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Californian Burritos

I hear a lot of smack talk, usually from people from California, about the burritos here. I'm assuming that it's at least partially justified, given how prevalent it is, but whenever I've tried to pin someone down for specifics about what makes them better, I rarely get anything more articulate than a "you guys just don't know how to make mexican food" type of response.

Though I haven't extensively researched this, I've done more than a few cursory searches, and have been unable to find a substantive comparison. Anything that I stumbled upon written by people who claim more knowledge on the subject rarely offered more than passing comments about the seasoning of this or the texture of that.

Could someone who's familiar with the burritos here, who is also familiar with the burritos in one of the areas that's well known for making good burritos, provide some insight?

Is it mostly an ingredient quality thing? Are the fillings and sauces actually different? Is it the tortillas? Is there any place in the area that's particularly close to another specific regional style?

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  1. You might be interested in some of the discussion in this thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/147576

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    1. I'm a vegetarian from SF, but for me the difference is the options available are larger, fresher and offer truly spicy options(salsa laced with fresh jalapenos). As for tacos--the corn tortillas are better and fresher...

      3 Replies
      1. re: Trumpetguy

        Had catfish tacos on real soft corn tortillas at the Go Fish food truck in the FD today - beans, corn, cabb, pico, chipotle mayo, real onion sticks - I bet this gets pretty close to CA goodness.

        1. re: Bob Dobalina

          That sounds great! In Cali, if you order shrimp taco/burrito, they will grill them on a flat top fresh and so good :)

        2. re: Trumpetguy

          Thanks. As a benchmark, have you tried Cinco De Mayo tortillas? (you can often get them warm at the Somerville Market Basket). What do you think of those?

        3. IMO, many burritos fail in the area due to not seasoning or cooking the meat (and/or beans)correctly - you need high heat to get some carmelization on the meat to make it tasty. Then its usually placed in a warming tray full of water furthering the blandness of it all.

          Anna's seems to be a benchmark around here for some reason, and they are the biggest offenders of the above - and also often fail to cook the black beans enough - and they don't take the time to drain the meat/beans while making the burrito, leaving it water sogged.

          13 Replies
          1. re: LStaff

            I'm not an Anna's fan, but I think the carnitas burrito at El Pelon hits the meat and beans notes much better. And the hot sauce is a real sinus clearer. Definitely my favorite local burrito.

            1. re: robwat36

              +1 on the carnitas burrito at El Pelon. Hold the lettuce though - and easy on the rice....

              1. re: LStaff

                I've got to say, the carnitas in the burrito I just had at Olecito was super intensely porky tasting, and the habaƱero salsa had a pretty good amount of kick to it. I was pleased.

            2. re: LStaff

              Thanks for the insight.

              I can definitely see the holding in liquid issue, I generally opt for something like carnitas, al pastor, or something like that. Most of the places I've been to seem to get a decent amount of heat on the grilled meats but it doesn't really matter if you're holding them in warm water. Do places that you would consdier better seem to grill to order, for every order? With a place like Felipes or Annas, with the kind of volume they do, it sucks that they wouldn't opt to have a grill cook providing a steady supply of grilled items to replace what's on the stations, and not holding them in water. The only possible reason I'd think this would be the case is if their grills couldn't put out the volume and they had to pre-cook most of it during prep (So... get a new grill). Obviously, cut chicken can't be held hot and not dry out, so they use water.

              But I'm willing to bet that they're just speeding up service and keeping costs down... If they did it the right way, they're losing $10/hr for a grill cook and possibly losing a couple 6 pans of meat if they get suddenly slow, but considering that they seem to do around $20/minute during peak hours, it seems worth it.

              As for the beans, when you say seasoning are you talking about spicing or salt level? I've generally encountered pretty reasonable amounts of salt in the beans I've had.

              1. re: muscles_marinara

                Viva Burrito in the West End I believe grills their meat (not to order per se, but they don't keep it in water, just keep a guy on the grill rolling it out at a constant rate), and if you get the carnitas, since it's not as popular (I have no idea why) as steak and chicken, they have to heat it up in a skillet to order, so potential carmelization there. I find their burritos to be pretty tasty.

                1. re: devilham

                  Yeah, if I was in charge of one of those kitchens, that's how I would roll. Thanks.

                  1. re: devilham

                    Viva's constant grilling is a huge plus. Meat wise, I put it way ahead of Anna's, Boloco, Chipotle, etc.

                    1. re: devilham

                      this is great news about Viva; i'll head there sooo soon! thx much; would never have known!

                      1. re: opinionatedchef

                        I really enjoy the lamb burrito and the curry chicken burritto, but when I want a more traditional burrito I think the beef and chicken combo (I know, sounds unkosher, but works well there) viva burrito w/ cheese, sour cream and guacamole and fresh jalepenos (which you have to ask for specifically) is the best burrito.

                        1. re: ScotchandSirloin

                          thx so much because we're going soon and now we can try these!
                          i just checked their website, and i'm psyched! the only thing that worries me is that their prices are so low, esp for seafood (has to be frozen and not exc quality). But i will find out. Any hey! they have a salad named after, genuflect, genuflect, a hero of mine!:

                          Bayless Salad ......................................................................................................................
                          Mesclun mix with orange sections, fresh baby tomatoes, fresh avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds and feta cheese.

                          I just called and fyi, their pescado tacos are made with tilapia. yuckola. and it's grilled, not fried. but i'm psyched about the carne asada! AND they're open til 11pm except 10 on sundays.

                          http://www.vivaburrito.com/menu22.html

                          1. re: ScotchandSirloin

                            Been a while since I used to frequent Viva but their cajun chicken viva burrito was always my fave w/ the beef & chicken a close second. I never liked their fajitas at all (which really were just soupy burritos). I did enjoy the enchiladas when they started serving them.

                            And yeah, out of the other burrito options nearby (not including the newer food trucks) IMO they were definitely the best in the meat department. If only I could combine the quickness & price of annas, wiht the salsa of villa mexico and the meats of viva burrito!

                        2. re: devilham

                          I love Viva Burrito. When I worked near there, I'd grab either a burrito or a quesadilla nearly every chance I got.

                          The owners are the same people who own the Helmand.

                        3. re: muscles_marinara

                          Carnitas are cooked slowly in their own fat...confit. My experience is they are properly served by reheating on a grill top...for a little carmelization. Many of the small piecs would be lost to a grill top. Pre cooking is the principle by which carnitas are made. At ahigh volume place, it's a 12hr plus hour operation. They're ready about 6-7am.

                          Here's some photos of a high volume carnitas joint.

                          http://www.flickr.com/photos/61246842...

                          http://www.flickr.com/photos/61246842...

                      2. Its a little bit of everything. As someone who just moved from Arizona to Boston, I am definitely frustrated by what is available here. Let me try to explain:

                        -Tortillas: While not all that different, most of the places in Arizona warm up their tortilla on the grill instead of that Chipotle steam press machine that ends up making your tortilla super chewy. The Arizona shops make it a bit dry on the outside of the tortilla, its completely different.

                        -Salsas: Red and green salsas are practically some secret blend of chiles and tabasco sauce or something. There is really no way to try to describe these salsas, except that they complement the burritos perfectly.

                        -Ingredients: Many of the Arizona/California burritos contain just meat, or meat with potatoes of some sort and pico de gallo (basically a chunkier salsa made from mostly tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, and cilantry). You can get beans in some burritos if you want, but many of the best and most popular ones are just a huge 1/3 lb of steak.

                        -Ingredient quality: The carne asada at these places is so juicy from its own fat, that if you get a burrito large enough, the bottom of your tortilla will catch all the oil. Its slightly disgusting to eat, but its pure juice from the steak. All of the meat I have tried here in Boston is super dry.

                        So, there are also some super special burritos that are named after Arizona and California. The California burrito is just carne asada, french fries, and pico and or guacamole. On the other hand, there is the Arizona burrito which replaces the french fries with just cubed potatoes. If you want to get even more unhealthier, you can go with carne asada fries, I'm sure you can guess what that entails.

                        One thing that particularly stands out about most of the southwest taco shops is that their food is definitely much, much greasier than anything I can find in Boston. The problem is, that grease gives a lot of flavor to the burritos, and in a city with Whole Foods on every block, it might be an issue selling that stuff to people here.

                        To kind of give insight into how ludicrous the burrito business in Arizona is, look up Filiberto's. Apparently they were the first of the kind in our state to sell these kinds of burritos. A few years later, and Arizona/California is filled with rip-offs like Rigoberto's, Aliberto's, Roberto's, x-bertos, etc. You can't taste the food by reading it, you really have to go try it out and go make a visit. Having tried El Pelo, Anna's, and Felipe's, they aren't even close to even the mediocre taco shops in Cali/Arizona.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: yourwhiteshadow

                          This is a good articulate description of the differences. I cannot speak for Arizona, but we do go to SanFran. often and do a taco crawl in the Mission.I'm not aware of burritos w/ fries on them, but the best carne asada we have found in SF is freshly flame-grilled and cut up to order. In Boston, the only carne asada I have found that matches the best in SF is at La Verdad.(Founded by Ken Oringer, a SF chef who came to Boston and wanted 'real tacos' etc. like he had back in SF.) Their refried beans are also excellent. We are not fans of their other fillings, except the Pescado, and the Chiles Rellenos. Their corn tortillas are hand made there every day and you can watch them being made.

                          1. re: yourwhiteshadow

                            Very well said.

                            The Boston meat (OK, no joke) is dry because there is absolutely no fat on it.

                            Many hounds here love Taqueria el Amigo, but my only experience there was disastrous. Have you been there?

                            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/854106

                            1. re: eatntell

                              whew, i thought i was the only one who found TEA yuckola.insipid. Not fire grilled btw.

                              1. re: opinionatedchef

                                It takes an honest and thick skinned soul to go against the grain and say anything negative about an eatery beloved by so many.

                                1. re: eatntell

                                  well thk you ent, for that. one always likes company on the island!

                                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                                    I was talking about MYSELF, LOL. Now our membership just doubled.