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In the latest issue of Burrito Daily News, a publication of Burrito Brothers, is an article filed from Del Rio, Texas, by correspondent Holly Feel, in which she sets out to discover the birthplace of the burrito, a delicacy she affectionately calls “the Log of the Gods.” Feel instead finds a beer-drinking “good old boy” with a penchant for shooting guns at 6 a.m., a “stoic lady” who makes 15-cent tostadas for breakfast and who speaks no English, and one revelation: “The only mythical part of the American male is his backbone.”
What Feel’s Hunter S. Thompsonesque trip to Texas reveals about the burrito is of less significance than what it tells us about the people who eat the coveted loaf of tortilla, beans, salsa, and whatever else. If the meatheads of the world are our die-hard traditionalists and the vegetarians our guardians of virtue, burrito lovers, pure and simple, are our daredevils.
Man at the Dupont Circle Burrito Brothers who just might eat anything wrapped in a tortilla:
“The beautiful thing about burritos is that you can never be sure what’s inside. I love that….Usually when I order, I just tell the guy to pick whatever kind of burrito he likes and make it for me. I don’t want to know what’s inside before. That spoils the fun.”
Conventional wisdom says that a national burrito epidemic started in the mid-’80s, when Taco Bell exploded onto the fast-food scene as Mexican cuisine’s answer to McDonald’s. But as any true connoisseur will tell you, Taco Bell represents Mexican-American food about
as accurately as the Cosby Show represented African-American life. Those seeking a burrito experience that borders on the spiritual needed something more pure, more fresh, with a greater selection of beans. Where was that affordable burrito that made all those post-meal trips to the bathroom seem like tolerable side-effects suffered in the name of a higher cause?
Die-hard advocate who fearlessly accompanies me on one visit to Burrito Brothers:
“I must admit this all comes at an interesting gastronomical time for me, because I’ve gotten really sick the last two times I’ve eaten at Burrito Brothers.”
In 1989, two high-school buddies from San Francisco arrived in D.C. They came in search of careers, which they found, and a decent (and cheap) Mexican meal, which they didn’t. So rather than complain, the budding entrepreneurs, looking only to supplement their incomes and satisfy their stomachs, took matters into their own hands and opened the first Burrito Brothers near Dupont Circle.
According to co-founder and current Burrito Brothers CEO Eric Sklar, the demand for his authentic burritos and tacos was so great that he and his partner were able to turn their hobby into a full-time occupation. By 1990, there was a Burrito Brothers on Capitol Hill, and in ’91 they opened one in Georgetown. The chain of restaurants has grown to six, all of them small takeout spots with sparse seating and a pseudo-pueblo atmosphere. Like it or not, the Burrito Brothers staple—a 12-inch flour tortilla filled with rice, beans, salsa, and a choice of chicken, roast pork, beef, or the ever-popular spinach—has since become as indelible a part of our local landscape as wonky talk shows and presidential motorcades.
Shithead eating in the Georgetown Burrito Brothers:
Shithead: “All of the stores except the Dupont Circle one are great.”
Me: “What’s the matter with the one in Dupont Circle?”
Shithead: “Are you gonna use names?”
Shithead: “That’s where the fags eat.”
Burrito Brothers’ local dominance hasn’t gone unchallenged. The Burro, which opened up across the street from Burrito Brothers’ Dupont Circle location in January 1995, is the most conspicuous competitor. Since the restaurants are quite similar foodwise, there are some obvious consistencies between the two: They both, for instance, offer two sizes of fresh bean burritos, the same brands of designer juices, and self-serve soda. The restaurants’ price/quantity ratios are nearly identical.
But the most striking similarities between the two restaurants lie in location and theme. Both Burrito Brothers and the Burro present themselves as high-class fast-food joints: They both have identifiable logos (Burrito Brothers’ cartoon chicken, the Burro’s cartoon namesake) and interior designs that give themselves corporate identities. And with the opening of the new Burro location at 1134 19th St. NW last January (the original location, which opened in Ann Arbor, Mich., in ’93, has since closed), you could say a turf war is being waged. In mid-July, Burrito Brothers will open its seventh restaurant on M Street between 17th and 18th. Basically, the race to capture the professional, burrito-eating consumer in Northwest Washington has two contestants.
Woman sitting at a sidewalk table at the Burro on 19th Street, simultaneously smoking and eating a taco salad:
Me: “So, are you part of the Burro faithful?”
Woman: “There’s no question that Burrito Brothers is better.”
Woman: “Oh, I just come here to look at hot guys in suits.”
Me: “Can I buy you a burrito sometime?”
Woman: “That’s not a suit.”
While the corporate types at B.B. and the Burro concede that a rivalry exists, neither concern claims to have suffered a decline in business due to the existence or expansion of the other. But on the street the division among diners is decisive and, surprisingly, the party line has little to do with actual burritos.
Burro eaters will tell you that their restaurant is more pleasant to eat in because there are more places to sit and the benches are high, like barstools, as opposed to the kiddy-style knee-high seats at B.B. Burrito Brothers’ regulars, however, will say that burritos are meant to be taken out and eaten in the natural environs of, say, Dupont Circle. Sure, they might allow, the Burro offers fresh lettuce (which Burrito Brothers doesn’t) and low-fat beans, but salsa is the thing, and B.B.’s has bigger chunks of tomato than the Burro’s. And how can you beat one of B.B.’s 14-inch “Super” burritos after hitting all the bars in Adams Morgan? (Personally, I’ve never been hungry enough to finish one.)
Burrito Brothers devotee who avoids the Burro as a matter of principle:
“I guess I’m just a loyalist. I mean, I’ve been with them from the beginning. I even have one of the original T-shirts. Not one of those cheap, logo-shit new ones. But one of the nice ones.”
The difference between loyalists comes down to personality. Typical B.B. fans are more apt to resemble the burrito-loving archetype: They are thrill-seekers whose sense of tradition is equaled only by their appetite for the mighty Log of the Gods. Ask them what they like best about Burrito Brothers’ signature dish and most will rave about its girth.
Those who eat at the Burro, a superior restaurant even though the burritos are thinner and the salsa more finely chopped, tend to appreciate the subtleties: the pureed beans, the seductive cilantro-and-lime dressing, the lettuce, and the nonburrito meals, like the guacamole-and-black-olive sandwich, or the tacos that, unlike the ungainly ones at B.B., you can actually pick up and eat with your hands. I think it’s safe to assume that when one B.B.-to-Burro defector says he’d rather be “satisfied and hungry than unsatisfied and full” after eating a burrito, the sentiment applies to other meals as well.
Man on street who asks for change but instead receives half of a chicken burrito with guacamole from Burro:
“God bless you and the family—not some of the time but all of the time.”
The Burro and Burrito Brothers have various D.C. locations.
When it comes to the quick takeout lunch, burritos are hardly the only game between Farragut Square and Mount Pleasant. Tropicals Express offers most kinds of nontortilla noontime fare and some of the best fresh-squeezed juice drinks in the District. A favorite of mine is a salad of shiitake mushrooms, sprouts, green onions, and a swirl of green, red, and yellow peppers.
Tropicals Express, 1129 20th St. NW. (202) 463-6294.—Brett Anderson
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