1967 marked the Summer of Love, but for a young boy in San Diego, it marked the eve of a life-long romance with all things tortilla. So far, my innocent palate had only tasted Crisco-fried, store-bought tortillas, stuffed with greasy, cumin-seasoned hamburger, iceberg lettuce and grated yellow cheese. That menu hit our table about once a week and my family devoured as many of those Betty Crocker inspired delights as Mom could produce.
Then came that hot August night.
In the summer, we’d have a later meal, so I’d typically be banished to the outdoor world of flattened soccer balls, cluttered backyards, and chicken coops, along with the other hungry refugee children in the neighborhood.
Eva Gonzalez, at 11-years-old was two years older than me. Her family had just moved in to the tiny ramshackle yellow house across the street. For years, it had been vacant, save the occasional migrant worker, so I was curious about this satin-skinned beauty. Tonight she was sitting on the plywood-floored porch, shuffling a deck of cards. She looked up and noticed that I was staring from my own yard. I tried to look away, but she yelled, “Hey guy! Wanna play cards?”
“Uh, sure,” I muttered.
“Evangalina!” called her mother. “Necesito su ayuda.”
Eva walked towards the house and I, not understanding that her mom had called her in to help prepare dinner, ran to follow. I don’t think she noticed that I was behind her, but her mom sure did. She smiled warmly and extended her hand. She then pointed to one of the rusty, metal-framed chairs that surrounded an old slat-built table and said, “Welcome to our home. You sit, while we cook.”
Instinctively, I plopped down.
The Gonzalez taco spread was so much different than ours. Rather than skillet fried hamburger, Mrs. G grilled wafer thin strips of peppery, lemon rubbed beef over an outdoor wood fire and homemade iron grates. Simmered over the same fire was an earthenware pot of wonderfully fragrant pinto beans, which, when finished were placed on that portion of the table with extra joist support. My twitching nose pointed toward the source of these divine smells, not unlike the tiny dog that hid below the counter. Mrs. Gonzalez smiled at my smacking lips and drooling mouth.
Brightly colored plastic bowls were piled high with freshly chopped cilantro, thin slices of white onion and a wonderful salsa that consisted of mortar ground tomatoes, charred onion, Serrano chilies, cilantro and a little salt.
“Michael!” was the call that came from afar.
My trance was broken. It was my own mother, calling me home for supper.
This was spaghetti night.
My eyes darted to Mrs. Gonzalez. She knew just what to do. She placed in my hand, a fresh grilled tortilla, on which she piled meat, salsa, cilantro, a small scoop of beans…
Step forward 17 years to 1986 and I turn up as an inspired, albeit Caucasian owner and operator of a top rated Mexican restaurant on the California central coast. Though Mrs. Gonzalez’s simple taco started it all, I soon discovered that the 80’s were the beginning of a national love affair with their larger and more versatile cousin, the burrito.
And so the story goes.
The next 15 years produced dozens of wine fueled discussions with fellow chefs, while countless cookbooks were transformed to dog-eared, food stained piles of loose paper, stripped of all binding gum. I wanted to create the perfect burrito.
Hundreds of technique and ingredient trade-outs were performed on the sauces and salsas, way too many versions of grilled meats and seafood hit the fire and so on. I hired and fired every tortilla vendor on the Peninsula at least twice—one company would no longer return my calls.
I think I understand how Edison felt with the light bulb experience—except for the parts about changing the world, becoming fabulously wealthy, and of course that international fame thing.
So many years later, here are my thoughts on the perfect burrito…
The secret to an arguable great burrito, or for that matter any good meal is a keen attention to detail with each ingredient. Too many times, I’ve been disappointed with mammoth foil wrapped behemoths that have names like, “One Pounder” or “Burrito Grande.” The philosophy behind those creations is to quickly extinguish the ravenous hunger of the target customer. The problem lies in the aftermath of those huge scoops of rice, beans, watered down guacamole and thrice-heated steam table meat. It’s often akin to a chunk of concrete in my belly.
My perfect burrito has three simple parts—freshness, balance of flavor and ease of eating. None can be compromised.
Just as a great sandwich depends on good fresh bread, the perfect burrito needs an exceptional tortilla. Imagine a New York deli piling hot pastrami on Wonder Kids White Bread or Chicago’s best pizza fixings sitting atop a crust from the frozen food section at Wal Mart Super Center—well you get the point. Fresh baked Sonora style tortillas are thin, delicate, strong and 12 – 16 inches in diameter. Nothing else will do.
Lard filled, salty frijoles, inspired from the back streets of East L.A. are mighty tasty, but most of us already have plenty of LDL cholesterol. The perfect burrito calls for good quality beans, be they pintos or black, which are slowly stewed till aromatic and tender. After a little rest in the olla (cooking pot), a portion of the fragrant legumes will be smashed in a manner similar to coarse mashed potatoes and lightly fried, along with some fresh chopped onion and a bit of minced garlic in a small amount of light vegetable oil, after which they are stirred back in with the whole beans and just enough sea salt to bring out that wonderful earthy taste. Another rest (Preferably a day) and the texture and flavors will fully develop, thus bringing this dish to its peak. The extra spices and powders are best left in the pantry.
No more than a third of the filling should be beans, so spoon slinging does not belong in the perfect burrito kitchen. For a lighter alternative, the frying portion can be nixed and they are still delicious.
You may also add rice, which will absorb extra juices and add a lighter element to the perfect burrito. Latin style rice often calls for a pre-cook process, which essentially fries the grains in oil before steaming. Once it turns a light golden color and is roughly the temperature of fresh molten lava; ground ripe tomatoes, onions and sometimes a bit of fresh minced jalapeno is cooked in. The fried rice mixture is then added to a simmering mix of chicken or vegetable stock, along with a dash of fresh toasted Mexican oregano and a little sea salt. It doesn’t take long for the flavorful liquid to absorb in to the kernels and the end result will be akin to a fluffy and tasty dream.
If rice is used, it must be in equal proportion to the beans and the total for both combined should be no more than about half of the filling.
Put a sprinkle of shredded jack or mild cheddar cheese on top of the steaming hot rice and beans. You may also try crumbled cotija, though it may be difficult to find.
On top of the cheese goes the main dish. Try thin cut strips of juicy charbroiled steak or chicken breast, pork carnitas or a hearty vegetarian skillet of potatoes, onion and chilies. The longtime favorite of my restaurant customers is a blackened chicken and grilled prawn combo. Roughly half or more of the total filling should consist of the main dish item.
On to the finish.
Bottled salsa does not belong in the kitchen of the perfect burrito maker. Only fresh made please. It should consist of a well-balanced combination of diced ripe tomatoes, chopped white onions, cilantro, minced jalapenos or serranos, fresh squeezed lime juice and a little salt to bring out the flavors. Spoon a generous portion of this salsa (Sometimes called Pico de Gallo) over the other ingredients.
Now, on to the wrapping part. Yes wrap, not roll. The end result of a perfect burrito is one that ultimately lands in your mouth, not down the front of your shirt.
Before you start, take a last look at the ingredients, which lie on the round tortilla. There should be a two to three finger border on the ends and at least double that on the sides. You don’t want big bites of mostly tortilla, but there needs to be room to fold and wrap around the filling. It should be a fairly tight fit, somewhere between a pair of Wrangler jeans and Pamela Anderson’s beach outfit.
Guacamole, sour cream, and hot sauce—all will enhance your perfect burrito. Dab these on as you eat. The freshness and separate layers of flavor will play like a symphony to your palate.
There are infinite combinations of ingredients and I have only scratched the surface. Another full story could be devoted to the Wet Burrito, which typically smothers the dish with a tasty red or green sauce. Combined with light toppings like crème fraiche, fresh lime, Haas avocado slices or a colorful medley of tomatoes, charred green onion slivers and cotija crumbles, you can infuse an additional layer of sensual flavor and perhaps carry a simple burrito to an elegant knife and fork level.
Just know that somewhere amongst the antiseptic world of art-deco and neon storefronts, where check pants wearing, white jacketed young cooks practice what they have learned at culinary school—there may be a fallen shopping center in an old neighborhood with a renovated deli, held together with duct tape and love, housing the T-shirt sporting crew that makes the perfect burrito. Or perhaps you’ll gather the ingredients and create your own version of that succulent creation, of which many humans, myself included, flash-dream about, especially when hungry and inspired by a whiff of stewing pinto beans or charcoal cooked meat. Be careful though–it could turn in to an obsession.