Burrito Bracket on the Radio!

Oops, forgot one important thing. Last week, Burrito Bracket did an interview with Mike Stephen and Andy Hermann of Outside the Loop Radio. They have a podcast available -- scroll down to November 9th (Episode #59) on the page I just linked you guys too.

I've actually done a decent about of radio before for my day job -- not that you could likely tell by listening to me -- but for some reason, talking about burritos had me a lot more nervous than talking about baseball. A big thank you to Mike and Andy for setting up a great interview.

Burrito Bracket on One-Week Break

Hi, all. We're taking this week off for a couple reasons:

1) Burrito Bracket has fallen way behind on some "real life" work.
2) Burrito Bracket has eaten way too many off-bracket burritos over the past several days. Of note: La Pasadaita's barbacoa, which I thought was so wonderful a couple of weeks ago, was a little bit off when I had it for dinner last night.

See you all next week.


El Taco Veloz [#2] defeats Picante Taqueria [#10]

Unlike other recent underdogs, Picante Taquera [reivew] turned out a burrito that exceeded expectations, but it wasn't enough to put it in striking distance of El Taco Veloz [review], which was en route to shattering De Pasada's record with a Burrito Breakdown score of 43.5.

Three of our final four taquerias are now established: Veloz, La Pasadita, and De Pasada. The last spot will be fought over by Irazu and Tecalitlan, which was the premier matchup of the second round all along. Any of our five remaining taquerias serve up good enough food to win the entire bracket, and there will be no easy decisions from here on out. Stay tuned.

Picante Taqueria: Round 2 Review

#10. Picante Taqueria
2016½ W. Division
Al Pastor Burrito
$4.95 (no extras)

Defeated #7 Chipotle in Round 1 [review]

All right, let's be perfectly honest here. There was pretty much no way that Picante Taqueria was going to defeat El Taco Veloz. Not after Veloz's spectacular showing earlier in the week, and not when Picante is such a bare-bones operation that they don't even have a seating area. Mathematically, this would have to be just about the best burrito I'd ever eaten for Picante to make up the points it's losing in the service and experience categories. So, Picante was a little bit of a lame duck heading into yesterday's visit. That doesn't mean that it's without its redeeming facets, however.

The Food: The way that I'd describe the food at Picante is "surprisingly good". Not great, but surprisingly good. All of their ingredients are of a fairly high quality (although the pork was sliced up thinner than in needed to be), and this burrito was proportionate and fresh-tasting. Their salsa is underrated, and their tortillas are above-average. Their pork al Pastor is a little toward the spicier side rather than the sweet side, but it's a pretty good blend, and as at Veloz the Pastor was accentuated by grilled onions.

One mild complaint: their burrito is a little sloppy, by which I mean that it isn't wrapped all that tightly and so the ingredients tend to slip out. This problem is a bit more acute because Picante is exclusively a take-out joint, and so if you decided to walk your burrito north a couple of blocks and eat it in Wicker Park, you'd inevitably wind up spilling some on yourself (those al Pastor stains are notoriously difficult to wash out!).

The Experience: There isn't any: Picante has no indoor seating area, and their outdoor seating area is closed for the season. The service experience, such as it is, is mixed. The turnaround time on my burrito was considerably quicker than on past visits. On the other hand, Picante gets a deduction because I asked for both hot and mild salsas and my take-out bag wound up containing only the hot.


El Taco Veloz: Round 2 Review

#2. El Taco Veloz
1745 W. Chicago
Al Pastor Burrito
$4.00 (no extras)

Defeated #15a Taqueria Trespasada in Round 1 [review]

I remember the moment that I first conceived of Burrito Bracket. It was in those halcyon days of late July, 2007. I was walking down Milwaukee Avenue, so sweaty from the 90-degree heat that my glasses kept slipping off my nose. I was a kid back then, looking for lunch in all the wrong places.

When the days grow shorter and colder, it helps to hold on to memories like this one, as a squirrel hoards nuts for the winter. It's always Daylight Savings Time when it hits me: the passing of the seasons. What bureaucrat was it decided that we needed less daylight in the middle of winter? He surely can't have been stationed in Chicago. It was cold and dusky by the time I left my apartment for a late lunch today, the sort of day that makes you want to hibernate, to subsist on a diet of cable television and takeout Chinese until the sun comes out again. No, not to give up the fight; but perhaps to take a rain check on dreams of finding the perfect burrito.

The Food: And then you sink your teeth into a burrito like this one, and you remember what the whole struggle was for. This was probably the single best item of food that we've tried in the Bracket to date. Let me count the ways.

First, there was the wonderful flavor of the pork al Pastor, a rich, sweet flavor -- a perfect autumn flavor. Second, there is Veloz's salsa, a complex, peppery blend that somehow defies description, but is instantly recognizable to the tongue. Third, there are the little extras. Veloz, like Dona Naty's, cooks its onions on the skillet with its pork, giving them a caramelized flavor, and for another unique touch, there is a container of pickled jalapenos sitting on the table. Fourth, there is the way that everything stays in balance. This burrito contained a large number of ingredients, flavors, and textures -- meat, beans, salsa, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, cheese in that perfect state of meltedness, the pickled jalapenos -- and yet no one taste overwhelms the others, and the burrito is the perfect size for a hearty lunch, rather than some supersized monstrosity.

The perfect burrito? Not quite. The meat itself was only of average quality, and while generally tender, its texture varied a bit from slice to slice. But for the grand total of $4.00, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better meal in the city.

The Experience: Anybody that calls Veloz a hole-in-the-wall doesn't know their holes from their walls. No, it isn't white tablecloth stuff, nor does Veloz get much light; there are no windows on either side of the dining area. But there's a kitschy, eccentric coziness to the interior, which this time was accentuated by a homemade mural of Halloween ghosts down the right-hand wall. The colorful lighting and equally colorful music from the jukebox are designed to get you to sit down and stay for a while. And the service is notably efficient, if a little informal.


De Pasada [#4] defeats Dona Naty's Taco [#12]

Thus far, our second round has been a little anticlimactic. La Pasadita was expected to defeat Arturo's Tacos, but the margin of victory was a little bit of a surprise. Likewise, we expected Dona Naty's Taco [review] to provide a formidable challenge to De Pasada [review], but it had an off-day whereas De Pasada was at the top of its game. In fact, De Pasada's composite score of 42 is the highest score recorded to date in the Burrito Bracket. Although that score strikes me as a little bit high -- purely in terms of the quality of the food, this torta wasn't quite as good as the one at Taqueria Trespada, for instance -- it goes to show you what can happen when you combine very good food with very good service.

This sets up a real grudge match between De Pasada and La Pasadita in the first of our Final Four matchups, two virtual next door neighbors with more shared history than you might assume at first glance (more on this in the coming days). The item for that match-up will be the Chicken Super Burrito, as we have not sampled the chicken at either establishment thus far (at least within the context of 'official' Burrito Bracket business). The super burrito -- as opposed to the simpler, regular burrito -- is one of De Pasada's strengths, and so this matchup should be closer to a toss-up than you might think.

Odds to Win Bracket

La Pasadita ............... 2-1
De Pasada ................. 3-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 3-1
Irazu ..................... 6-1
Tecalitlan ............... 12-1
Picante Taqueria ........ 100-1

Dona Naty's Taco: Round 2 Review

#12. Dona Naty's Taco
1813 W. Chicago
Torta de Milanesa
$3.49 (no extras)

Defeated #5 Taqueria Super Burrito in Round 1 [review]
Defeated #12b Carniceria Leon in Eat-in Match [review]

On its best days, Dona Naty's Taco can remind me of De Pasada. Both restaurants take their time, and put some extra care and forethought into how their food is prepared. In Dona Naty's case, that meant the spicy ground chicken mixture that made an extraordinary meal out of an ordinary chicken burrito, and the grilled onions that provided a little extra flair to its tacos al Pastor. It's those little things that had made Dona Naty's the lowest remaining seed to survive in the bracket. Unfortunately, this was not one of Dona Naty's best days.

The Food:
In a word? Meh. There were no signs of Dona Naty's subtle knack for innovation in this torta. In fact, it was one of the most ordinary dishes that we've tried so far. In contrast to De Pasada, which cut its steak into individual slices and breaded each one individually, Dona Naty's reverted to the standard route of providing one big "wafer" of meat. Although the breading was reasonably good, the meat was smashed so thin that you could barely even taste the animal product. Likewise, the toppings were a little lackluster. Whereas De Pasada's torta featured fresh guacamole, Naty's had ordinary avocado. And for some reason, the combination of the avocado plus the grated cheese, both of which were at refrigerator temperature, made the torta a little cold; the idea of the hot staying hot and the cool staying cool has been a dicey proposition ever since the McDLT was launched.

The Experience: Speaking of which, Dona Naty's service can run hot-and-cold. If you'll recall from Dona Naty's eat-in match two months ago, we encountered a waitress who was a little anglophobic. Maybe that's too strong a term, but considering that she didn't even try to take my order, instead having the counter guy do her dirty work for her, I don't know how else to characterize it. That pattern completely reversed itself in our Round 1 visit, when we had a pleasant, English-speaking waitress that made us feel right at home. This time around? Back to Mrs. No Habla Inglés, and her running point with the counter guy to have him take my order. To make clear: I'm not even asking for the courtesy of a waitress who tries to speak English. Rather, I'm asking for the courtesy of a waitress who lets me try and speak Spanish. If I'm completely embarrassing myself, then you can call the counter guy over to serve as an interpreter. Again, all of this was in stark contrast to De Pasada, which has perhaps the most welcoming service of any taqueria in Chicago.


De Pasada: Round 2 Review

#4. De Pasada
1108 N. Ashland
Torta de Milanesa
$3.75 (no extras)

Defeated #13 Mr. Taco's Restaurant in Round 1 [review]

When my parents were in town a couple weeks ago and they wanted to check out one of the taquerias from Burrito Bracket, the place I took them to was De Pasada. That does not necessarily mean that De Pasada is my favorite -- if I knew which one was my favorite, I would never have started Burrito Bracket in the first place. But it does mean that I wanted them to come away with a good experience -- and De Pasada was the choice for its exceptional consistency.

The Food:
Standard operating procedure when you order a milanesa torta -- and if you're new to the torta world, this is the kind of torta that you want to be ordering -- is to be presented with a large, amoeba-shaped piece of steak, brutally beaten down until it's thinner than Calista Flockhart, and coated with a light breading. Oftentimes, as in the case of this otherwise very good torta from Arturo's, the shape of the meat will not particuarly match the shape of the bread, leading to a sort of overbite effect.

At De Pasada, this is not a problem, because rather than giving you one big slab of meat, they instead give you a series of individual slices, all of which are breaded individually. This undoubtedly requires more preparation time than the common method, but careful preparation is what De Pasada is all about. And it really shows up in terms of the results: you can actually taste the steak and not just the breading, and you don't run into any tough or stringy portions like you might elsewhere.

De Pasada also has what might be the best salsa in Chicago, rating plenty high on the Scoville scale without blowing out its character. All the veggies and toppings are very fresh, particuarly the guacamole, which is a nice perk to have on a $3.75 torta. I wasn't in love with the bread, which was also very fresh but could have been somewhat toastier, but nevertheless this was an outstanding torta.

The Experience: De Pasada truly is a family affair -- I actually have a little bit of an inside scoop on this, which I'll present at a later time -- and that's reflected in most every aspect of the experience there. The service is warm, inviting, and for lack of a better term, motherly -- on a previous visit, I was commended when I returned by plate to the counter before I left, and told that my mom must have raised me well. Yes, you might have to put up with the fact that the 9-year-old son of the owner has decided to commandeer the TV and hook his XBOX up to it. But for this kind of quality, it's a small price to pay.


La Pasadita [#1] defeats Arturo's Tacos [#8]

... Wipe Out!.

In one of the most definitive (and least surprising) verdicts in Burrito Bracket history, La Pasadita [review] has defeated Arturo's Tacos [review] to advance to the Final Four. It's final score of 41.5 also ties it with ... itself ... for the highest overall score in the competition to date.

Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a juggernaut on our hands. The winner of next week's De Pasada - Dona Naty's match-up will do its best to unseat La Pasadita in Round 3.

Arturo's Tacos: Round 2 Review

#8. Arturo's Tacos
2001 N. Western
Barbacoa Tacos
3 @ $1.80 each + 45¢ sour cream each = $6.75

Defeated #9 Lazo's Tacos in Round 1 [review]

As a rule of thumb, there is an inverse relationship between the size of a restaurant's menu and the quality of its food. Case in point: consider The Cheesecake Factory, which has a menu the size of a phone book, versus Charlie Trotter's, which doesn't really even have a menu at all, but simply dictates to you what you're going to be eating that evening (possibly with substitutions for food allergies -- if they're in a good mood). Even within the realm of fast food, this principle largely holds true. Chains like In-and-Out Burger, Chipotle, and Potbelly Sandwiches focus on small, simple menus featuring well-sourced ingredients. As a result, there are more efficiencies in their food costs, keeping the menu more affordable, and the quality is considerably higher, enough so that even a self-proclaimed food snob like me will find himself eating there once in a while.

Arturo's Tacos has a very large, diner-style menu: the menu literally takes up the entire length of the wall of the establishment. Some things on its menu, things like the milanesa torta, are quite good. Other things on its menu, things like the barbacoa tacos that I ate today, perhaps should not be offered.

The Food: Well, these were certainly good-looking tacos. Arturo's is more cognizant of presentation than perhaps any other restaurant in the bracket save Tecalitlan, and that presentation extends both to its interior decoration and to the food itself. Aligned neatly on the plate, and accompanied by a lime wedge and the streaming sunlight of Armitage Avenue, my tacos were almost self-consciously photogenic --as opposed to La Pasadita's, which might generously be described as "fugly".

Unfortunately, there's no way around it. I have a soft spot for Arturo's Tacos -- I consider it to be a Chicago institution, and it has served up many a good meal to customers in a variety of states of sobriety. But these barbacoa tacos simply weren't any good. As you might infer, the primary problem as with the meat, which was overcooked, stringy, and had a rather unpleasant aftertaste; it seemed like it had been sitting in a vat for awhile. The tortillas were also a little too tough and the sour cream verged on being runny; just not a good experience all around. The salsa was redeemable, at least.

The Experience: On the other hand, good food or bad, at least Arturo's heart is in the right place. The interior of the restaurant is beautiful, with a slightly kitschy, almost grotesque aesthetic that is distinctive without being overdone. The service was extremely prompt -- it might not have been three minutes from the time I ordered my tacos to the time they were sitting in front of me. Although it looks like they've slightly upped the prices on their tacos recently, the operation is certainly endearing enough that it's earned a mulligan on a bad meal here and there. But this was one of those bad meals.

La Pasadita: Round 2 Review

#1. La Pasadita
1132 N. Ashland
Barbacoa Tacos
3 @ $1.55 each + 50¢ sour cream each = $6.15

Defeated #16 Flash Taco in Round 1 [review]

There once was a time when I was a little bit intimidated by La Pasadita. It wasn’t too hard to get over that, once I realized that their somewhat detached service is a necessity given how many customers they turn over every hour, and that the utilitarian preparation of their tacos and burritos – “yes” to onions and cilantro, “no” to anything else – is not because they forgot to buy grated cheese at the store, but because things taste better that way when you know how to
cook your meat.

Then there was a time that I was convinced that La Pasadita was a one-trick pony. Yes, their carne asada was probably the best in the neighborhood, and possibly the best in Chicago. But what about the rest of their menu? Once I moved closer to La Pasadita, however, enabling – nay, necessitating -- more frequent visits, I came to understand that nearly the entire range of their menu is quality. Tortas, tacos, and burritos were successfully tested; chicken, steak, and pork were obligingly tasted. There were visits to its take-out counter at 1 PM, and visits to its sit-down restaurant at 1 AM; the quality was the same.

La Pasadita’s barbacoa, however, was sort of the black sheep of the family. I had ordered their barbacoa once before, and remembered being a little underimpressed. But that was once and only once, and barbacoa was just one out of a medley of tacos I was having, and I was so hungry on that visit that I barely had the time to process what I was eating. So barbacoa would be a fair challenge for Pasadita -- if La Pasadita was going to stumble, it quite possibly was going to be here.

The Food: But stumble it did not. In fact, the barbacoa might be the best thing on La Pasadita’s menu.

Before we consider that proposition, let me detour a bit to explain my previous history with barbacoa. It is very limited. In fact, save for my one prior experience at La Pasadita, it had been limited to occasional visits to Chipotle, where barbacoa is one of the four primary meats that Chipotle serves on its menu. I always liked Chipotle’s barbacoa reasonably well, but there was something missing; it was a little too processed, too refined. And after this visit to La Pasadita, I discovered what that “something” is: the fat.

Barbacoa is generally made from head meat, quite often cheek meat, which means that in its natural form it’s going to contain quite a bit of fat. At Chipotle, however, the fat is sort of sanitized out. Consider the following, which is the percentage fat content of each of Chipotle’s four meats.

Barbacoa 11.4%

Carnitas 10.7%

Steak 10.7%

Chicken 9.8%

You’ll notice that the ratios for the four products are all about the same. That strikes me as a little unnatural. Meats like barbacoa and carnitas ought not to contain just a little more fat than chicken; they ought to contain a lot more fat. I suspect this is so because Chipotle is trying to keep their calorie counts low for health-conscious consumers, but the thing is, the fat content from the meat is not really where the problem lies. Let’s say that you order a barbacoa fajita burrito at chipotle, accompanied by corn and red tomatillo salsas, cheese, and sour cream. According to chipotlefan.com, that burrito will cost you 1313 calories. How many of those calories are from the barbacoa itself? Only 285; about 80% of the calorie count comes from all those other toppings that Chipotle is piling on. So their approach to cooking is sort of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Now let’s return to the world of La Pasadita. Their barbacoa is fatty. In fact, it’s wonderfully fatty – rich, tender and succulent. It reminds me of two of my favorite dishes on any menu in Chicago: the short ribs at sola, and the slab bacon at Bluebird. It hits that perfect note of being a little bit indulgent, while still being consumable in large portions. And the thing is, since La Pasadita doesn’t load up its tacos with all the other crap that Chipotle does, I would guess that its calorie count is still much, much lower. Their barbacoa is not something that you’d want to eat every day, exactly, but it’s giving you much better bang on your buck.

I did cheat a little bit by ordering sour cream on my tacos. Actually, this was somewhat unintentional; I asked my waitress for sour cream on one of my tacos as a sort of experiment, but something was lost in translation and it came on all three. Good thing it did, because the sour cream was a natural complement to the zesty meat, and something that I’d recommend highly with this dish. Pasadita also has three kinds of salsa available – the pico de gallo was a little bit off, overly salty and not especially fresh, but both the green and the mysterious black salsas were very good. Finish off with ample helpings of onion and cilantro, and you’ve got a gourmet-quality meal on your hands for barely more than six dollars.

The Experience: For this visit, I went to the “full service” location at 1132 N. Ashland. The largest of Pasadita’s three neighboring storefronts, La Nueva is also the most chaotic, since it has the most comprehensive menu and is also processing considerable take-out business. It helps to know the ropes a little bit. When you’re ready to eat, just sit down – no need to hang out at the counter. And when you’re ready to leave, just head to the counter – no need to hang out at your table, since the waitresses seem to have a magical ability to arrive at the cash register exactly when you do, and remember exactly what you ordered. It’s chaos – but it’s organized chaos. That’s not to say the service is overtly friendly, but it’s as friendly as it needs to be. My only minor complaints really where the mix-up over the sour cream, and the volume of the music, which was turned up loud enough that there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to check my voicemail while waiting for my tacos.


Elite Eight Preview

With apologies to Taqueria Trespasada, and to a lesser extent Carncierias Guanajuato and Taco & Burrito Express, all of which I would recommend to one degree or another, things are going to get much more interesting now that we've advanced into the second round, and weeded out some of the weaker taquerias in our bracket. Following is the world's briefest -- and hopefully only -- preview of my next eight lunch dates.

#1. La Pasadita versus #8 Arturo's Tacos

Barbacoa Tacos

This will be our first and perhaps only venture into barbacoa in the bracket; the secret ingredient was originally supposed to be al pastor, until I realized that La Pasadita did not carry pastor on its menu. It's that barbacoa that throws a little bit of a wild card into this matchup, since it's something that involves careful preparation and a house recipe that can differ significantly from taqueria to taqueria. The two things we can say almost for sure about La Pasadita are that (1) everything on its menu is good; (2) nothing on its menu is as good as its carne asada. How we resolve the tension between those two platitudes is going to go a long way toward determining the outcome here. That is not to say that what Arturo's does is unimportant -- it surprised us once before by turning out a very solid torta in Round 1. But this is still La Pasadaita's match-up to lose.

Vegas Odds: La Pasadita is a 5-1 favorite.

#4. De Pasada versus #12 Dona Naty's Taco
Torta de Milanesa

These restaurants remind me a lot of one another -- both are tremendously friendly family businesses that are overshadowed by flashier neighbors (La Pasadita in De Pasada's case, and Taco Veloz for Dona Naty's). I would not read very much into Dona Naty's #12 seed -- it has already won twice, first in its eat-in match where it delivered pastor tacos that were worthy of our Honor Roll, and then with a chicken burrito in Round 1 that wasn't that far behind. Still, De Pasada is nothing if not consistent, and tortas have not been a particular strength of Dona Naty's on past visits.

Vegas Odds: De Pasada is a 5-2 favorite.

#2. El Taco Veloz versus #10 Picante Taqueria
Al Pastor Burrito

This is probably the biggest mismatch of the second round, at least on paper. Both Veloz and Picante exceeded expectations in the first round -- but for Veloz, those expectations had been very high, whereas for Picante they had been quite low. Veloz also has something of a structural advantage in the non-food categories, and the weather could be a factor -- we'll be into November by the time this match-up occurs, and if God has thrown off the global warming switch and restored Chicago's weather to what it normally should be this time of year, it's not going to be much fun eating at Picante's outdoor patio.

Vegas Odds: El Taco Veloz is a 9-1 favorite.

#3 Tecalitlan versus #6 Irazu
Chicken Tacos

Irazu was unambiguously better in the first round, crushing Lobos al Fresco while Tecalitlan barely skated by Carnicerias Guanajuato. Indeed, Irazu is probably the favorite in spite of its lower seed. But I'm not sure that chicken is going to play to Irazu's strengths, since most of its dishes are either meat- or vegetarian-based. Tecalitlan, meanwhile, as one of the more gringo-friendly restaurants in the bracket, and ought to know how to keep us white boys happy by serving up some good chicken. This is definitely the signature matchup of the second round.

Vegas Odds: Irazu is a 4-3 favorite

Odds to Win Bracket

La Pasadita ............... 2-1
El Taco Veloz ............. 3-1
De Pasada ................. 5-1
Irazu ..................... 6-1
Tecalitlan ............... 10-1
Dona Naty's Taco ......... 20-1
Arturo's Tacos ........... 50-1
Picante Taqueria ........ 100-1

The main changes here are Veloz and Irazu moving upward and Tecalitlan moving downward, based on their respective performances in Round 1. I've also shortened Pasadita's odds slightly after several positive "off-bracket" experiences, but it is by no means a shoo-in. Who do you like? Who are you rooting for?


Irazu [#6] defeats Lobos Al Fresco Tacos [#11]

Since this result was both relatively clear and relatively predictable, let's keep this as simple as possible: Irazu [review] has defeated Lobos Al Fresco Tacos [review], and advanced to the next round. It also recorded a convincing score of 40, which is enough to register it for our newly-created Honor Roll (see right-hand column, and note that some scores on the Honor Roll have been added retroactively).

Look for a preview of the "Elite Eight" matchups and a bit of dish from an inside source, all to come at some point this weekend.

Lobos Al Fresco Tacos: Round 1 Review

#11. Lobos Al Fresco Tacos
1732 N. Milwaukee
Carne Asada Burrito
$6.25 (no extras)

This is sort of a bittersweet day for Burrito Bracket, because it marks the end of the first round, and therefore also the last "undiscovered" taqueria in Wicker Park. Destiny is now manifest, every corner of the map has now been filled in, and if I want a new taco joint, I'll have to move to San Francisco -- or at least to Pilsen. Today's entrant, Lobos Al Fresco Tacos, was a particuarly appropriate way to end things, because having opened quite recently, it was one of the few taquerias in the bracket that I'd never tried. And so the sense of discovery was preserved, at least for one more day.

The Food: Generally speaking, Lobos al Fresco causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. It has an upscale name and an upscale menu -- most of its items are full dinner plates priced at $10 to $15, rather than tacos and burritos -- but the interior looks like a renovated burger joint, which is in fact exactly what it is. And it's owned and operated by somebody named Yebel Shlimovitch, which I'm assuming is not a Mexican surname.

The food provokes a similar reaction. My first taste of Lobos was its unique and somewhat wonderful salsa that came with my chips and salsa; a rich orange in color, it had a 'creeper' spiciness that bore the distinct mark of habanero peppers. And when my burrito arrived, my first impression that it was excellent, perhaps even competitive with Irazu's entry from earlier in the week. Accessorized with a nicely-seasoned brown rice and both black and pinto beans, and dribbled with a little bit of that orange salsa, it certainly had its own special character.

Upon further review, however, I found the burrito to be a victory of style over substance. The primary problem was simply with the steak, which as Time Out Chicago's David Tamarkin had warned, was bland and underseasoned. Another problem was the texture: the steak was diced up too thinly, almost producing the character of ground beef, which cheapened what seemed otherwise like a pretty good cut of meat. And eventually, all the rice and beans produced a bit of a carb overload, making the burrito go down heavy. This didn't render the burrito inedible by any means -- I will give Lobos another try. But ultimately I agree with Mr. Tamarkin's conclusion: there's some unrealized potential here.

The Experience: As its name would imply, the real attraction of Lobos Al Fresco is in its small, triangularly-shaped outdoor dining area, which might not overlook the prettiest streetscape in the world, but has to be a nice option on a pleasant summer's day; a little bit too cool for that this time of year, unfortunately. My young server was prompt and friendly, checking in multiple times to see whether I needed refills on my salsa (yes) and cola beverage (no). But the interior of the restaurant is compact, and I overheard a little bit more chatter than I needed to about everything ranging from the previous customer to where they were going to buy their tomatoes.


Irazu: Round 1 Review

#6. Irazu
1865 N. Milwaukee
Carne Asada Burrito
$5.00 (plus avocado, sour cream @ 50
¢ each = $6.00 total)

There are certain days when the Burrito Bracket is a bit of a chore. The grind of mediocre experiences at grungy supermarkets and soulless chain restaurants was beginning to wear on me. But not so today. The first thing I thought when I woke up this morning was "I'm going to go get a big yummy burrito at Irazu".

Irazu, an unpretentious, ramshackle little eatery near the Western Blue Line stop, is one of the worst-kept secrets in Chicago. Its specialty is Costa Rican food rather than Mexican, which explains its relatively low seed (and why I nearly forgot to include it in the competition). However, it does maintain a small menu of "traditional" Mexican fare, including a few items that qualify covertly; its famous Pepito sandwich is for all intents and purposes a torta. And though I'd never tried Irazu's burritos, everything else on its menu has been uniformly excellent. So my expectations were quite high.

The Food: I can understand why my vegetarian friends like Irazu so much. This burrito is bursting at the seams with color -- the lush red of the tomatoes, the tropical green of the avocado, the tapestry of browns from the protein. You just know that the flavor is going to be good, and it does not disappoint. The tomatoes in particular were incredibly ripe and tasty, the avocado was fresh, and the beans were outstanding, with a little bit of sugary sweetness. 90% of the time, it's the meat that makes a burrito. This was that rare exception; it's the veggies and the produce that stand out. I want to know where Irazu does its shopping, because they sure as hell aren't getting those tomatoes at Jewel.

Not that the steak was anything to sneeze at. Irazu serves many varieties of dinner plates centered around steak, and the meat was lean and tender. It was also, to my taste, a little bit underseasoned. Costa Rican food, like most Latin American food, tends to be a significantly milder than Mexican fare, and this might be a relic of that. However, Irazu also takes something of a DIY philosophy: you can add the spice yourself. The salsa, particuarly the verde, is almost pure spice. Eaten with your chips and salsa, it's a little lacking in depth (it's also a little runny). It's a fine compliment, however, to the burrito. Irazu also provides the option of ordering your burrito with roasted hot peppers. I opted in, of course, and these were a nice perk, although there could have been a couple more of them. (Irazu also has several items that prominently feature plantains, which could create some other intriguing permutations. Then again, I'm the sort of person that falls for the sweet-and-savory trick every time, and thinks that pineapple is an excellent pizza topping).

Anyway, we're drifting away from the main point, which is that this burrito works together harmoniously -- it scores well on that mysterious "balance/composition" attribute that we were discussing last week. The only mild complaint is that it does suffer from a little bit of the Chipotle Effect, meaning that the ingredients aren't really mixed together. This frankly makes for more attractive presentation, but it also means that you're going to get some meat-heavy bites and some veggie-heavy bites.

The Experience: My server today, who was sort of a Costa Rican hipster, was awesome. He really seemed to be invested in the quality of the food, and he was helpful and efficient while remaining low-key and out of the way, which can be a hard balance to maintain at those awkward hours when you don't have many customers in your dining area (I was one of just two tables eating in at about 4 PM today). He was also evidently having a little bit of fun with the music, mixing in traditional Latino music with Tutti Frutti. The dining area itself is also fairly pleasant, featuring a large, somewhat hokey mural of a pastoral Costa Rican scene, although it's an old building and on past visits has had some problems with temperature regulation (being either too hot or too cold). Keep in mind when we grade out Irazu later this week that the ratings are particular to this visit and this visit only. Although the service has never been rude, it inevitably loses some ground once the restaurant gets busier, which it usually does by dinner time.


Tecalitlan [#3] defeats Carnicerias Guanajuato [#14]

This feels kind of lame.

When I started the Burrito Bracket a couple of months ago, I declared the following about the judging criteria:

"[T]he scoring will be determined almost exclusively based on the taste and quality of the food; things like service, "atmosphere" and price will only be used as tiebreakers".

Since then, I've altered my focus a bit, writing extensively about the non-food portions of the burrito experience, and introducing the Burrito Breakdown, which attempts to put things into slightly more scientific context.

The bottom line is that the way I'm striving to evaluate this contest is something like this. A stranger walks up to me on the street. He tells me he wants a burrito. He tells me he's trying to decide between two places, and they're exactly the same distance away. He asks me for a recommendation.

If that stranger walked up to me today on the corner of Division and Wood, and told me that he was trying to decide between Tecalitlan [review] and Carnicerias Guanajuato [review], I'd hesitate for a bit, and tell him to go to Tecalitlan.

Now suppose I knew this person a little better. Suppose this person was a friend of my mom's, who hadn't eaten at a Mexican restaurant apart from Chi-Chi's in the past five years. I'd tell her to go to Tecalitlan without hesitation. Suppose instead that it was my burritophile friend who didn't give a shit about service. I'd tell him to go to Guanajuato. But by the "passerby test"? The reasonable man test? It would be Tecalitlan by a nose. The food might be a little better at Guanajuato, but just not quite enough to outweigh Tecalitlan's other advantages.

I do think, however, that the Burrito Breakdown needs to be brought slightly more into proportion with this subjective sort of judgment. Therefore, I am introducing a new category which slants things slightly more toward the food side. This category is called "Construction/Balance", and it deals with how well the burrito is put together. Maybe all the ingredients themselves are pretty good, but they're not put together in the right proportion? Maybe the way that the burrito is structured, it's inherently going to be pretty messy? Maybe one burrito is more than the sum of its parts and another one is less so? That sort of thing goes into Construction/Balance. And it's sort of an important category here, in that it was something of a problem at Tecalitlan; their burrito was overstuffed with meat, and harder to consume as a result.

Add all that together, and Guanajato gains some ground, but it still loses to Tecalitlan by half a chili pepper, confirming my intuition from the passerby test:

You'll see, by the way, that I've introduced half-chili scores to provide for a bit more discretion in my rating formula. I've also assigned letter grades -- if you're really curious about how these are derived, please see the comments section.

Anyway, Tecalitlan stays alive -- by the thinnest of margins. It's going to have it's work cut out for it if it wants to beat Irazu/Lobos in Round 2.


Carnicerias Guanajuato: Round 1 Review

#14a. Taqueria Guanajuato @ Carnicerias Guanajuato
1438 N. Ashland
Chorizo Burrito
$3.64 (no extras)

Defeated #14b Carniceria Laura in Eat-in Match [review]

Not to worry. I'm not burned out on burritos. But you have to understand that I sometimes consume "off-bracket" burritos for lunch or dinner on days when there's no competition to resolve in the bracket. Most often these are from La Pasadita, because it's close and open late, or Taco and Burrito Express, because it's even closer and open just as late. The last week or so had featured an unusually high amount of off-bracket consumption, and so I needed to take a couple of days off before I got around to the review of Carnicerias Guanajuato.

In retrospect, I regret that I had the three-day break between reviews, because this has turned out to be the most difficult verdict that we've had yet in the Burrito Bracket. In fact, as of this writing, I'm not really sure how I'm going to resolve it. Eating the burritos on back-to-back would have left my memory a little fresher, and made this easier to decide.

The Food: This was good chorizo. Just the right amount of spice, with no one "signature" flavor but everything staying in very good balance. Similarly, Guanajuato's chorizo had good texture, coarser than the stuff we got at Tecalitlan, which resembled ground beef, but not lumpy like during Taqueria Traspasada's disappointing performance. The burrito also stayed in better balance than Tecalitlan's -- it was still stuffed full of meat, but not so much that you couldn't taste the other ingredients, or that it lost its structural integrity.

Once you get away from the meat, however, there were a few issues. A couple of the tomatoes were a little stale. Guanajuato includes avocadoes in their burritos, which is a nice touch, but they weren't particuarly fresh; I actually mistook them for egg at first (it's fairly common for eggs to be mixed in with chorizo). The tortilla did not have the nice toasty flavor that we got at Tecalitlan, and the salsa was just average. None of these things were enough to undermine the overall burrito experience, but they result in point deductions here and there.

The Experience: Guanajuato had some significant problems with the cleanliness of its seating area last time around, and fortunately those were not really replicated on this visit. There was still a stray bottle of salsa that could have been picked up, and one or two salsa stains on the counter, but it wasn't outside the boundaries of normal taqueria clutter. The service can be a little aloof to an English speaker, but it's also reasonably efficient: there were two orders that were placed at just about the same time as mine, and they all got out pretty quickly with an assist from one of the guys from the carniceria counter.

Still, it was not a match for the service at Tecalitlan, so what we're left to weigh is a small, but material edge in the food category for Guanajuato, against a larger edge in the experience category for Tecalitlan. This is sort of my worst bracket nightmare. If Guanajuato's kitchen had been as messy as it was last time, that would almost certainly have disqualified it. On the other hand, if those veggies in its burrito had been just a little better, that would probably have been enough to overcome any advantage in the service category and propel it into the second round. Instead, it winds up right at that cusp where I'm left to do a lot of thinking about just how to weigh the different factors that go into the burrito experience. I'm going to have to pause to think about this one for a while, and all options are on the table, including potentially an overtime round.


Tecalitlan: Round 1 Review

#3. Tecalitlan
1814 W. Chicago
Chorizo Burrito
$4.95 (plus 40¢ sour cream = $5.35 total)

Think comfort. As in comfort food in a comfortable environment. I was a little bit reluctant to include Tecalitlan in the bracket at first, on the theory that it just seemed too darn nice. It's the only restaurant we've been to so far where you actually have to wait to be seated, for instance, and the only one where the waiters are dressed in full uniform, including ties. But then I came to my senses and realized that there's nothing wrong with a little extra style -- provided that you aren't paying through the nose for it. You can go all upscale at Tecalitlan if you like, paying for $16 seafood dishes and $6 margaritas ... but you can also order a chorizo burrito for less than $5 and feed yourself for about a week. It's sort of like the heart of a little taqueria trapped within the body of one of those fancy dives on Wells Street.

The Food: When I encounter a burrito as large as the ones that you'll get at Tecalitlan, I've gotten into the habit of cutting it in half. This is partly to increase its photographic value, and partly to make it a little bit less intimidating to consume. When I did this today, I immediately realized that I'd made a mistake: about half the finely-ground chorizo came tumbling out, like candy out of a piñata. Really, though, the mistake might have been ordering a chorizo burrito to begin with. Chorizo is a fine ingredient for tacos, and a fine complement to any number of Latin dishes that run the gambit from breakfast to dessert. As the primary filling in a burrito, however, it tends to create some problems with structural integrity.

So, forgiving the fact that this burrito was a big holy mess that required the use of a knife and fork to consume, it was a pretty tasty affair. Tecalitlan's chorizo has a distinct and attractive flavor, tending toward the sweet side rather than spicy, with tastes of both paprika and cinnamon. It was also sort of mixed together with the refried beans into one continuous whole, which tended to reinforce the sweetness. The quality of the meat itself was decent, but it was perhaps ground up a little too finely to optimize texture. The tortilla was a strength -- thin and just slightly crispy. But the house salsa, a sort of spiced up pico de gallo, while very fresh-tasting and quite a nice complement to the free tortilla chips, was a little bit too weak to do much to augment the stronger flavors of the chorizo.

All in all, it was an above-average burrito that would be easy to mistake for excellent an one under the influence of a few of Tecalitlan's potent margaritas. But I suspect that it's not the best item on their menu, nor does it rank with the 'elite' dishes that we've tried in the competition so far (Traspasada's torta, Dona Naty's al Pastor, and La Pasadita's carne asada are clearly in the elite group; El Taco Veloz's chorizo tacos were close).

The Experience: This is where Tecalitlan really distinguishes itself; you're getting a more professional service experience for no more than you'd pay elsewhere. Particular bonus points go to the complimentary chips, which were perhaps the freshest that we've tried so far. My waiter seemed slightly surprised that I'd left about one-third of my burrito unfinished -- I can't really understand that reaction, since this burrito was easily big enough to satiate two normal-sized adults -- but he offered to wrap the rest of it up for me to go, which is always a nice thing to do.

Tecalitlan's interior is beautiful, atmospheric without being overwrought, the highlight of which is a fresco-style painted ceiling. The seating area is probably more designed for couples and groups than it for lone hungry wolves on their lunch break, but the bar area and the takeout counter represent alternatives, and you'll wind up feeling a little bit spoiled either way.


Carnicerias Guanajuato [#14a] defeats Carniceria Laura [#14b]

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is an infographic worth? We'll go ahead and run a breakdown, even though this one was really no contest. All Carncieras Guanajuato [review] had to do to defeat Carniceria Laura [review] was basically to be edible, and it managed to do that.

A couple of notes on the grades you see above:

  • Close decision between three and four chilis in the Flavor/Seasoning category for Guanajuato. The carnitas were certainly a bit oversalted, but I'm somewhat more inclined to excuse this after our experience today.
  • I'm awarding Guanajuato zero chilis in the Atmosphere/Decor category because it was not cleanly on this visit. The atmosphere itself isn't inherently all that terrible, with all the zany, colorful displays throughout the supermarket. At Laura, on the other hand, you're really sort of stuffed into the back behind a couple of aisles for cleaning products ... it is decidedly uncomfortable.
  • I sort of glossed over this in my review, but Guanajuato's tortillas were really quite special, with almost sort of a buckwheat flavor. They were a little different, but in a good way, and their texture was excellent.
  • The total score of 16 for Carniceria Laura is really quite low. If I went back and applied a rating to Flash Taco and Lazo's Tacos, our worst efforts in the bracket before today, they would probably have received a 19 and an 18 respectively.
Carncierias Guanajuato will have a much tougher foe next week, in the form of #3 seed Tecalitlan.

Carniceria Laura: Eat-in Match Review

#14b. Carniceria Taqueria y Fruteria Laura
1051 N. Ashland
Carnitas Tacos
3 @ $1.25 each = $3.75 (no extras)

The idea of having a lunch counter at the same place you have a meat counter is pretty darned logical. In Anglo culture, we have our version in the deli. They have a bunch of fresh meats and cheeses. You can either take some home, or you can have them prepare a sandwich right there in front of you! Either way, you're consuming the same high-quality product.

Why is it, then, that the performance of the carncerias-slash-taquerias in the Burrito Bracket has been underwhelming? Carniceria Leon's al Pastor was overpriced and not much better than passable. Carnicerias Guanajuato did have some things to recommend it, but also some things to disrecommend it. So Carniceria Laura, which I "discovered" on a whim a couple of months ago, was sort of carrying the banner for the genre. And to put it bluntly, if this is the alternative, the carnicerias and taquerias probably ought to break up and throw away one another's phone numbers.

The Food: We're going to keep this fairly brief, on the theory that if you can't say anything nice ... I knew from the start that it was going to be a little bit of a challenge to eat these puppies*. They had a somewhat off-putting smell ... the meat wasn't rancid or anything, but it certainly wasn't at its peak of freshness. The seasoning wasn't adequate. I can't believe I'm saying this after Carnciera Guanajuato's sodium bomb, but they really could have used some more salt; if nothing else this might have helped the meat to preserve a little better. Moreover, the pork was dry, overcooked, and tough, and its texture was inconsistent and unattractive (see close-up below). Even the tortillas were a little off, being somewhat too tough in places.

Basically, since I was pretty darned hungry, the strategy was to douse these tacos in salsa and make it through as far as I could, which was about one-and-a-half tacos worth.

The Experience: Carnciera Laura is considerably smaller and less well-trafficked than Carnicerias Guanajuato, and the small taqueria in the back of the establishment was not even staffed when I got there. It took about five minutes for somebody to show up and take my order. So immediately I had the impression that the taqueria was sort of an afterthought for them; its function seemed to be as a place for the leftovers from the butcher counter. The quality of the tacos today did nothing to disconfirm that notion.

Possible that it just had a bad day? This is always a possibility when you eat out. But with La Pasadita, De Pasada, and Taqueria Traspasada all within a two-block walk, there's no reason to roll the dice.

* "Puppies" is used idiomatically in this context. I think.


Carnicerias Guanajuato: Eat-in Match Review

#14a. Taqueria Guanajuato @ Carnicerias Guanajuato
1438 N. Ashland
Carnitas Tacos
3 @ $1.60 each = $4.80 (no extras)

My friend Jason talks fondly of his quest to find the best torta in Mexico City, one which ended in an odd, overcrowded, triangularly-shaped supermarket that contained a small taqueria stuffed into the back of the store. That's what I think of every time I step into Carncierias Guanajuato. It's like something out of an Anthony Bourdain special on the Travel Channel, full of brightly-colored sigange for products that you've never heard of, stuffed to the rafters with bottles of Jarritos and cans of beans; and featuring a meat counter, fresh produce area, and taqueria all tucked into a store that might have one-fourth the square footage of the Jewel-Osco down the block. You're not at Walmart anymore, Dorothy.

Somebody who had walked into Guanajuato on accident might find the supermarket part pleasant enough, but he would certainly be put off by the kitchen. Think empty bottles of salsa lying limply on the tables, and unbussed baskets piling up, and families of eight holding court in the center of the seating area. Naturally, all of this led to the conclusion that the food must be absolutely spectacular. Más sucio, más autentico!

The Food: Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, talked about the Coke-Pepsi Paradox. If you have people sip from a urine-cup sized sample of Pepsi and then one of Coke, most people will prefer the Pepsi. But if you ask people whether they prefer Coke to Pepsi, most people say Coke, and Coke outsells Pepsi year after year. The paradox is not resolved by the fact that Coke has superior marketing to Pepsi, or anything like that. Rather, the catch has to do with the way those taste tests are administered -- you're only trying a couple sips of each drink. Pepsi is sweeter, which tends to be more appealing when it first hits your palate. But by the time you're finished with a whole can, that sweetness has become a little saccharine.

I was reminded of this today when eating my carnitas tacos. The first few bites were wonderful. The salsa is spicy, the meat is salty, the onions are sour, the cilantro is bitter, and the torillas have a slightly sweet, mealy character. All of the taste centers on your tongue are stimulated. For that matter so are the ones in your nose, since these tacos have a distinct, but relatively appealing odor that tends to linger on your fingers after the fact.

By the time I was finished with my third taco, however, one of these tastes had prevailed, which is the salt of the carnitas. Carnitas by their nature are salty, and Guanajuato's helpings are generous, so this was perhaps an inevitable problem. Nevertheless, it was a little bit much by the end, especially after I'd encountered a big chunk of fatty pork in my third taco. I'm not saying that Guanajuato's carnitas are to be avoided. On the contrary, the quality of the meat, which must be sourced directly from the deli counter, is quite high. And the first bite is worth a visit unto itself. But rather than getting three carnitas tacos, you're best off mixing-and-matching one of them with two of another variety.

The Experience: As I've intimated, Guanajuato's seating area was flat out dirty at this time of this visit, about 5 in the afternoon. This hasn't been such a problem when I've visited in the past, but the trash must pile up over the course of the day, and it's certainly being created faster than it's being cleaned up. We might need to create a new category for comfort/cleanliness in the Burrito Breakdown. The rest of the service experience wasn't really a plus either. The counter guys seemed distracted, and at different times ran out of change and ran out of salsa bottles, one of which I had to retrieve from an abandoned table. The polite way to put this is that Guanajuato isn't passing along much in the way of overhead costs -- you can get tacos as cheap as $1.00 or tortas as cheap as $1.95. And the food is still quite good on balance. But it's not a taqueria for beginners.

Edit: This post was originally labeled as a "Round 1 review", but in fact it's the last of our three eat-in matches. Guanajuato's opponent this week is another supermarket, Carniceria Laura. The winner of this week's match will face Tecalitlan next week in Round 1 proper.


Burrito Bracket Gets Its First Free Taco (Still Working on Burrito)

Burrito Bracket has now earned exactly one dollar and sixty cents in advertising revenues, which should be just enough to buy me a taco at Dona Naty's. This next taco is on you, readers!


Picante Taqueria [#10] defeats Chipotle [#7]

Although Chipotle [review] was not a real threat to win the bracket, its getting upended by Picante Taqueria [review] in Round 1 has to be considered a minor upset. Let's go to the breakdown:

This all boils down to Chipotle's one unpardonable sin, which was using a clunky, overthick, doughy and flavorless flour tortilla for their soft tacos. For a burrito, this might have been fine ... but the rule of thumb in the bracket is that only performance in the round in question counts. Chipotle just did not offer the better experience this time around, even with their structural advantages in the service categories. In fact, the 1-chili margin for Picante somewhat overstates the closeness of this decision.

Thus, Picante Taqueria advances into the second round, where it will have to be at the absolute top of its game to defeat El Taco Veloz.


Picante Taqueria: Round 1 Review

#10. Picante Taqueria
2016 ½ W. Division
Chicken Tacos
3 @ $1.80 each = $5.40 (no extras)

I thought that Picante Taqueria would make a good pairing for Chipotle, because these are the two restaurants in the bracket that were created more or less unapologetically by white people and for white people. In Picante's case, the denomination seems to be South Side Irish, judging by the accents (Chi-KAA-go) and the fact that you can sometimes buy White Sox tickets with your burritos. Picante even riffs on the fact their clientele is a bit melanin-challenged, by offering something called the "White Boy Tacos" -- a Taco Bell style creation featuring a hardshell tortilla and ground beef. I had to defer on the Whiteys for the time being because today's item is chicken, but surely they'll provide a good nightcap on an evening to be named later.

The Food: Pretty, pretty, pretty good. Picante must know that white boys like their chicken, because they took a lot of care in preparing it. The flavor of the meat is excellent, seasoned with the right amount of salt and pepper and maintaining a strong grilled flavor. The meat also tasted like it must have been marinated in something, because there were some overtones of citrus. It was all white meat too, diced up into presentable little chunks.

The tortillas were also a strong point, especially after Chipotle's grievous error of serving flour tortillas. They had a fair amount of character, with a fresh corn taste and a little but of flakiness to them; the only issue was that they tended to adhere a little bit to the wax paper that the tacos were wrapped in. The green salsa was also above-average, and complimented the chicken particularly well. On the other hand, the garnishes were a little weak. They were fresh enough and everything, but I've gotten used to having my tacos with onions and cilantro, and you had to look hard to find either of those ingredients on these tacos; instead they were loaded up heavy on tomatoes and lettuce.

The Experience: "Is that to go or to go, sir?". Picante's address is 2016 ½ West Division, which tells you everything that you need to know. It's literally a hole in the wall, not even big enough to maintain its own address. As a consequence of this, there is no indoor seating area at all. Instead, there is a set of seven or eight tables outside if you want to go al fresco. In the summertime, this might be considered an asset -- you do get a nice view of Division Avenue -- and on a comfortable, breezy afternoon like today, it was all well and good enough. But God forbid that Picante advances in the bracket, and we have to do another review in November or something. How much to hold this against Picante is hard to say -- the Burrito Bracket is mostly about the food -- but surely it has to result in a deduction of a couple of points.

Picante also has something of a reputation for inefficient service, and I think that's probably a fair characterization. When I got there today, the clerk told me to come back in 10 minutes, because he had just arrived and had to set up the register. He was nice enough about it -- in fact the Picante people are always very sweet -- but this was in the middle of the day and from the standpoint of efficiency, it was certainly not a plus. In addition, the wait times from the kitchen tend to be longer than average, perhaps because the kitchen is as cramped as the rest of the establishment and so it's hard to prepare multiple orders at once. Picante manages to be at once off-putting and endearing.


Chipotle: Round 1 Review

#7. Chipotle
1733 N. Damen
Chicken Tacos ("Soft Shell")
3 tacos, $5.60 (no extras)

I've probably eaten at Chipotle more often than any other restaurant in my life.

This isn't that remarkable a claim if you stop to think about it. I've had 10 or so different residences in my lifetime, which is enough to rule out any non-chain restaurants. My parents would not take me to McDonald's or Burger King nearly as often as I wanted when I was a kid. Taco Bell surely rates highly on the list -- the Bailey Street and Grand River location served me well in my youth -- but I've hardly eaten there for the past five or six years.

Still, this is an impressive number of meals to have had at Chipotle. I ate there probably an average of 5 times a month in the seven years I spent living in Lakeview and Lincoln Park.
That works out to 420 experiences at Chipotle. It got so bad at one point during my Lakeview days that I actually started going to the second- and third-closest Chipotle locations on occasion so that the clerks didn't make some comment about how often I was eating there.

But the thing is that since I moved to Wicker Park I haven't eaten at Chipotle at all. Partly, that's because I'm no longer all that close to one. But mostly it's because there are just many better options for Mexican Food in this neck of the woods. In wide swaths of Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and pretty much the entirety of the Loop, Chipotle is a godsend. In Wicker Park/Bucktown, it's mostly superfluous, although I will say that this link in the chain is located fairly well: there's a region of about 20 square blocks (see map below) in which Chipotle is probably the closest reasonable fast Mexican alternative, Flash Taco explicitly not being a reasonable alternative. If you live in the green shaded area, you may eat at Chipotle without feeling guilty about it. Otherwise, get out and live a little.

The Food: Among the several hundred times that I've eaten at Chipotle, I've never had the "soft" tacos, always opting instead for the hard-shell variety. For this week's competition, however, I went with the soft varietal for purposes of keeping the competition on an apples-to-apples basis. (Picante Taquiera, Chipotle's opponent this week, does serve a hard-shell taco dish that they call the "White Boy Tacos", but they only serve them Taco Bell style with ground beef; no substitutions). I also refrained from getting guacamole ("Guacamole sir is dollar twenty five extra?") but did load up on sour cream, cheese, and both the corn and the red tomatillo salsas, figuring that when in Gringoville, do as the Gringos do, provided that I don't have to pay anything extra for the privilege.

I've confirmed now that keeping it hard is the right way to go at Chipotle, because the tortillas are almost certainly the weakest part of their offering. The central problem is that they're made out of flour rather than corn. Flour tortillas are a necessary evil when you're eating a burrito, since they tend to be a bit more hearty and elastic than their corn brethren, and therefore do a better job of securing the contents inside. For tacos, however, where structural integrity is not such a problem, corn should be
de rigueur. Flour tortillas sacrifice a lot of flavor. They also present disadvantages from a textural standpoint, as they tend to be thicker than corn. With a burrito, you don't mind encountering a little bit of resistance as you sink your teeth into the thing. With tacos, you'd prefer something more supple, which means a corn tortilla (or preferably two). And Chipotle's tortillas seem to be particuarly thick and impermeable, failing to soak up any juices, which results in all the flavors sort of keeping to themselves rather than mingling with one another.

Another issue with the soft tacos is that they get the short end of Chipotle's one-size-fits-all pricing scheme. Nobody who has ordered a burrito or fajita from Chipotle can rightly claim that they're ripping people off; the problem is that the tacos are the same price, and contain perhaps 60% as much material. The problem is particuarly acute with the soft tacos; for whatever reason Chipotle treats three soft tacos as equivalent to four hardshell, but the ratio of ingredients:tacos is about the same in either case.

So why have I eaten at Chipotle 420 times? Well, because I know better than to order the soft tacos. But of course Chipotle does a lot of things right. First and foremost is the quality of their meat -- ironic for a restaurant that was once affiliated with McDonald's. Chipotle is quite green in its product sourcing, and that makes a difference in the taste.
On occasions, the meat can become dry if left in the vat too long, but Chipotle usually does enough volume that you're getting a fresh batch grilled up for you. And the chicken, which is a weakness at so many mom-and-pop taquerias, is a real strength at Chipotle with its grilled flavor and consistent texture.

The cornucopia of salsas and garnishes is another major plus. Chipotle's salsa doesn't have quite as much sex appeal as what you'll find at De Pasada, but it almost always tastes fresh, and it's nice to be able to mix-and-match the salsas to suit your mood. The only problem really is the irresistible temptation to overload your taco with too many add-ons, as inevitably the ratio of meat to condiments will vary from server to server. Today I did not get enough meat and felt like all I was tasting was lettuce and salsa.

The Experience: Well, it's Chipotle. And that's generally a good thing. The single factor that is most underrated in Chipotle's success is how unbelievably efficient it is in turning out its food. The burrito assembly line moves very quickly. I haven't timed it, but I'd guess that if there isn't a queue, you can be eating your food within about 90 seconds of having walked inside. It's not McDonald's fast -- it's like vending machine fast. This makes a huge difference for someone like me. I tend to procrastinate on lunch until I'm basically starving myself, so once I finally decide to eat, I'm really fucking hungry, and even an extra 60 seconds of time savings is a pretty big deal. Of course, Chipotle has to make some sacrifices to achieve this efficiency -- not having corn tortillas for their tacos, for example. But generally speaking, the trade-off is worth it; there are a million other restaurants you can eat at if you don't like their product offerings.

The service is usually as hospitable as it is efficient, although today was a slight exception. I've gotten to the point where I'm not very self-conscious about taking pictures of my food; it's just not uncommon these days for some scrappy looking kid to be walking around with a digital camera, and the worst case scenario is that you might get branded as a tourist. Nobody has ever said anything when I was taking pictures of their tacos ... until today, when the owner saw me from behind the counter and said "those are some nice looking tacos, bro!". Okay, so he didn't say "bro", but he did say "those are some nice looking tacos!". I don't think the comment was intended to be rude; in fact, I'm pretty well convinced that this dude thinks that his tacos are the bestest-looking tacos in the whole wide world, and was proud that I was taking pictures of them. Still, my attitude is that once I've paid for the food, it's my right to do pretty much whatever I want with it without having to hear any play-by-play.