), always makes for an exciting night on the town.

For example, as we rolled through the corridors of the Financial District at rush hour, the sky quite somber and the traffic utterly maddening, Leah recalled a burrito-related screaming match she once had over the digestibility of giant logs of beans, meat, rice, and cheese, then cursed out a "rich dog" (perhaps a poodle) she caught staring at her from a passing BMW. Finally, she made numerous "noticements" ("The vibe is bad," "The stock market's going to crash," "I have a feeling we're going to die before we get our burritos") as we arrived at the quiet alley Tlaloc calls home. We stepped inside, seeking booze.

As luck would have it, happy hour (4 to 7 p.m.) was in full swing, which meant $1 draft beers (Tecate, Dos Equis, Red Hook), and, even better, $4 liters of dry, lightly fruity sangria. Tlaloc might best be described as a modern, industrial-style taqueria, a bright, trilevel space where Aztec lions and green stairs play off sheet metal menus suspended above the open kitchen and raw brick that reaches three stories high toward exposed rafters. House, pop, and Latin music either soothed or annoyed, depending on one's taste (and the song of the moment), while the staff proved consistently friendly and helpful. After they realized the 10-course meal I ordered was just for Leah and me, the kitchen prepared our food two items at a time so nothing would get cold before we tried it.

The menu at Tlaloc is based on recipes from the family of owner Jorge Saldana, who also owns Berkeley's Cancun Taqueria (no relation to the Mission's Can-Cun). Exactly 44 items run the gamut from your traditional burrito or taco to special burritos, seafood dishes, vegetarian meals, and dinner plates, the most expensive being the prawn fajitas at $9.75.

There are many, many ways to elevate the humble burrito, but at Tlaloc salsa is the key. We found a half-dozen (mostly) excellent selections, such as the cilantro-rich strawberry salsa, which paired a mild, tangy fruitiness with a healthy dose of fire. A similar pineapple salsa ventured deeper into the land of sweet, with slightly less admirable results. A mild, lightly piquant avocado salsa proved smooth and satisfying, while a somewhat watery, hot casera salsa was the lone disappointment. A dark, scorching infierno salsa lived up to its name, and my favorite, the grilled tomatillo salsa, popped up everywhere -- a smoky, tangy, moderately peppery ambrosia that may haunt me for the rest of my life.

Of course, all those salsas wouldn't do anyone any good without a burrito to put them on. We tried five -- all served in steamed tortillas, all medium-largish, well integrated, built sturdily enough to withstand extensive handling and, though we didn't try it, a toss and catch of perhaps 10 feet. A super carne asada with pinto beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream, Monterey Jack, salsa fresca, and unbearably delicious grilled tomatillo salsa seemed a safe, adequate choice, as did a similar vegetarian super, which substituted lettuce for the meat. From eight special burritos (all with black beans, rice, salsa fresca, and bits of creamy queso fresco) we chose three: a very good grilled vegetable burrito with red and green bell peppers, zucchini, and corn; a nopales (cactus) burrito with a dusky mole sauce infused with a mysterious, acrid tang we attributed to the presence of the nopales; and then our favorite, a light, savory, earthy, splendid, truly unforgettable pumpkin seed mole and chicken burrito.

Meanwhile, a traditional torta -- ample chunks of carne asada, tomatoes, sautéed onions, guacamole, sour cream, and lettuce on a roll suffused with rich carne asada juice -- hit all the right notes, while tart, finely diced prawn seviche served over corn tostadas suffered a bit from slices of underripe avocado. Our second liter of sangria proved just as tasty as the first, and, since it was still happy hour, it was just as tastily priced. Dinner plates consisted of fajitas, carnitas, and carne asada followed by our choice, nopales with mole -- a concoction strangely reminiscent of bits of diced green bell pepper in a dark, gritty sludge. Here I confirmed my suspicion that I just don't like nopales or their funky, aloe vera-esque aftertaste. Leah didn't like them either, but if you do, Tlaloc has them in spades. Luckily, a tostada costeña treated us better: It featured a splendid mix of prawns, red snapper, and calamari steak marinated in savory adobo sauce, served with sautéed onions, tomatoes, guacamole, and queso fresco, then set over a bed of shredded lettuce in a tostada shell.

Tlaloc has no desserts, so I'll finish with the prawns quesadilla -- easily the most expensive quesadilla I've ever seen in a burrito shack, and, without a doubt, one of the best. It was a work of art, actually: a crisp, burrito-sized spinach tortilla filled with juicy grilled prawns (snapper is also available), Monterey Jack, guacamole, sour cream, salsa fresca, and -- bless the good people at Tlaloc -- an abundant slathering of the miraculous grilled tomatillo salsa that, by itself, makes the place worth visiting.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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