Fast-casual comes unwrapped at Beaucoup Burrito
I have missed many things in favor of a meal. I've cut classes for sushi or cheeseburgers or just a shitty cup of diner coffee, skipped work for tacos, flown halfway across the country for a fish dinner, and abandoned like dead weight friends who weren't interested in dim sum or posole or pupusas. I've ducked out on meetings for chicken croquettes with mashed potatoes, tanked interviews for bastilla or roti canai. My fantasies and daydreams (those that are printable, anyway) revolve around dining rooms and kitchens and unusual things laid out on plain white plates.
Like some men may with football or porn or a sale on snowblowers, I have occasionally (like no more than once or twice a week, tops) been seized by a desperate and bottomless hunger for one taste in particular that will brook no distraction until sated. It will build slowly, unstoppably, for minutes or hours or days until it occupies me with a focused mania bordering on clinical, and often (almost always, really) results in my wandering off in the middle of the day, scattering excuses behind me like a fighter jet dropping chaff. "Oh, man..." I'll say. "I gotta go and check on that thing we talked about the other day," or just, "Can't talk. Need barbecue." And then fifteen minutes later, I'll be hauling up in front of the Korean restaurant for bulgogi or barbecued bacon, the taquería for carne asada, the backstreet barbecue shack.
Or Beaucoup Burrito, the next-door expansion of the Three Sisters Cafe and catering operation, which advertises an array of international burritos, of borderless and polyglot Mexican fusion, of tacos without passports. When I read that, I made for the office door like I'd just robbed the place, and five minutes later, I didn't so much park my car downtown as abandon it on the street. Had aliens landed just then on the corner of 17th and Stout streets or naked supermodels fallen from the sky by parachute, I doubt I would have noticed them. I was fixated, mentally stuck on the thought of a pulled-pork burrito with ginger barbecue sauce, of a green curry burrito, of a burrito made with white beans, of a burrito being treated the way a burrito was meant to be: never as a primary meal, but as a way to conveniently use Sunday's leftovers on Monday morning. South of the border, this means a little rice, some beans, maybe an egg, cracked and scrambled, to hold the cold carnitas in their place, and then a tortilla to wrap everything. The burrito is the day-after-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich of our Southern neighbors, one of the best gifts they ever presented to us white and WASP-ish Wonder Bread-eating motherfuckers en El Norte.
Chef Biju Thomas — ex of Swimclub32, India-born and well-traveled — was the guy who'd broken all the rules, who'd seen past the cultural roots of the burrito and brought it gleefully and guilelessly into the larger world, who'd designed the menu that had me drooling and giddy, my hunger tempered only by the distant tickle of a single question: Why hadn't anyone really done this before?
As I ducked inside Beaucoup Burrito, my fantasies briefly sustained me, filling in for the abject lack of anything approaching decor. The spot looked like a poverty-stricken imitation Chipotle: bare white-on-white-on-electric-lemon-lime-on-white walls, a soda machine, a counter and sneeze guard with handwritten grease pencil notes demarcating what was what, a menu hanging on the back wall, a few tables set askew on the floor and the most uncomfortable chairs I've ever seen — backless, butt-cupping bastard chairs like the result of some frantic coupling between a barstool and an Ikea wine rack. There was also an abject lack of anything approaching business during what should have been the lunch rush.
But I was able to ignore all this, as well as the questioning eye of the guy at the counter when I asked about the seafood burrito: peppered scallops and shrimp with rice and ginger barbecue. A look that said something like, "Dude, I know better than to eat lukewarm shellfish on a slow Monday. Why don't you?"
Because I was blinded by my hunger and enthusiasm and need to believe that an innovation should always be given a fair shake before being dismissed. Because in the space of just a few minutes, I'd already built up in my head how awesome an international fusion burrito could be if handled properly. Because I am an idiot and a chump and a completely willing sucker for this kind of thing, over and over again, no matter how many times I get burned. So I ordered the seafood burrito. I ordered a chicken and green-curry burrito with rice and black beans. I ordered what I thought was genius: pulled pork with baked beans and rice and barbecue sauce, an entire Louisiana-style barbecue lunch wrapped up inside a tortilla, what I would probably eat every day were I living once again down in BBQ country.
All three were awful, in varying degrees — largely in how many bites it took before my curiosity as to how anyone could make something so terrible was sated and I threw each burrito in the trash. The green-curry chicken burrito put some decently cooked chicken (although the lemon-roasting interfered with the balance of the curry) and rice in a sweet-hot coconut curry that wasn't altogether terrible, then proceeded to make it so with waterlogged black beans. The beans in the barbecue burrito were just grocery-store-quality baked beans, too rich in brown sugar, and the sauce was a sickly sweet glaze suitable only for brushing on broiled fish at the nearest Red Lobster; the flavorless barbecued pork could not balance this saccharine overload. And the seafood burrito was the worst thing I've put in my mouth for money all year. The seafood was of the most terrible quality imaginable — canned shrimp of the sort your grandmother put in gelatin salads back in the day, like the full-blooming cousins of those shriveled-up shrimp bits you find knocking around a cup of Maruchan Ramen noodle soup, and tiny bay scallops with a taste like tin and aquarium water and a texture like stale marshmallows — and had apparently been swimming in a murky brown broth on the steam table for some time before I showed up. The ginger barbecue sauce on top just added a heaping spoonful of sugar to this wretched mess, and while the pineapple salsa might have been good were it fresh, it was instead soft and mushy and as warm as everything else glopped onto my tortilla. I took a bite, chewed briefly with mounting horror, then spit the bite out into a napkin.
I was heartbroken by how badly wrong my fantasy had gone, so much so that a few weeks passed before I could bring myself to return. But I had to, because I needed to find out if I'd just shown up on some colossally bad day, and this crew was really capable of turning out the burritos of my dreams — or at least something edible. But no such luck. The curry chicken burrito was just as disappointing, and the seafood burrito just as trash-worthy. And while a burrito filled with simple pork and rice and black beans and the house Colorado salsa was a marked improvement over the barbecue burrito, it was nothing I couldn't get in a hundred other places in town, and done better in a good number of them.
While this second meal did nothing whatsoever to improve my opinion of Beaucoup Burrito, it did help me determine where the place had gone wrong.
The concept is not the problem. I still like the idea of international burritos, of taking the tortilla places you don't traditionally find it. As designed by Thomas, the menu looks good — and the first thing I wanted to do after trying that terrible chicken curry burrito was go to a good Thai or Indian restaurant, order some chicken curry and some rice and wrap it up myself as a burrito.
The execution of that concept is a major problem, however. The recipes are either flawed, or the cooks simply incapable of following them correctly. But the biggest sinner is whoever's responsible for ordering the cheapest, lowest-quality and most tawdry ingredients they can get their penny-pinching hands on. A seafood burrito doesn't have to be bad. In fact, I've had excellent ones — packed with fat shrimp fresh off the grill, soft rice, beans and just a squeeze of lime as dressing. But I have no hopes of ever having an edible seafood burrito at Beaucoup Burrito: There's simply no way to assemble a good one (or even a passable one) out of bad stock.
That's the prime directive of cooking right there, the first and most basic rule for any cook or owner: Good food starts with good ingredients, followed by good ideas, finished by good execution. And greatness follows only in the laborious improvement of all three. The people behind Three Sisters and Beaucoup Burrito should know that. In the end, fantasies are not flavor. So the next time someone behind the counter tries telling me that maybe I ought to consider making different plans for lunch, I'll pay attention.
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