Dona Naty's Taco [#12] defeats Taqueria Super Burrito [#5]

In what ultimately was a fairly decisive verdict, 12th-seeded Dona Naty's Taco [review] has defeated #5 seed Taqueria Super Burrito [review] to advance to the second round of the competition. Taqueria Super Burrito turned out a very average product, meaning that the round was pretty much Dona Naty's for the taking if it could match the standard that it established in its eat-in match with its tacos al Pastor. And with its wonderfully seasoned chicken, it had little problem doing that. Although Dona Naty's came in with the lower seed, I'm not even certain that this result can be termed an upset.

The bad news for Dona Naty's is that it faces a very difficult match-up next time around. My friend had a mixed opinion of the steak torta that he ordered today, which is the item du jour in its Round 2 match-up against the formidable De Pasada. Dona Naty's has surprised us before, but it's not going to advance to the Final Four without an outstanding effort.

Next week we move over from the Ashland Regional to the Chicago Regional, starting with an eat-in match between Taco & Burrito Express and Taqueria Traspazada for possession of the #15 seed.

Dona Naty's Taco: Round 1 Review

#12. Dona Naty's Taco
1813 W. Chicago
Chicken Burrito Suizo
$4.50 (no extras)

Defeated #12b Carniceria Leon in Eat-in Match [verdict]

I've been in a state of mind lately that I call the blasés: a sort of self-reinforcing combination of business and laziness that makes me easily distractable and short on productive time. As a result, it has taken until today to make my return visit to Dona Naty's Taco. Waiting until Saturday however has one distinct advantage, which is that I was able to enlist the services of guest eater and photographer Robert Gauldin, who is responsible for the money shots that you see in today's article.

The Food: The idea of Burrito Bracket is to match the items I eat at each restaurant as closely as possible within any given week. Since I ordered a super burrito at the aptly-named Taqueria Super Burrito earlier this week, which came complete with guac and sour cream, I naturally wanted to do the same at Dona Naty's. But in spite of having a fairly broad menu, Dona Naty's does not really have a "super burrito", nor any way to order guacamole and sour cream on the side. Thus, I went with a burrito suizo instead, suizo meaning "swiss" because of the cheese (and green salsa) that sits atop the burrito.

The burrito suizo is not the prettiest thing in the world -- the layer of semi-congealed cheese sitting atop the burrito shouts out "you're going to need a knife and fork, buster". Fortunately, it's what's inside that counts. It's clear that Dona Naty's takes enormous care in the way that it prepares its meats. The chicken was ground up quite finely -- almost moving in the direction of a puree -- and as a result it allowed the exceptional seasoning of the meat to shine through, with its host of spicy and savory flavors. In addition, all of the ingredients (the chicken, plus finely-sliced onions, tomato and lettuce, and a light complement of beans) were blended together into one continuous whole, rather than producing the "layered" effect that you might experience with some other burritos, where one bite is all lettuce and the next is all meat.

There are two real compliments that I can pay to this burrito. Firstly, it was the first dish I've come across that didn't really benefit from salsa -- the subtle combination of flavors were better left to their own devices. And secondly, it proved that a chicken burrito need not be boring. That's not to say that this was a completely flawless experience -- the tortilla was a little doughy, and I came across one chicken bone. But meat that is seasoned and flavored this well does not come about on accident.

The Experience: The service was much friendlier than I'd experienced on my previous visit -- our young waitress made us feel very welcome, even if there was some confusion at the end where we asked for the check and wound up with the toothpick dispenser. The one catch about Dona Naty's is that it can take a fairly long time between the time that you place your order and receive your food. The guys in the kitchen always seem to be working pretty hard, so I trust that this is because Dona Naty's just isn't taking a lot of shortcuts in the preparation of its food. Plus, our waitress gave us a refill on our chips, so it was all good.


Taqueria Super Burrito: Round 1 Review

#5. Taqueria Super Burrito
1502 N. Western
Super Chicken Burrito
$5.00 (includes avocado and sour cream)

There were seven or eight of our 19 entrants in the Burrito Bracket that I'd never eaten at prior to the start of the competition, but Taqueria Super Burrito is the only one that I have no recollection of even seeing from the outside. There's a pretty good reason for that, which is that it's located on a rather desolate stretch of Western Avenue. Go a bit north, and you'll intersect Milwaukee Ave and all the good stuff that surrounds it, like Arturo's Tacos and the Map Room. Go a bit south, and you'll run into the Empty Bottle and the huge Puerto Rican flag thingy. But in between, there are a lot of auto body shops and abandoned lots and broken fire hydrants, and that is where Taqueria Super Burrito is located.

You'd naturally expect the western fringe of Wicker Park, which borders on largely Hispanic Humboldt Park, to be fairly burrito-rich, but that isn't really the case. For one thing, Humboldt Park is in substantial part Puerto Rican rather than Mexican. For another, Western Ave. is not only the frontier of Wicker Park, but also the de facto boundary of the sort of contiguous white yuppie blob that continues more or less unabated to the lake shore. There might well be some great taquerias as you get deeper into Humboldt Park, but they aren't the sort of places that get reviewed on Yelp or Metromix. So, Taqueria Super Burrito is the closest accessible option for quite a number of blocks.

The Food: This is our first foray into chicken thus far in the bracket, which is at least somewhat intentional. Chicken is generally a low-risk, low-reward option for a burrito filling; it's going to be nice and edible, but it doesn't give the taqueria the chance to strut its stuff as much as something like carne asada or al Pastor. And that seems to be a pretty good description of Taqueria Super Burrito too: low risk, but perhaps not much more than medium reward. This was a very solid, serviceable burrito. All of the ingredients were quite fresh (though the avocado wasn't wonderfully so) and kept in pretty good balance to one another. The chicken was decent, and seemed to contain at least a fair proportion of white meat. The burrito wasn't bland -- it was a good burrito, really -- but probably not anything to go out of your way for.

There were, however, two areas in which Taqueria Super Burrito gets some bonus points. The first is the very spicy red salsa and the fresh chips that come with your dine-in order; although not quite as good as De Pasada's salsa verde, this was maybe the best red salsa that we've encountered so far. The second is that this food is cheap. The super burrito, aptly billed on the menu as "a meal unto itself", comes complete with sour cream, avocado, tomato and lettuce for $5, something which could easily run you $7 or more if you ordered everything a la carte.

The Experience: TSB's edifice is small and a little run-down, but they do their best to spruce it up with a large number of tropical-looking plants lots of free reading material in both English and Spanish; I chose People to catch up on all the latest Brangelina gossip. The service was quick, and neither especially friendly nor especially unfriendly. Like Carniceria Leon, they have bottled Mexican coke, although I suffered through a moment of embarrassment when I couldn't quite figure out how to open my bottle on the bottle opener attached to the cooler, and my glasses wound up falling off in the process. Overall, a solid experience in line with my expectations, but as some readers have observed, Dona Naty's Taco, which looks like it could be the Appalachain State of the Burrito Bracket, retains a pretty good shot at pulling an upset.


Pasada and Pasadita: All in the Familia?

Reader Brian G. writes:

"I could be wrong, but I've heard that De Pasada and La Pasadita are owned by the same people. Not that this should change anything in the burrito bracket per se, but if you can confirm it, it might give you a useful baseline from which to evaluate the two."

It's an interesting theory, and one that would seem to have some merits on its surface. Pasada and Pasadita are right next to one another, and they share a reputation for sourcing comparatively high-quality meat.

More intriguing, perhaps, is the similarity in their names: pasadita is the diminutive of pasada. What does de pasada mean, by the way? It's not an easy phrase for a gringo like me to translate, but the most likely candidates seem to be "of the past" or "in passing" (as in "he mentioned to me in passing that he was looking for a new job"). It also seems to have a somewhat idiomatic, perhaps even existential meeting: "es agua pasada", for example, is the Spanish equivalent of "water under the bridge". In this context, I read de pasada as basically meaning "the little things of the past" or "from the tradition", with pasadita meaning pretty much the same thing ("the little tradition").

But in fact, there is even more of a potential smoking gun. Both La Pasadita's website (which contains some fascinating diatribes against yuppified Mexican food) and De Pasada's website say that they are owned by a family named Espinoza. Have we proven the case beyond any shadow of a doubt?

I don't think so. For one thing, the restaurants opened in the wrong order. If there were a restaurant called De Pasada, it would be fairly logical for the owners to name the spin-off La Pasadita ("the little Pasada"), particularly if it were more of a downscale, take-out joint. However, La Pasadita opened up in 1976, while De Pasada opened in 1981. There are all sorts of Mexican restaurants that are named after derivatives of "tradition" (this one, for instance), and it's possible that the similar names are just a coincidence.

Similarly, it's possible that the common surnames are just a coincidence. There is generally a great deal of commonality in Mexican last names; 8.5% of Mexicans are named Martínez, for example, while 8.1% are named Rodríguez. Espinoza isn't "Smith" or "Martínez" or "Andersen", but it isn't "Funkhouser" either: there are 191 entries for "Espinoza" in the Chicago white pages, and another 99 for "Espinosa".

Moreover, if the restaurants are owned by the same family, why is there no mention of such on their respective webpages? La Pasadita's website lists the locations of all three La Pasaditas as well as four other "business affiliates", but none of them are De Pasada. De Pasada's website says that the family Espinoza came to Chicago in 1981, at which point La Pasadita was already open. In addition, the respective Espinoza families appear to have hailed from different regions of Mexico. The De Pasada Espinozas come from Nuevo Laredo, a border town near (you guessed it) Laredo, Texas, while the Pasadita Espinozas are from San Luis Potosi in central Mexico.

It's tempting to speculate that there is still some relation. Perhaps the Espinozas are part of the same extended family, for instance. I guess you can conceive of the San Luis Potosi Espinozas calling their cousins in Nuevo Laredo and saying "Hey hombre, business is good here, bro! Why don't you come and open another restaurant right next door to me?". But really this doesn't make any sense. In fact, when De Pasada opened in 1981, the La Pasadita Espinozas were busy with their own plans: that was exactly when they expanded into their second location at 1140 N. Ashland. Can you imagine any worse business plan than trying to open two locations right down the block from one another at the same time (or trying to compete with a restaurant that your cousin was opening)? Not even Starbucks would try that.

It wouldn't completely shock me if there were some relationship between the two restaurants. But the Occam's Razor position is that there isn't.

Where'd the Bracket Go?

The bracket graphic has been given a makeover and reincarnated as a Google Spreadsheet, complete with hyperlinks. It's also been moved from the sidebar to the bottom of the page, where it has substantially more room to breathe. Everything looks very good in Firefox and relatively good in Internet Explorer -- but if the bracket is not rendering right in your browser, please just send me a note.

As before, you can also check the current status of the bracket by clicking on the navbar link at the top of the page.