Carnitas Burrito: The Great American Dream

This was written before I became a vegetarian. Also before I discovered El Triunfo which, fortunately, is the closest Mexican restaurant to my apartment. Another fortunate twist is that Formaggio Kitchen in the South End carries mole powder.

Fri, 06/19/2009

In a global economy you would like to believe you can get anything anywhere. As much as I am a supporter of the buy local mantra there are some items from various regions around the world I must have to survive. One of those special delicacies is the seemingly elusive carnitas burrito. The topic comes to mind as I sit here masticating my Anna's carnitas super burrito. It gives me time to reflect on my seemingly impossible quest to find a carnitas burrito in Boston that I can love.

I have spent the last three months in Boston hearing the vast tales of deliciousness bestowed upon the patrons of Anna's Taqueria. Yet I have just now made my own Anna's run. I sit and watch the others spread about the dining area. A variety of young, old, single people, people in groups, men, women, large and small sit around. Some are just beginning to peel off the bright tin foil gift wrap in their hands; others sit to happily digest before heading out.. I hear a gentleman next to me encourage, who looks to be, his dad to rate the meal he just shoved into his face. The lad's bias comes into play when the question is posed, “9? Or maybe a 7?” The tonal qualities of the English language are stretched to the limit in his speech.

Before I get into the details of how I feel about Anna's I want to point out that I do not rate any place that offers burritos on any overall merits or on the taste of any other dishes. This is a single, pure, focused, holy challenge to find the best carnitas burrito. A carnitas burrito that drifts in my dreams. A carnitas burrito that I mark on my weekly calendar. Frankly, a carnitas burrito that can even come close to meeting the standards of Tito's Burrito on 3rd and Washington in downtown Portland, Oregon.

Tito's is the gold standard. The gateway burrito into a world of heavenly (or maybe hellish with their last paint job) delights. From this reference burrito I create a mental model of any carnitas burrito I encounter. First of all, at $5.25 the price point is amazing. I have to make some sacrifices being on the East Coast and price will have to be one of them. As long as the cost is reasonable I will not concern myself with my wallet when buying a decent burrito. Secondly, while holding the burrito in hand you can feel the weight. Tito's is a dense beast. It feels like a stout defensive lineman is in the plastic bag as I walk back to the office. Easily over a pound of food tightly wrapped in a tortilla. Tito doesn't mess around with filler. Though there are beans, seasoned rice and some sort of awesome sauce involving peas the meat to riff-raff ratio is precise.

Don't forget the incredible smell that wafts out of the tiny cart onto the urban street corner. It keeps all those business lunch breakers drooling as they wait with car exhaust only inches away. Finally, the carnitas itself is perfectly spiced, evenly shredded and, here's the magic, fried right before your hungry eyes to order. This, I believe, is the additional step the East Coasters do not know or refuse to make. It turns the really good pork into an inspirational mix of flavor and crunchiness. This model of greatness is the challenge for judging every bite I make at Anna's or any other supposed burrito maker.

Let's take a few steps back. Anna's was the first Mexican place I heard of in Boston, but definitely not the first place I tried a burrito. As I said before, I have been here for three months and my attempts have been whole hearted. I quickly found out that New England's Latino and Hispanic community hail mainly from Spain, the Caribbean and South America. Coming from the West Coast it is strange to hear Spanish from Spaniards instead of the Mexican dialect and speech pattern. Thus, several places I have tried venture away from the Mexican burrito and already, unfortunately, sit at a disadvantage.

I am employed by the Boston Veteran's Affairs Medical Center which is conveniently located away from a lot of dining options. Although there are several places that we can walk to if taking a slightly longer lunch. One such place in Jamaica Plain is a Salvadorian joint. Having been used to making lunch trips on foot in Portland, I figured this would be a good way to start. The bad omens started when the food took an exceptionally long time to get in my hands. The one lady behind the counter was swamped by customers and all the food was made to order. Not a good place for a quick work lunch but generally a cool place. The burrito, once I finally was able to eat, was not really filling. It was good... I guess. I haven't been back. The burrito itself was just not memorable, a quality that can be overshadowed by quantity – think Chinese food. I suppose if I wanted fresh Salvadorian this would be a good place to go, but I want a carnitas burrito, so this is considered a failure in that regard.

If I were to rate the qualities of Portland that make me homesick, Tito's for lunch would easily make top 5 status. I remember my days at Thetus when lunch time rolled around. For the most part we were busy and focused. People tended to lose track of time and forget that they needed a break to gain sustenance. One word could change a coder's eyes and ears. Often one would hear, “Tito's?” or “Carts?” around 12:30pm. The signal that it was time to grab some grub down the street. Cart City, as we liked to call it, is full of pretty good eating options. Some bright spots include Taste of Poland and Tabor, two Eastern European carts. Tito's cart was a few blocks removed but just as accessible. When we went to Cart City it was a variety of choice, but when we went to Tito's it was a particular decision. Note that Tito's 2 on Alder sucks and when Tito (well my former coworkers and I supposed him to be “The Man”) is on vacation, the cart is best avoided.

This is one of the reasons it took so long for me to finally head out to Anna's. It's not really close to home or work as I have to go up to Cambridge to get to one. Don't get me wrong, I like going up to Cambridge and Davis Square (where the Anna's I tried is located). It's just that when I do, getting a burrito happens to be omitted from the list.

Another nearby location for work is Baja Betty's. My coworkers enjoy this local chain and it is mentioned as our Friday lunch outing every so often. Not a bad choice but they unfortunately do not make carnitas. The good points are that what they have is decently tasty and their large burrito is filling. There are good qualities to Baja Betty's just not the qualities I want. There is also an issue with their crafting of a nice tight burrito. It is pretty sloppy eating here with juice dripping all over the place and a concentrated effort to not have the whole thing fall apart. I will always gladly go with my VA coworkers but a lot is left to be desired when referring back to my quest.

A tangent: where the hell can I get some mole sauce around here? While writing up my thoughts I realized that while I cannot find a decent carnitas burrito I have yet to see a mole burrito or dish on any menu. A good mole sauce is also to die for. The sweet, peppery, earthy flavor smothering chicken is absolutely making me hungry while I write about it. Carnitas I can learn to make but mole requires so many ingredients and preparation that it is a better purchase cost / time wise.

Next up is El Triunfo, conveniently located near my apartment on East Berkley. My thoughts on it can be summed up by its convenience. The carnitas is only boiled and I need to order multiple items to make a meal (the pupusas sound delicious). The other menu options are more interesting and I will go back just to get a Mexican kick or a quick meal but no carnitas for me here. One could suppose that this will lead me to finding something new to like but you don't tell King Arthur to go use a hatchet. So I must continue on my journey to find a carnitas I can crave.

A place I must mention but I have not yet partaken is Boloco. Their motto is “Inspired Burrito” and that just has made them lower priority. It's a chain, possibly local, that looks way too slick. I can't imagine them being much different than Qdoba or Chipotle. All fine establishments, unless you want a real carnitas burrito. I will try it sometime probably. I also recently heard a rumor about a rival to Anna's that is owned by a sibling of Anna's owner. I have just heard this recently so have no further details. Whiskey's is a pseudo-Western bar in town that offers a burrito on the menu. I did eat this while dining with a friend but I really don't remember anything about it. I remember eating a basket of French fries along with it so I can't imagine it was very filling. I just don't have any cohesive thoughts about it, which I am marking down as a negative.

I bet most Bostonians wouldn't guess the location of my current vote for best carnitas. Trident Booksellers & Cafe – yep a bookstore – has carnitas and it comes in the form of a hefty chimichanga. They don't just serve breakfast foods and sandwiches! The chimichanga is quite delicious and filling. Yet it lacks that specialness that makes it dreamy. Also one has to limit his or her intake of a giant fried burrito as they are quite the heart stopper. Trident also has free wireless utilizing their own connection, another Boston rarity. Though the stench on my clothes when I leave the café has me concerned. It smells like I just rubbed pork lard all over my jacket. Perfection is hard and this wonderful carnitas chimichanga just falls short.

A note about grease and fat. One negative of Tito's Burrito is that the grease consistency is volatile. It appears that getting the first burrito in a line of subsequent orders may find you with a fairly clean meal. Whereas later down the totem you may have a see through nub of a tortilla towards the bottom of the burrito because it all accumulates downward as you eat. I personally prefer the least greasy burritos I have had. The flavor of the marinated meat and sauce is already awesome. I have had coworkers desire the greasy ones but they fall into the fat is flavor crowd. To each his own. I feel tasty seasoned pork is in itself tasty enough.

Here I am at Anna's cleaning out the last ruminants of my latest purchase of hope. I lean back to gather my thoughts, the path that lead me to write this essay; it causes me to reflect on where I have been and how I want to handle the future of my carnitas quest. A little context before I opine on the highly recommended taqueria. Looking over the menu I found the obvious choice, the super burrito with carnitas. When the gentleman behind the food asked I told him give me everything including their spiciest salsa. To be honest, the weight in my hand was disappointing and I can think quite clearly after eating because of the lack of a food coma. Food comas being a desirable quality of a burrito meal. I gnashed every bit thoroughly letting my taste buds critique the whole spectrum in my mouth. It was, well, it is what it is. Nothing really wrong but nothing that special. With most all hyped products can you expect anything besides an anti-climatic outcome? A return trip to Anna's isn't ruled out, especially since I didn't even check to see if they had a mole-based option.

All in all my journey continues.

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