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Independent shops, national chains, celebrity chefs: Everyone's making burritos in Boston

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2008

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CAMBRIDGE - Burritos are not real Mexican food. At least that's the familiar old refrain. Take the foil-wrapped package at Anna's Taqueria here. A flour tortilla, topped with sliced cheese, steamed, and then piled high with beans, rice, pico de gallo, hot sauce, guacamole, sour cream, and, if you like, a choice of succulent meats. The whole mess is rolled up into a tight wad, stuffed to bursting, but engineered not to fall apart, and wrapped in foil whether you're staying or taking out. The fillings inside the tortillas are as common as bread and butter south of the border. It's the wrap and the portability that makes the foodie police roll their eyes. This complete meal to go is suspicious just because of the convenience.

Over the past decade, Boston has become home of the burrito. Besides Anna's, we have two other local chains: Boca Grande Taqueria and Boloco Inspired Burritos. We also have many independent shops, such as El Pelon Taqueria, Tacos Lupita, and Taco Loco; and at least three national chains, notably Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and most recently Chipotle Mexican Grill. All sell some variation of the gut-busting California-style burrito. Most provide a bright, sanitized environment, and even the chains usually stick with fillings that are at least emblematic of Mexican food.

Boca Grande goes so far as to offer burritos with more obscure and challenging bits like cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork) and beef birria (stewed with Mexican beer). Anna's wraps the tortillas around pork al pastor, which is spit-roasted meat, and carnitas, pork that is simmered, then roasted.

The rolled up packages at Boloco aren't exactly authentic. But making authentic Mexican food was never their intention. "We were influenced by San Francisco-style taquerias but also by the wrap shops," says Boloco president Michael Harder. "We really just want to bring great flavors together in a portable way."

In addition to their classic (melted cheese, pinto beans, and cilantro), the chain offers a Bangkok, with Asian slaw and Thai peanut sauce; a Buffalo, with spicy wing sauce and blue cheese; and a Caesar, with romaine lettuce and Caesar dressing. These don't sound very Mexican. Then again, Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini is credited with creating the classic Caesar salad in the 1920s. "Maybe the Caesar salad is even more Mexican than the burrito," says Harder.

The pudgy burrito as we know it originated in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood sometime in the 1960s though other burritos are traditional around Sonora in northern Mexico and Southern California. The Mexican version is often made with a delicate tortilla sobaquera, from the word sobaco (meaning armpit), because the giant tortilla could stretch from wrist to underarm. It's often stuffed with machaca, dried spiced beef, which is reconstituted and pounded until tender.

Most Mexicans eat corn tortillas, but in the north, wheat flour, brought to the New World by Spaniards, is traditional. Gluten in the wheat flour makes it possible for the tortillas to stretch around the fillings. Corn flour disks are too brittle to hold all that stuff. In Spanish, burrito means little donkey, as in even a little donkey can carry a heavy load.

Big, fat burritos may have come to Boston directly from California. Japanese-American Mariko Kamio, who lived in San Francisco, moved east and opened the first Boca Grande in Cambridge in 1986. Her brother, Michael, joined her and went on to open five Anna's Taquerias, his first in Brookline's Coolidge Corner in 1995 after the siblings parted ways. Both learned the business from a cousin who owns the Gordo Taqueria chain in San Francisco. Mariko Kamio says that she learned the business from her cousin, but then traveled around Mexico to see the food for herself. "I like things authentic," she says.

Like Kamio, celebrity chef Ken Oringer went on the road to do research and took burritos upscale a year ago when he opened La Verdad Taqueria Mexicana, near Fenway Park. (For more on Oringer, see Page E2.)

"We were eating at 15 taquerias in a day," says the chef. "We went to Mexico City, Veracruz, from Napa in California down to Los Angeles, from Tijuana all the way to Baja. In Mexico, Oringer never saw anything resembling Chipotle's overstuffed footballs. "Real Mexican food is more austere, they would never put lettuce, tomato or sour cream in a burrito," he says. But on the menu at La Verdad, Oringer offers an East Los Angeles-style burrito, a flour tortilla filled mostly with meat, very little rice, black or refried beans, and avocado. "No frills," he says. Oringer thinks of his burritos as something to eat on the run. "If I have time to sit down, even for a few minutes, I'd rather have tacos."

At home, making a Mission-style burrito is easy. Set up an assembly line, to make filling and rolling go smoothly. Begin with a warm flour tortilla, place a spoonful of yellow rice (it's flavored with turmeric, which is a quick way to dress it up), then a spoonful of warmed canned black or pinto beans, some pico de gallo (Spanish for "rooster's beak," it consists of chilies, tomatoes, lime juice, and cilantro), a sprinkling of Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, a few slices of ripe avocado, and a spoonful of sour cream. Drizzle the whole thing with hot sauce, wrap it in foil, warm it in the oven for a couple of minutes, and you're in for a full belly.

Who needs authentic?