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.

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!


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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Santa Cruz Travel Notes

August 18, 2009

IMG_2414As a transplanted Sureño, one of the things I miss most about SoCal is being able to spend a nice day at the beach. San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is a great place to catch pneumonia in a foggy riptide. Alameda is nice as far as Oakland beaches go, but it’s hardly Laguna. But just an hour away there is Santa Cruz, a little spot of sun and sand that’s as good as anything in the O.C. I’ve been touristing in Santa Cruz since the late 70s, and no summer is complete for me without a few visits. While I’m hardly a local, I’ve traveled there enough to know what I like, and here are a few of my favorites.

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Return of the Giant Beers

January 31, 2009

we-want-beerA friend texted me this morning: “All of us are going to the Bistro for the double IPA fest today.” I got all worked up for about 90 seconds, until I realized he was off by a week, and it’s not until next Saturday. Which is a workday for me. Damn.

If you’re fan of giant beers, the Double IPA Fest is the Super Bowl of tastings. Held at a little beer bar in Hayward, it’s the flagship event in this year’s SF Beerfest. I would so be there if I could. But since I can’t, I’ll have to make do with a few Plinys and maybe a Racer X down at my local pub to wash away the grief.

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Vegan Jerkey

January 13, 2009

img_31891I know, it sounds like an oxymoron. Or the name of an indie band. But it’s a real product, available at a hippie grocery store near you. Vegan jerkey – now doesn’t that just sound temptalicious? Of all the mixed-up fake-meat products in the world, and there are plenty of them, from not-dogs to gardenburgers to smartbacon, this is perhaps the ultimate in faux-flesh merchandising for vegetarians who hate vegetables and secretly lust for meat. Or in other words, most of them.

Now I’ve been drying my own beef for years, and will freely admit to being something of a jerkey snob. I’m certainly no fan of the big commercial brands, chipped and molded into rubbery slabs, soaked in high-fructose corn syrup, and salted with a Jersey’s worth of preservatives. I’d like to be able to say that “Stonewall’s Spicy ‘Chicken’ Jerquee” was no worse than that. But I’d be a liar. A big, fat, meat-breathed liar. To my palate it was an abomination, with all the worst qualities of bad beef jerkey, compounded by a complete lack of beefiness. It had the texture of a pet treat, smelled like industrial solvents, and tasted like salty barf. But who am I to judge? To eliminate the subjective factor, I conducted an informal survey at my local  with what was left in the bag, and the results took me by surprise. Not everyone hated it – and I’m not just talking about vegans with their withered taste buds, who are used to everything tasting awful. Some meat-eaters considered it palatable, and a few actually thought it was pretty darn tasty.

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The Ghost of Christmas Present

December 26, 2008


Sure, there are lots of reasons to hate Christmas, and my list only grows longer with each passing year. Holiday e-cards, for instance, or Christmas-morning text messages on the olde cell phone – both make me want to toss my fruitcake. But on the other hand, there are plenty of reasons not to hate the Yule, even if you’re a mean little Scroogy McGrinch like me. Here’s my short list of 5 things I’m not completely hating about Christmas this year:

1. Hard Times. Believe it or not, our recent financial implosion is about the best thing to happen to Christmas since Prince Albert stepped out of his can and dragged a dead tree into Buckingham Palace. Mrs. M and I decided to give each other the gift of not buying gifts, with jolly good results. We used the time, money, and goodwill we saved to take in a few shows, jaunt off on a short roadtrip, and generally indulge each others’ whims. And this year we actually celebrated our wedding anniversary, which usually gets lost in the wrapping paper, with a fine dinner at Lalime’s on the 23rd. Sure, we bought a few presents for our daughter and her young man – I mean, Christmas is for kids, even when they’re 26 – and we mailed off some kitchen-crafted goodies to the diasporic family, but that was the full extent of our gifting this year. No receipts, no returns, no regrets – and no scary Visa bills in January. Read the rest of this entry »

Pitless Pit BBQ

November 14, 2008


If you’ve ever tasted pit BBQ – whether Hawaiian, Mayan, or Texan – you know there’s no better way to slow-cook a big slab of meat to tender deliciosity. There’s just one problem: digging a giant hole in your back yard. Unless you own a backhoe or know a lot of Samoans, it’s probably never going to happen. Which is why I’m all excited about this recipe, which delivers nearly identical results on a standard Weber grill.

The recipe is from one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan. She in turn credits it to her cousin, Jeff Chavarria. I say big props to the whole family, and you’ve got to give this a try next time you’re working the Q for a big group. It takes two days from start to finish but it’s oh-so worth it.

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The Swarm

July 23, 2008

What’s funnier than a guy in a bee suit? Eighteen people in bee suits! I’m serious, put eighteen bees on a yellow bus, run a few bars, and hilarity is bound to ensue. How do I know? I just know.


My dream-team bee-day Swarm convened at Pacific Coast Brewing in Oakland. Idling outside: the classic 1948 GMC motor coach of my good friend, Dr. Robert B. Flying in singly and in pairs: bees of every description; unshaven Belushi bees, south-of-the-border abejas locas, at least two queen bees, a dangerous Asian killer bee, a rare umpire bee, a sweat bee, a meat bee, and some punk bees striped in black duct tape.


After a few introductory beers and a quick stop at the nearby B Bar, the Swarm winged its way waterward for a private tasting and tour at the Linden Street Brewery. The proprietor, Adam, was so bee-struck that he not only poured gratis, but donated a keg for the bus. Bee-youtiful!  There’s nothing like free beer for washing down all those shots of Barenjaeger. On the sound system: seventeen variations on Flight of the Bumblebee. Get frantic, bee-yatch!


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