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 piƱata. 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.