Ecce Burrito

July 21, 2011

My rant about the L.A. burrito (vs. San Francisco’s patently inferior Mission burrito) triggered some controversy, and spurred me to further research on this majestic fast-food format, second only to the sandwich in the divine pantheon of handheld foodstuffs.

Celebrity chef Rick Bayliss, while we may find fault with his TV persona, undeniably knows a thing or two about Mexican regional cuisine. In his excellent Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, he devotes just a single page to the burrito, confirming its origins in the northern, wheat-growing provinces and noting that as one travels south it is known simply as a “taco de harina,” or a taco made with a flour tortilla. He includes only one recipe, for burritos de machaca, that he picked up in the Baja California town of San Ignacio, and I can attest that it is authentic to the region, made from shredded dried beef (carne seca), fried up with onions, tomatoes, and chiles. Anyone who’s traveled in Baja has probably eaten one of these.

Meat? Check. Beans? Check. Tortilla? Check.

As for the burrito being invented in Aztlan, the northernmost territories that are now part of the USA, there is also considerable documentation, though it appears that New Mexico has a better claim than Alta California as the actual birthplace. According to Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World, the Pueblo peoples were making flour tortillas long before the Spanish showed up, and wrapping them around meat and beans to make a taco-like snack.

Yet while the Anasazi may have invented it, and while the first printed recipe appeared in a collection of New Mexico recipes from 1934, Mexican Cookbook by Erna Fergusson, the burrito as we know it today clearly got its start in Los Angeles, where it was on the menu as early as the 1920s at the legendary El Cholo, then known as the Sonora Cafe.

Mission style: More rice than a Chinese freighter

The Mission burrito, by comparison, can only be dated back to the early 1960s, when El Faro owner Febronio Ontiveros had to make a big batch of “sandwiches” for a nearby firehouse, and threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Now the most widely known burrito format in the US (thanks to chain-store abominations like Chipotle), the Mission burrito is distinguished by too much rice, whole (rather than refried) beans, and a generous slathering of guacamole and sour cream, yielding an arm-thick product that has to be wrapped tightly in foil to keep it from exploding.

San Diego style, con papas

San Diego is also known for a local mutation on the theme, the so-called “California burrito,” easily recognized by the inclusion of French fries as an ingredient. And as one heads further south, any number of even stranger ingredients may be encountered (chopped hot dogs anyone?). In all regions, burritos may be deep-fried (the chimichanga or chivichanga) or smothered in sauce (a “wet,” “mojado,” or “enchilada style” burrito). For the record, I enjoy all of these variations on the theme (except, maybe, the hot dog burrito). Any burrito is better than no burrito. But in my heart of hearts, the LA burrito still reigns supreme

The LA burrito seems a bit austere when compared to these other forms. Beans, meat, and a flour tortilla are the only essentials, frequently augmented by cheese and/or salsa. Certain meat fillings, like the insanely hot chile verde from the now-defunct Acapulco Taco Bar in Monterey Park, require no additives, while others, like carne asada or chicken, usually need some added salsa. And cheese is just always a good idea, isn’t it? Everything else I can take or leave, except rice, which I will always leave. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food. Just not in my burrito, thank you.


The Other Bay Area

June 30, 2011

They call it the Bay Area, and it’s on the west coast. A large metro area with Spanish roots, spanned by numerous bridges and causeways, known for its relaxed lifestyle and superior seafood. Are we on the same page of the atlas yet? The answer to today’s geo-quiz is Tampa Bay, on the west coast of Florida.

When I tell my California friends about my Florida vacation, they screw their foreheads into puzzled furrows and ask why? Why go THERE? If the East Coast is a mysterious foreign land to most Californians, Florida is the equivalent of Darkest Nowhere, where friendly serial killers and retired New Yorkers rub shoulders with Cuban gangsters and mullet-topped gator hunters under the sticky heat of a  Disney sun. And all of that may indeed be true for the east coast of Florida, but not for the west side.  Except, of course, for the mullet, which is native to all areas of the state.

But in west Florida the mullet is more than just a haircut, it’s also a fish. A small fish, typically smoked and mashed into something that looks like tuna salad, but is a million times tastier.  It is one of the appetizers at Waltz Fish Shak, an insanely great restaurant in Madeira Beach, just north of St. Pete on the Gulf side. Which is number one on my list of things to do on the Other West Coast.

Walt’z Fish Shack – Located in a brightly painted old house at the edge of the John’s Pass tourist district, just a few blocks from Hooter’s and Bubba Gump, Walt’z is one of the best seafood restaurants anywhere.  The chalkboard menu is short – three starters, three entrees, one dessert.  Everything is super fresh, and when it’s gone it’s gone.  If they have it, get the grilled grouper with rice and slaw. Or the crab cakes. Or the softshell crab. And don’t even think of leaving without a slice of key lime pie – they only have one dessert for a very good reason.

St. Pete Beach – Miles of fine white sand, water warm enough to swim in, great beach bars, this is one of my favorite beaches anywhere. And the sun even sets in the right direction – over the water! It’s like Mexico but without the nagging beach vendors and severed heads. Plus you can eat the salad without getting sick! But why eat a salad when you can have a big messy cheeseburger at Sandbar Bill’s Beach Bar, one of the amenities at…

The Bon-Aire Resort Motel – If you’re the all-inclusive type you can stay at one of the pink monstrosities down the beach, but if you love mid-20th century style you must stay at the Bon-Aire. Built in 1950, it is a fine example of mid-century architecture and just an all-around great place to stay. A clean, quiet, spacious room on the beach with powerful A/C and all the amenities goes for well under $100. And if you want to stay longer they have “efficiency” units, which are nice little apartments with full kitchens. Laze around on the beach all day and run up a tab at Sandbar Bill’s – you will not be disappointed. I’m not going to tell you what to drink, but the banana dacquiri is exceptional, with a velvety texture and a nice extra tot of rum poured into the straw.

The Dali Museum – If you’re a fan, you must go. This is the largest and most important collection of the artist’s work anywhere in the world, including Spain. Trust me – I’ve been to the Dali Museum in Figueres and the artist’s home in Port Lligat, and this is a must-see collection, notable for its numerous “best of” works: Daddy Long Legs of the Evening, The Disintegration of Memory, Columbus Arriving in the New World, DNA, Nature Morte Vivant – the list goes on and on. The building itself is also pretty stunning, and it’s in a great location on the St Petersburg waterfront.

Ybor City – Across the causeway in Tampa, Ybor City is the old cigar-rolling district, full of gorgeous old brick buildings, iron balconies, and other well-preserved architectural relics. Though it’s a bit touristy, it’s still well worth a visit, especially if you’re in need of a tattoo, a cigar, or a place to get trashed on Spring Break. Or if that’s not your style, check out…

The Tampa Brewing Company – Located in Ybor City, this is a truly great brewpub in an area not known for its craft beers. It’s an ambitious operation that may have as many as 18-20 house-made beers on tap, all respectable and some outstanding. The porter, the pale, and the seasonal ESB were all standouts on my visit. Throw in a solid kitchen, friendly staff, great atmosphere, and the historic location, and it adds up to one of the best brewpubs around.

Arco Iris Restaurant – Tampa isn’t Cuban the way that Miami is Cuban – it’s more Dixie and Conch – but there is still a sizable Cuban population here, and many good Cuban restaurants to choose from. We were directed to this one by a friend, and were not disappointed. It’s owned by a couple who came over on the Mariel boatlift, and it’s unapologetically authentic. Soups are especially good, and of course the Cuban sandwich.

Of course there’s a lot more to do, like thrifting, buying stuffed alligator heads, and getting fabulously sunburned. I will be back.

My Second Favorite Kurosawa Film

June 24, 2011

A student of mine recently asked, apropos of nothing, “What is your second favorite Kurosawa movie?” I was pretty certain I had never mentioned the Japanese director at any point in the two-day class, but I had to ask: “Did I make a Kurosawa joke or something?”  He said no, this was just one of his favorite left-field questions for “educated” people. “I’m assuming,” he added, “that Seven Samurai is your favorite.”

Well maybe yes and maybe no. This is a dangerous question to ask me, coupled with a very tenuous assumption. Of course Seven Samurai is great, but is it better than Rashomon? And let’s face it: the whole idea of rankings is ridiculous when you’re talking about masterpieces. If a film is perfect, how can you say that it is better or worse than another perfect film? Picking a favorite becomes a matter of mood, and I am just about always in the mood to watch me some Kurosawa. The best I could do to answer the man’s question was to pick my top five, in no particular order.

Ran (1985) Yes it’s long at 162 minutes, and yes it takes a while to get going. And no it doesn’t offer much in the way of swordplay. But a finer film has never been made from King Lear, and Kurosawa’s version is a seething cauldron of betrayal, heartbreak, and madness. Mieko Harada as Lady Kaede owns every frame she’s in, and Tatsuya Nakadai is an unforgettable Lear. The scene where he walks through the burning castle, oblivious to the rain of arrows, is breathtaking, a pre-CGI one-take spectacle where the set literally burns down around him.

Throne of Blood (1957) is Kurosawa’s other great adaptation of Shakespeare, in this case Macbeth.  It’s a dirty little secret among Shakespeare-lovers, but The Bard is often better in translation, and modern English subtitles over Japanese  is actually a lot clearer than the 400-year-old English original. Not that Kurosawa was ever overly dependent on dialog to tell a story; like John Ford, he came up in the silents and learned how to block out a scene visually, only adding dialog when it furthered the story. There’s no shortage of bloody action in this one, and a terrific performance by the great Toshiro Mifune.

Rashomon (1950) is the one that every film student has to watch, thanks to its experimental approach of telling the same story through four different perspectives. It remains a profound reflection on the vagary of experience and the elusive nature of truth. Yes, but what really happened? The answer is unknowable, even if (or especially if) you were there.

Yojimbo (1961) is one of those films that’s been remade so many times it seems derivative, but which was actually the original.  A stranger comes to town in the middle of a war between two rival factions.  A mercenary, he plays one side against the other until just about everyone is dead. As played by Mifune, the title character is a rude-boy ronin like no other, with a rough sense of humor and poor personal hygiene. There’s enough swordplay for three movies, including one of the best duels of all time. And if you still want more, there’s a sequel, Sanjuro.

Seven Samurai (1954) is Kurosawa’s best-known film, and possibly his best, a monumental epic that nearly bankrupted the studio when it was made. If for some strange reason you’ve never seen it, it’s the film that The Magnificent Seven was copied from, about a band of scrappy mercenaries who defend a village against an army of bandits. Toshiro Mifune shines as the Samurai wannabe who’s all bravura and no skill, and the climactic battle in the rain is one of the greatest fight scenes ever put on film. If you get a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss it – Seven Samurai may be the greatest-ever example of black-and-white cinematography.

Honorable mentions to Hidden Fortress, Red Beard, Kagemusha, and the other great films that didn’t make this list. Ask me some time about my seventh favorite Kurosawa film and I’ll think about it.

True Burrito Tales

June 22, 2011

You can go a lot of places in this world, but you can only be from one place, and I’m from the east side of L.A. Though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than twenty years, there are still a few things I miss about my hometown. The mild winters. The crazy profusion of FM radio stations. But above all, the L.A. burrito.

With all due respect to San Francisco’s  celebrated Mission burrito, let me be frank: it is not a real burrito. Real burritos are not packed full of rice like a Chinese freighter. Real burritos contain neither sour cream nor guacamole. They are made with lard-infused refritos, not whole beans and certainly not black beans. And under no circumstances are they wrapped in anything other than a large white flour tortilla. If it’s some weird color, like red or green, it is most certainly not a burrito.

Many world travelers conclude that the burrito, due to its widespread unavailability south of the border, is one of those made-up faux-Mex dishes like taco salad. Nothing could be further from the truth. The burrito was a regional invention, native to a part of Mexico that was ceded to the Yankees in the 1840s: Alta California. Some nameless rancho cook decided to make a few oversized flour tortillas for wrapping up the leftovers, and an important  culinary innovation was born, right up there with the sandwich on the short list of wildly successful workman’s lunches.

On a recent trip south, I paid a visit to Manny’s El Loco in East L.A. to reacquaint myself with the Real Thing. I was not disappointed. Thoroughly and unashamedly old-school, Manny’s has changed very little since I used to go there in the 1970s as a long-haired teenager.  Same orange-plastic decor, same clientele of working-class Chicanos and the occasional Anglo or Asian down from  Monterey Park. The few menu changes in evidence seem to be half-hearted nods to “healthy” eating: they’ve added a turkey wrap and something called a Santa Fe salad, and deleted the pastrami quesadilla, one of those freaky “only in LA” things that have now gone the way of the Chinese Kosher Burrito.

The king of Manny’s menu is and always has been the El Loco Burrito: beans, cheese, a chile relleno, steak picado, and salsa. It’s big, it’s messy, and it’s God-knows-how-many-calories. This is the burrito against which all others must be judged.

A great burrito is a symphony of flavors, and one false note can ruin the whole effect. At Manny’s there are no false notes. The tortilla is same-day fresh. the beans are runny, lardy, and cooked for days; almost a soup. The steak picado is likewise cooked down for savory goodness: round steak, onions, chiles, and tomatoes. There is no shortage of cheese or green sauce, made with hot peppers and tiny flecks of avocado. And at the heart of this beast, robed in deliciousness, is the mighty chile relleno, a study in contrasting textures and flavors: the chewy crispness of the fried batter, the sweet snap of the fresh Anaheim chile, and the gooey river of hot melted cheese inside.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some other great places nearby. El Tepeyac, for instance, is another classic joint, with an even bigger and gnarlier burrito called the Manuel’s Special. But El Loco remains my personal favorite, and the one I think of every time I settle for a riced-up, foil-wrapped Mission “burrito.”

Manny’s is located just off Atlantic Blvd on Pomona Street, a block south of the 60. Si mon!


Biodiesel Q and A

January 26, 2011

I’ve been running on biodiesel for a few years now, and I get a lot of questions about it.  So here’s the FAQ.

Is it a special biodiesel model and if so, where do you buy one?

No, it’s just a 2003 VW Jetta diesel.  It only says “BIODIESEL” on the back because I bought the little chrome letters and stuck them on myself.

Did you have to make any special modifications?

No. Diesel motors were originally designed to run on peanut oil, not petroleum.  Older vehicles may need to upgrade some of their fuel system components, but most modern diesels are fine as-is.

Seriously? No modifications?

Okay, I made a few little improvements, but only for better performance, not because I had to. I added a Van Aken speed chip, a K&N air filter, and Bilstein heavy-duty shocks.  Oh, and when I switched over to biodiesel, I went through a couple of fuel filters in quick succession – since it runs cleaner than petro-diesel, it tends to blow all the accumulated scale and crud out of the system when you first make the transition.

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Movie Review Decoder

January 5, 2011

We can’t all be Roger Ebert, but in today’s world we can all be film critics. All it takes is an opinion and a mobile phone. But if you want to step your game up a level from those “Hated it!” and “Loved it!” tweets, you’ll need to learn the secret lingo of the professional critic, so you can sound just like the 99% of newspaper reviewers who don’t have enough wit or style to be Richard Von Busack. Perhaps this secret decoder ring, ripped from the severed pinky of Mick LaSalle, may be of some use:

What they say  /  What they mean

Austere  /   Depressing

Homage  /  Rip-off

Whimsy  /  Schmaltz

Feel-good  /  Throw-up

Date movie  /  Leave your testicles at the door

Bergmanesque  /  Boring

Must-see  /  Your idiot friends won’t shut up about it

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A Tale of Two Toilets

January 3, 2011

Roadside rest areas are nice, but since when is it okay for them to be nicer than my house?  Check out this architectural wonder of a pissoir with its Craftsman details, custom tile work, automated faucets and flushers, and tasteful landscaping.  Seeing how California has a gazillion-dollar budget hole, isn’t this a bit much?

Oh, and did I mention that this elegant shite-chateau has a twin on the other side of the road?  Seriously: show me a public school anywhere in California that looks this good and I will buy you a golden fleece seat cover to cradle your deluded bum. Read the rest of this entry »

Best of the Bookshelf 2010

December 26, 2010

In case you’ve just joined us: I like to read books.  Lots of books. Mostly fiction, some non-fiction.  At year’s end I go back through my notes and call out the titles that really got my blood up.  Most of these were checked out from the local library or passed to me by friends (shout-outs to the Contra Costa Main Branch and the Legendary Obliterati).  Anyway, maybe there’s something in here you might enjoy. Keep turning those pages!


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

You can argue that Mitchell’s reach exceeds his grasp, and that he tries a little too hard to lace these disparate stories together, but who cares when a book is this well-written?  The construction may be a trifle odd but the parts are all spectacular, and the whole is definitely worth more than their sum. From the South Seas of the 1850s to 20th century Europe to a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii, each tale has its own distinctive language and voice. Brilliant writing.

Preternatural (barely-not-magical) realism abounds in this entertaining novel from Peru’s best-known novelist. Alternating chapters weave two threads: an against-the-odds love story and a series of increasingly deranged radio serials. The setting, 1950s Lima, is richly drawn, and the English translation by Helen Lane is faultless. An eccentric, big-hearted love story that’s  really hard not to like.

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Hunting Wild Mushrooms

February 15, 2010

Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides)

Shave off the veneer of civilization and we are all hunter-gatherers.  To deny it would be a vain argument against millions of years of hominid evolution. For the modern foodie-type ape, there remains an undeniable appeal in tracking down and collecting one’s own food, whether out on the Serengeti or down at the local farmer’s market.  But the acme of these quest-for-food experiences, the most innately thrilling,  rewarding, and potentially lethal, is the hunt for wild mushrooms. Here in northern California, hardly a winter passes without some horrific news story about a family poisoned en masse by the Destroying Angel or some other lethal look-alike packed with toxic alkaloids. And it’s not a pretty death either – catastrophic liver failure makes your typical e coli infection seem like a day in the sun. Even a hunting  trip seems like Safety Day by comparison. Unless you’re hunting with Dick Cheney, in which case you deserve whatever you get.

Waterproof gear recommended

But with great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Armed with the requisite knowledge, savvy, and experience, the wily mushroom hunter can bring home rare delicacies that would either be prohibitively expensive or downright impossible to find any other way. So when our friends Chris and Blake invited us out to the Mendocino coast to do a little shrooming, we did not hesitate. While neither would claim to be an expert mycologist, they are deeply familiar with their neck of the woods and its edible varieties, having successfully foraged for local fungi for many years. And both of them have healthy, high-functioning livers – let’s just say I know this for a fact, and leave it at that.


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Y2K vs. the Martini 8

January 14, 2010

Has it really been ten years since this happened?!  On December 31, 1999, I was arrested while scaling the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with a backpack full of Martinis. And I don’t even like Martinis! Back by popular demand, here’s the story, as originally published in Twisted Times.



A True Crime Story

By Jack L. Lopes

There’s an old superstition that says whatever you’re doing at the stroke of Midnight on New Year’s Eve is what you’re going to be doing all year long. I sure hope it’s not true. At the cusp of the new Millennium, as the clocks chimed Y2K and another dead calendar page fluttered off into the void, seven friends and I were getting arrested for climbing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Our plan to welcome the new century with an enviable view and a perfect martini did not come to pass. Instead, we became the last arrests of 1999 and the first police report of 2000. At the stroke of Midnight we were on a pier-side police barge, being searched and handcuffed while the fireworks went off around us.

It’s an odd and unlikely story that begins back in February of 1995, when my friend and fellow traveler Sebastian Melmoth suffered an unfortunate arrest on the Bay Bridge for drunk driving, and subsequently swore an oath that no liquor would touch his lips until the year 2000. His fierce will did not fail him, and he kept his promise to the end, but as the years went by he developed a powerful thirst.

A veteran urban adventurer and a connoisseur of the industrial arts, Melmoth has a particular fondness for bridges. He has climbed dozens of them, in this country and in Europe, and has introduced many enthusiasts to the pursuit. His first choice, and arguably the ideal spot to toast any new era, was the Golden Gate Bridge, but after actor-activist-moron Woody Harrelson and a few angry friends got arrested stringing propaganda banners from that span, the Bridge Authority went berserk on new security measures, welding access doors shut and installing surveillance cameras from top to bottom and end to end. By late 1999, Melmoth had settled on the idea of a Bay Bridge celebration, but he kept the final plans to himself, knowing he would have to pick just a handful of climbers from the army of friends and friends’ friends who had by now heard rumors of this unique New Year’s Eve celebration.  I got the call a few days beforehand — one of the lucky few. There were to be eight of us, and two boats. We would meet in the city at 9:30.

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