Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jul 15, 2013
08:38 AMSmall Dishes
The Big Little Burro
Its origins are ancient and murky. The Mesoamerican people of Mexico have long made tortillas and used them to wrap foods for eating. There are many stories as to how the modern burrito both came to be and got its name. We do know it first appeared on a restaurant menu in the 1930s at the El Cholo Spanish Café in Los Angeles. The first cookbook to mention it was the Mexican Cookbook, a collection of regional recipes from New Mexico by Erna Fergusson published in 1934. The name can be translated as “a little donkey,” and one story goes that the burrito got its name from a street food vender in Ciudad Juarez who used his burro to transport his flour tortilla-wrapped tacos. Another contention is a food stand in the same city that catered to school children came up with the idea—“burrito” in this case a colloquial term meaning “dunce” or “dullard.” Regardless, today Ciudad Juarez and the surrounding state of Chihuahua is the Burrito Capital of Mexico.
In short order this Mexican rolled sandwich has become enormously well-liked in this country, only rivaled by the taco. No doubt the endless variety of fillings and economy to make and consume have contributed to its eminence. Seemingly, the only prerequisite for a burrito is large flour tortilla wrapper which is usually steamed or grilled to make it pliable. (You know yours was folded by a pro if you can eat it all the way down to the end.) A French fried burrito is called a chimichanga, the Spanish equivalent to thingamajig.
Today, fast food outlets like the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain have made their fortune by selling burritos plain and fancy. It would be difficult to walk into any Mexican restaurant in this country and not find them on the menu. In California, the burrito evolved into what we all now recognize as the sandwich wrap, popular it its own right.
Versatile, filling and sometimes downright cheap; the burrito is no culinary fad but firmly entrenched in our culinary culture. Here are some of the heftiest and most flavorful options that await you around town.
Burrito Drive. When it comes to creative and curious choices this place can’t be beat. No doubt the create-your-own option is the most popular with an extensive list of both orthodox and unorthodox ingredients to choose from. For the less imaginative, I recommend the Sheh-meh-neh: grilled chicken, rice, sweet potato puree, Nueske’s bacon and queso fresco. Topped with an added side of pickled red onions, it’s close to perfect.
Habanero’s Mexican Grill. This strip mall outpost located by the side of a busy highway could easily be overlooked. Discovering it is sheer serendipity. Everything, burritos included, is made to order with quality, fresh ingredients. Carnitas—slow-cooked and shredded pork—is soulfully satisfying and with the homemade green salsa better yet.
Tex Tub’s Taco Palace. Despite the name, it’s not just about tacos and there is a surprisingly good choice of vegetarian burritos. I like the Wil-Mar filled with fried avocados, black beans, rice and feta cheese; enhanced with jicama slaw, pico de gallo and sour cream.
Francisco’s Cantina. The combination of authentic Mexican cooking and more than reasonable prices at this family-run restaurant make it a frequent downtown destination. Despite the little kitchen and big menu everything is prepared with care. What makes the Burrito Enmolados distinctively delicious is its swathe of mole sauce and amenable condiments, guacamole and sour cream.
Eldorado Grill. Burritos are an important component of Tex-Mex cuisine, including the breakfast burrito. At Saturday and Sunday brunch, the Gringo is a robust amalgamation of breakfast stalwarts—fried eggs, ham, potatoes and cheese but no white toast!—and perfectly paired with a blood mary.
Café Costa Rica. One of the specialties is the Tico Steak Burrito, a Central American take on the Mexican classic. Filled with pan-seared steak and sweet peppers, it comes garnished with salad and fried plantain and best of all, the Mango Man’s secret sauce.
RECIPE: Braised Short Rib Burrito Filling
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound beef short ribs
1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded and minced
2 tbsp diced celery
2 tbsp diced carrot
2 tbsp diced onion
1 sprig thyme
2 sprigs sage
1 bay leaf
2 dried ancho chiles (seeds and stems removed)
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 cup diced tomato
1/4 cup red wine
2 cups Dr. Pepper
4 cups chicken stock
Preheat oven 300 degrees.
Heat the oil in a large cast iron skillet set over high heat. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper and sear in the hot skillet. Remove to a plate and set aside. Reduce the heat to moderately high and add the chopped jalapeño, celery, carrot and onion to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables start to brown. Add the thyme, sage, bay leaf, ancho chiles, cumin, coriander and smoked paprika and stir for a few seconds. Add the tomato and cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the liquid evaporates. Add the red wine, bring to a boil, and cook until it’s reduced by half. Add the Dr. Pepper and again cook until it’s reduced by half. Add the chicken stock and browned short ribs to the skillet. Cover the skillet tightly with heavy duty foil and place in the preheated 300-degree oven for 2½ to 3 hours or until very tender. Cool slightly and then shred or dice the meat. Use as a filling for burritos or soft tacos.
Enough for four burritos.