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The first time that Cleo Shahateet ate a burrito was in 1977, when he and a bunch of his friends ventured into a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. Although his experience was positive”I was like, ‘Wow! What is this?’ I’d never had anything like it before”he didn’t encounter another burrito until nine years later when, returning to Chicago from his first trip away as a Marine, he discovered a burrito place next door to his recruiting station. “Right in my old neighborhood,” he recalls, still somewhat amazed.
Revelatory as it was, that second burrito wasn’t exactly a premonition. The honor would likely fall to a burrito he ate several years later, at yet another Chicago eatery, one so packed in the wee hours of the morning that Shahateet said to his friends, “Man, we’ve got to open one of these places.” Which he eventually didseveral times. His first restaurant was Baja Burrito, which he opened in a Chicago suburb seven years ago, and after that there was Crazy Burrito in Peoria, Ill. Shahateet ended up selling both establishments to his cousin, so he says that when he moved to Northern Virginia in 1998 looking to open up another place, “I kinda didn’t want to use ‘Crazy Burrito,’ because it was kinda my cousin’s name. So I just came up with the Burrito Joynt. It was going to be J-O-I-N-T, but I just decided to put the ‘y’ in to make it joyful.”
In his White Sox cap, tennis shoes, and baggy shorts, Shahateet has the look of a competition-level skateboarder; his goatee may be graying, but his speech is youthful, and signs of his free-spiritedness are splashed across his restaurant. The Burrito Joynt shares space with a Domino’s Pizza in a building next door to a Texaco on a heavily franchised strip of Alexandria. But the Burrito Joynt sticks outand not just because the meat contents of its burritos are freshly grilled and the whole jaw-straining logs are served hot with some of the chunkiest, and best, homemade salsa this side of my friend Suzanne’s. It’s fast food without the corporate affectations.
At 37, Shahateet (who was born in Jordan, went to high school and drove a taxi in Chicago, and has since lived “everywhere”) is seasoned in the business of do-it-yourself Mexican fast-food restauranting. “I’ve always had this dream of, like, becoming a franchise, a big-time company all over the place,” he explains from a window table at the Burrito Joynt. Yet when Shahateet opened his first restaurant, his only experience was as an eater, particularly of the burritos offered in the Mexican places that dotted the streets he drove in his taxi. When the idea to go into business for himself struck, he set out to befriend the workers at the restaurants he frequented, gleaning from them the basic recipes for beans, guacamole, seasoned rice, and pickled carrots that he uses today.
The Burrito Joynt’s menu includes a burrito filled with mesquite turkey and another that’s basically a tortilla-bound Philly cheesesteak. But notwithstanding these forays into modern American wrapcraft, Shahateet insists that his Alexandria restaurant offers a fair reflection of the Mexican-American cuisine he enjoyed in Chicago. The Joynt’s Spanish-style rice is moist and tomato-y, adding an extra dimension of flavor to the traditional burritos, and its tortilla chips and taco shells are fried in house. And both the fresh, bean-strewn taco salad and the virtually greaseless chimichangas transcend typically drab fast-food fare.
But the sauce-and-relish counter may be Burrito Joynt’s defining characteristic. Shahateet cooks giant pots of sliced carrots with vinegar, salt, jalapeños, and onions, and sets the end result out in an iced bowl next to squirt bottles filled with homemade hot sauces. The setup is typical of what he saw in restaurants during his cabbie days, with the exception of the fact that his mild sauce (basically cooked-down green tomatoes with a few jalapeños) is green and his hot sauce (ripe tomatoes with a lot of jalapeños) is red. “In Chicago, the green stuff is hotter,” he explains. “But to me, red represents hot.” Smiling slyly, Shahateet says that his approach to sauce-making is what “kind of put me on the map.”
Shahateet landed in Northern Virginia in part because his brother lives here. After noticing the relative lack of good burritos, he says, he rushed Burrito Joynt’s opening so that he could establish himself before too many big chains swooped in. His decision was probably wisethe McDonald’s-run Chipotle Mexican Grill chain has been spreading through the area quicklybut the timing wasn’t so great personally. Shahateet’s brother was set be his partner, but on the very day they got the keys to the Burrito Joynt’s space, his brother’s 6-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor; the boy died soon after. Shahateet points out a spot near the sauce stand where you can see the handprint of his nephew, who helped splatter paint on the walls. His brother has since retreated to Jordan to mourn.
Shahateet says that if he had known in the beginning that he’d have to run his restaurant by himself, he probably wouldn’t have bothered. The only days of the year he’s closed are major holidays. Still, he holds out hope for expansion. All he really needs is help. “I could have a million dollars right now,” he says, “and it wouldn’t do me any good if I don’t have a couple of people I can work with. So that’s what I’m waiting for.” Shahateet stares into the back of the sign on the window that advertises 95-cent tacos. “I’m kind of hoping my brother will come back refreshed and ready to do stuff,” he says.
The Burrito Joynt, 6113 Franconia Road, Alexandria, (703) 924-8600.
Thirty-year-old chef Timothy Dean is hoping to put himself on the map with his namesake restaurant on a K Street corner. Compared with 95-cent tacos, the Jean-Louis Palladin protégé’s $25 prix fixe lunch doesn’t seem like much of a deal. Then the chestnut soup arrives. Tasting vaguely the way a wintry walk through the woods smells, and studded with little nubs of duck confit, the soup easily lives up to one of the most luxurious, old-school swank dining rooms in town. Unfortunately, the Yukon-crusted sea bass mismatched with overherbed fava beans does not, and my friend’s seared ahi tuna is somehow dull despite its powerful, coarse-pepper crust. No wonder one reader snipes, “If you haven’t tried [Timothy Dean] yet, don’t bother.”
Timothy Dean, 923 16th St. NW, (202) 879-6900. Brett Anderson
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