This is review No. 1 of four in the second round of our competition. Each review will compare four burritos, with my favorite advancing to the third and final round.
This week is a matchup of the winners from each region in the Poblano Quadrant. To recap: Lolita’s Taco Shop won its group in Southern California for the quality of its California-style burrito, crisp fries and all around good flavor. Taqueria Tlaxcalli pulled through from a group of new and worthy New York City contenders with a delicious carne asada. The Pantry Restaurant in Santa Fe excelled at a New Mexico classic, the adovada burrito with green chile. And finally, with all-around solid flavor and presentation, Breakfast Burritos Anonymous in Houston was the lone breakfast burrito to advance to our second round.
I started this eating tour with The Pantry as the favorite to win even though Taqueria Tlaxicalli outscored it in the first round, 91-88. How could that be? Chalk it up to the human part of this process. My expectations of the New Mexico burrito were so high that I slightly underrated it (and perhaps did the opposite with the New York burrito). Score or no score, going into Round 2, I liked The Pantry’s burrito best.
When Dolores and Joaquin Farfan opened their first restaurant 40 years ago in Chula Vista, California, fries were an afterthought on a menu of classic, fast-food Mexican dishes. Today, with five Lolita’s Taco Shop locations scattered around the San Diego area, the best-selling item on the menu is a burrito stuffed with french fries.
Since the restaurant opened in 1984, it has grown to become an incorporated business owned by the Farfans and their six children. In a recent phone conversation, eldest son Joaquin Farfan III told me that when they added “California” burritos (which I selected as the best burrito at Lolita’s) to their menu about 12 years ago, they sold five to 10 of the specialty burritos a week. Now they sell close to 30,000 a month.
It began as a novelty item, something only kids and students ordered, according to Farfan III. “Now everyone gets them — grandmas, grandpas, parents. We sell more California than carne asada burritos.” That’s a bold statement in San Diego, which has bizarrely claimed the ubiquitous carne asada burrito as a local specialty.
Farfan says Lolita’s was the first in the San Diego area to carry California burritos (though there are other restaurants who say this, and other burritos have gone by that name). His story: He and his brother got the idea from a restaurant in Arizona that served burritos with fries. They asked themselves, “What would happen if we put a steak dinner inside a tortilla?” and voila! Carne asada, potato, sour cream and cheddar cheese wrapped up in a tortilla.
This would explain why avocado or guacamole isn’t automatically included, though I still think the dreamy green goodness is essential to the flavor balance. Lolita’s entered the Burrito Bracket with a high Value Over Replacement Burrito (VORB) score (14.5) and it was the favorite California-style burrito of regional expert Gustavo Arellano, so I had high expectations on my first visit. Although it scored a very respectable 88, it wasn’t all that I’d hoped for; the flavors weren’t quite there and it was sloppily built.
When I went back to Lolita’s for Round 2, I had a completely different eating experience. On this trip, I arrived mid-afternoon instead of at lunch hour, and the ingredients were robust in flavor and more thoughtfully combined. The carne asada was heavy with the scent and taste of freshly ground pepper. The french fries were golden brown and crisp, the flour tortilla was thick enough to have a crispy outer shell and a soft interior. Meanwhile, the sour cream was tart and creamy and the avocado rich and buttery. Lolita’s California burrito may be a recent creation, but this is one for the ages, and it suddenly became a contender to advance to Round 3.
When I asked Farfan whether he considered burritos a Mexican dish, he told me absolutely. The tortilla wrap offered a way to eat food and leftovers without needing utensils. “The irony,” he said, “is that nowadays you have these monster burritos that require a fork and knife to get through them.”
Mauricio Gomez moved to the United States when he was 17, working mostly as a waiter and bartender in New York City. After 15 years working in the restaurant industry, he still couldn’t find any decent Mexican food in the city, nothing that resembled the food his mother and grandmother made or the flavors of his native Mexico City.
New York, according to Gomez, was full of Mexican restaurants serving the same dishes, mostly with little flavor. He found bars and cheap food, but nowhere he wanted to eat at the end of a long day, and certainly not with his family. So he opened his own restaurant in Parkchester in the Bronx, an eight-minute walk from where he lives with his wife and daughters.
Gomez says he’s disappointed that Mexicans know so little about their history and wants to highlight the heritage of his country. That explains the name of his restaurant, Taqueria Tlaxcalli. “Tlaxcalli” is the Nahuatl word for “tortilla” (even though it’s too hard for most people to pronounce, it’s worth the curiosity it arouses, he says). Gomez’s emphasis on Mexico’s heritage also shows on the restaurant’s interior walls, where a Piedra del Sol, commonly referred to as the Aztec Calendar, is painted. And yet the most popular item at his restaurant is the burrito, a dish rarely served in Mexico’s southern states, and not one he grew up with. “You adapt to where you are, the food where you live. In America people like burritos, so we have to make burritos,” he said.
Together with three chefs who work at the restaurant, he created a menu that covers two sides of a long page (though if they have the ingredients, the kitchen is happy to make just about anything you ask for), with items and flavors that are traditional with a twist. The burritos in particular are an elegant take on a classic.
The Burrito Selection Committee included Tlaxicalli in the bracket despite a lukewarm VORB score. Members of the committee had eaten tacos there and enjoyed them, and reviews from Michelin and The New York Times raised hopes about what I might find. Three other New York burrito joints made it into the bracket, but my 12 burritoless years in the city left me skeptical that I’d find anything noteworthy. I was floored when Tlaxcalli scored a 91 in Round 1, just narrowly beating out Mission Cantina (which was only a couple of months old and scored a respectable 88). When I returned for Round 2, with 70 burritos under my belt, I was still skeptical that it could hold up, especially against one of San Diego’s finest.
On this second visit, I sat in the back and watched through the open kitchen as men worked the grill and turned out plate after plate of burrito goodness. As with my first visit, a quartet of sauces was painted across the burrito’s top, packed with flavor and color. The carne asada, a deep burgundy, was creamy and tender. Bits of vegetable tucked in among the rice and black beans added crunch and flavor. It was just as good as I remembered it, slightly better even. The burrito itself was perhaps secondary to the spectrum of flavors, and yet it was constructed so that every bite is perfect.
While the rest of the country is having a food truck renaissance, Houston — a city with no zoning codes1 in a state that touts its lack of regulation — has some of the strictest laws regarding food trucks of anywhere in the country.
City ordinances are vast and varied, and make it nearly impossible for a food truck culture to flourish. The city bans trucks with propane tanks from the downtown unless a fire marshal is on board at all times of operation (a city council member called such trucks a bomb threat). All food trucks must be within 500 feet of a flushable toilet. No two trucks can be parked less than 60 feet apart (i.e. no food truck meetups or street parties). My personal favorite is that they can’t park near existing seating (no city parks, no benches, no picnic tables). In recent years, vendors have organized and created their own association to try and change some of the rules.
So when Jimmy Ruckman found a place to park his Breakfast Burritos Anonymous truck, he was ecstatic. He’d spent three months with friend and co-founder Travis Wiper in Wiper’s mother’s kitchen creating recipes. Ruckman graduated from the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Houston, while Wiper had a degree in restaurant management. No one else in town was serving breakfast burritos from a truck, but Ruckman knew, “If I’m not on your way to work, you’re not going to stop,” and he couldn’t park his truck downtown.
Ruckman and Wiper have since parted ways, and Ruckman is thinking about a second BBA, or a shaved ice truck. “I’m the black sheep of the family; my brothers and sisters all graduated top 10 in their class,” Ruckman told me. “All I can do is cook.”
The first time I visited, it had taken me a day to track down the elusive truck, but this time it was right where I’d left it, in the parking lot of Inversion Coffee at the Art League Houston building. Another truck occupies the space during lunch and dinner, giving BBA just four hours (from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.) to serve enough customers to stay afloat. Ruckman opted not to include air-conditioning in the truck because an enormous exhaust fan in the roof pulls the cold air straight out, making it expensive to cool. It looked hot inside on a sweltering Texas morning.
I ordered the same burrito I’d eaten on my first visit: sage pork sausage, potato, eggs, green chile, cheese (they’re now using a cheddar/Monterey Jack combination), tomato, avocado and Mama’s salsa. Ruckman handed me my order with an arm tattooed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter; the burrito came wrapped tightly in tinfoil, inside a paper bag. It was just as good as the first time, a compact bundle full of fresh flavors. The salsa splashed juice everywhere. Creamy avocado and fluffy eggs sidled up next to tiny morsels of grilled potato. The green chiles were still shy, peeking out but holding back their flavor.
This is a great burrito for any old Tuesday, and I really appreciate its size for a morning on-the-way-to-work breakfast. But it can’t quite keep up with the other greats in this group.
When The Pantry Restaurant opened in Santa Fe in 1948, it was on the edge of the city, surrounded by motor lodges and dirt roads. Today its location is somewhere in the middle of the sprawling desert city, but The Pantry really hasn’t changed much. The restaurant is on its seventh or eighth owner, but the menu has largely stayed the same.
The current owners, Stan Singley and his son Michael, purchased it in 2001. The elder Singley was retired from decades managing restaurants. Michael started working there as a busboy in high school and on weekends home from college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He then attended Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona, in order to learn his way around the kitchen. “I don’t fancy myself a chef, ” he told me. “I could go back there and work with the guys, but the food is all them.”
The Singleys made very few changes when they purchased the restaurant, tweaking recipes, but mostly focusing on service and efficiency. Their efforts show on the broad smiles of the waitstaff, the pace at which water and coffee are refilled, and the homey feel of the restaurant.
I visited most recently on a busy Sunday morning, in the throes of brunch. I was alone, so I sat at the pink and white Formica bar at the front of the restaurant. I ordered an adovada burrito with green and chatted with the women next to me. One was back in town after several months away, and desperate to get some “real chile.” The Pantry was the only place that would do, she told me.
The platter came, with cheese oozy and bubbly on top, not the crisp broiled cheese from the last visit. The rice and refried beans were far better this time, the beans creamy in flavor and chunky in texture. But the adovada that had blown me away on my previous trip just wasn’t the same. The sauce was salty, and the chunks of meat felt large and overbearing within the thin tortilla. The burrito I’d eaten in Round 1 would have made it to the finals, but this wasn’t The Pantry’s A game. The points lost on the protein this round will keep it from advancing. Still, it’s a burrito I’d drive hours through the desert to eat.
Taqueria Tlaxcalli came in as the underdog, but it’s headed to the finals with a dish born in Mexico City and raised in NYC.
CORRECTION (Aug. 13, 9:38 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly located the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces; it is in Albuquerque.