In a fast-food joint or a restaurant? Filled with grilled chicken or shredded beef? With guacamole or just cheese? And can you bear to wash it down with a Sol?
Fri 29 Aug 2014 08.00 BSTFirst published on Fri 29 Aug 2014 08.00 BST
A burrito, controversially cut diagonally and filled with a less than wet meat – chicken. Photograph: Corbis
Gourmands! Pedants! Human dustbins! How to Eat is back, back, back on Word of Mouth and, this month, we’re trying to nail the perfect version of fast food’s rising star: the burrito. Purists may despair at the ongoing maltreatment of this historic Mexican dish – one blithely supersized in California and, as you read this, probably undergoing further indignities involving kimchi in east London – but you cannot deny that the modern, mongrelised burrito is still muy bueno. More filling than a burger, lighter than fish and chips, as sprightly in its flavours as a pizza or kebab, little wonder Britain is clutching the burrito to its bosom. Remember: spicy views are welcome, but if the conversation becomes too hot below the line, wrap it up. Or you will look like you have a chipotle on your shoulder.
The breakfast burrito (commonly loaded with chopped sausage, sausage meat or a frankfurter, spicy scrambled eggs, onion, tomato, bacon etc) sounds brilliant in theory, but is beset by the same mushy textural problems and the kind of haphazard flavour amalgamation, that ruins that other all-in-one breakfast, the Full English in a can. Those ingredients need separating out so they can shine properly. The burrito is not breakfast material.
Instead, it is best eaten at lunch or early evening, and comes into its own when you are rushing to meet your mates after work for a drink. Why? Because it is sufficient to line your stomach without leaving you bloated, and, if eating in a burrito bar, you will be done and dusted in 10 minutes. It is the perfect pre-beer food.
NB. Please enjoy alcohol responsibly and, if you are going out dancing later, hold the refried beans. Otherwise, at 1am, you are highly likely to clear the dancefloor with a bout of near-fatal flatulence.
Where and how
It may be categorised as “street food”, but eating a burrito while walking is hazardous. We’ve all been there: you take a bite from one side of the burrito, which leaves a quivering “lip” of rice-loaded tortilla on the other, and, like a slow-motion shot in the world’s most boring action film, it falls to the ground or down your shirt, before you can whip your head down and around to snaffle it to safety. Then there is the issue of leakage from the bottom of a too-loosely-twisted foil wrap, and also the delicate procedure of prising that, by now sopping wet, last mouthful from the final cup of foil – itself now overflowing with juices – and transferring it to your mouth without any spillage. It’s a task that requires focus and concentration. You walk with a burrito once, twice maybe, before you either a) get knocked-down on a busy road or b) realise – standing outside the pub trying to wipe meat juices off your trainers with an old tissue – that eating and walking is a false economy, time-wise.
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Even just standing to eat a burrito, is fraught with debris-danger, so, instead, take a seat. But, very specifically, take a seat in a fast-turnover burrito bar (one that serves burritos from a San Francisco Mission District-style assembly line), where you eat with your hands, unpeeling your burrito like a banana/Cornetto/packet of Polos, but crucially retaining its tinfoil wrapper until the last mouthful. Only a lunatic takes the whole burrito out to eat it, and only a very elderly aristocrat or someone with serious hygiene phobias would eat a burrito with a knife and fork. Even sitting down, burritos can get messy. Get involved or eat elsewhere.
Some might argue that eating in a proper restaurant, where your burrito will be cooked-to-order, rather than constructed from pre-cooked items, opens up another realm of exotic fillings, but does it? Really? Duck, prawns or battered fish have their place, but that place is not on a burrito.
Hands holding burritos
Mind that quivering lip of tortilla. Photograph: John E Kelly/Getty
If you eat a burrito in a restaurant, however, what will find is that you end up paying around £10 for it. Which is utterly un-tenner-able (do you see what I did there?). Ultimately, this is just a hot wrap, right? A quick and easy snack. If it breaks the £6.50 mark, your antennae should start twitching. And, no, cutting my burrito into halves on the diagonal and arranging them on a plate with a little salad and some nachos, does not justify a £4 surcharge.
You could try and make them at home, slashing the cost. But as anyone who has attempted to make anything with tortillas at home will attest, life really is too short for the sloppy, half-arsed results that emerge. There are certain foods which benefit enormously from being, slow-cooked en-masse, and, particularly, folded by someone who has already knocked-out a couple of hundred burritos today. This is one of them.
They say size doesn’t matter. That certainly isn’t true of burritos. The fat, four-inch stumps; the curiously boxy briquettes you get; even, thin, wizened eight-inchers: they are all aesthetically off-putting and unsatisfying to eat. You want a solid, cylindrical six inches with a filling-girth of around three inches. Basically, it needs to impress without intimidating, it needs to feel solid in your hand but not be too big to handle.
Meat Fundamentally, a burrito is a primary meat component seasoned with choice condiments (salsa, sour cream, cheese etc) and, while it isn’t the most elegant phrase, a burrito needs “wet meat”. That is, meat moist with fat and cooking juices making it is tender enough for you to take a smooth, clean bite from your burrito, getting a good mouthful of the meat and a little of each of the – if it has been assembled correctly – evenly distributed secondary ingredients. We’re talking meat rubbed-down with smoky chipotle and spices, then oven-roasted surrounded by liquid and repeatedly basted or, alternatively, slow-braised for hours, then shredded down into its own juices. Meat which will taste glorious even after a significant wait on a service line. Think variations on pulled pork or “barbacoa”, which, originally, was a method of smoking and steaming beef, simultaneously.
Chopped meats Whether grilled or flash-fried (such as chicken breast, pork loin), chopped meats are, in contrast, regularly dry and tough, particularly after sitting on the line for a while. Some fattier meats may work roasted or barbecued, then chopped (sticky, charred pork belly, chicken thigh), but they are not commonplace. Poor-quality, over-cooked sliced steak, which you have to violently chew and tear at, in such a way that the burrito begins to fall apart under the strain, is particularly bad. Having to pull the steak out of your mouth because it contains irritating bits of sinew will ruin your burrito.
Everything else There is a serious textural problem (ie a significant lack of bite and resistance) with most seafood in burritos and similarly vegetables and cheese as a main ingredient. You can spice it, dice it, jazz it up any which way, but butternut squash, chargrilled courgette, feta et al, are salad ingredients, which don’t really work on a burrito. Where’s the crunch? The variation in mouthfeel?
Cheese (preferably a strong mature cheddar, but not too much of it); a generous dollop of sour cream; salsa (mild, spritzy pico de gallo – the meat should, ultimately, be the star of the show); rice; chopped baby gem lettuce. These should come as standard. If charged extra for any of them, eat somewhere else next time. Pinto or preferably earthier, distinctive black beans. And that is pretty much it.
Guacamole, fine in other circumstances, but overwhelms a burrito turning it into indistinct mush for no palpable flavour benefit. Refried beans, for similar reasons. If I want to attach heat-resistant tiles to a satellite or secure a rivet on a suspension bridge, I will use refried beans. But that musty, thick gloop is not an edible substance. No fried onions and definitely no fried peppers, a slimy, acridly mineral vegetable as welcome in my burrito as one of the chef’s severed fingers. No cheese sauce, of course. No pickled jalapenos (too spiky), no ludicrous pineapple or similarly off-piste salsas, and definitely no obliterating hot sauces packed with naga and habaneros. Need to test yourself to prove your masculinity? Then take up boxing. Don’t ruin a perfectly good burrito.
Burrito lovers attempt to walk and eat at Whitecross Street market, London. Photograph: Karen Robinson
The burrito bowl
A classic example (see also, wholemeal base pizza, grilled fish and chips, cottage cheese, any low-fat dessert), of a foodstuff retooled for the health conscious in a way that offers only a distant, pathetic echo of the original. The ingredients in a burrito need to be held together by the tortilla, so you get a bit of everything in each bite. That is the whole point. It is impossible to eat a burrito bowl without, deep down, thinking: “Mmm… this is just some random things on a bit of rice, isn’t it?” It’s neither as satisfying as a burrito, nor as energetically tasty as a great salad.
Your burrito should be a complex baton of flavours that requires light, unobtrusive company, with a bit of sparkle to thoroughly scrub your mouth clean and refresh your palate. The obvious stuff (cola, fizzy water, lemonade etc) works. The more exotic and in-yer-face soft drinks less so (Irn Bru, orangeade, Dr Pepper). The bubbles are crucial, though. Swilling down rice with, for instance, still water or orange squash produces a unique dead sensation in the mouth, a sudden feeling that you are swallowing down watery grit, like an accidentally gulped gobful of muddy river water.
The perfect accompaniment would be a cold, pointedly crisp pilsner-style lager, but, unfortunately, in the likes of Sol and Corona, the Mexican brewing industry has contrived to produce some of the world’s worst beers. Pacifico is the least worst option (it is has a certain sharpness), but, generally, Mexico’s sweet, vapid beers, denuded of almost all hop flavour, are not worth the money, calories or alcohol units. In desperation, you may order a Negra Modelo, but it won’t deliver half the flavour its colour suggests. There must be some good beers brewed in Mexico (it has a small microbrewing scene), but good luck finding any of them in your local burrito joint.