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The non-descript doorway off an alley near Dupont Circle looks like a fallout shelter left over from the Cold War, and it isn’t always easy to find. But in its heyday, you knew you were on the way to Well Dressed Burrito if you followed the lunchtime trail of people carrying bright yellow bags out of the alley onto 19th Street NW, like signs leading pilgrims on the path of the faithful.
Twenty-five years ago, Well Dressed Burrito—a lunch-only Mexican carry-out crammed into space it has shared with the catering business of C.F. Folks, a tiny-but-mighty lunch counter across the street next to The Palm—promised something different, something new. There are still reminders of the old days. At the end of the counter is a blown-up placard with a Nov. 14, 1998, Washington Post letter to the editor from co-owner Peggy Fredricksen, taking issue with a minor point in a Post article that said the then-thriving local chain Burrito Brothers was D.C.’s first burrito place.
Burrito Brothers had opened up to much fanfare on Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle in 1989, attracting lines out the door. But Well Dressed Burrito had launched in October 1986. Fredricksen wrote that the “three-year head start gave us a demonstrable advantage.”
Back during the District’s early burrito frenzy, that may have been true. But is it still?
These days, specialty burritos are no longer an exotic import from California or the American Southwest. Burrito consumption has been streamlined and optimized by fine-tuned fast-food operations like Chipotle, Baja Fresh, and California Tortilla. More recently, non-chainy places emphasizing fresh ingredients, like Surfside and Taqueria Distrito Federal, have been winning over hearts and minds. (Including mine.)
This burrito evolution has overshadowed the early pioneers. Fragments of the once robust Burrito Brothers chain still exist around town—namely in a basement food court off I Street NW and a former Burrito Brothers franchise on Pennsylvania Avenue SE that now operates independently as Burrito Brothers of Capitol Hill. Simply by surviving longer, Well Dressed Burrito won the burrito war with Burrito Brothers—if one ever existed in the first place. But the terms of engagement have shifted.
Eating hand-fist-and-wrist-sized burritos stuffed with beans, cheese, meat, and chopped vegetables isn’t as simple as it once seemed. I’ve been enjoying Well Dressed Burrito lunches for about 10 years, loving its non-burrito daily grill specials in particular. But it may be time for Well Dressed to pay closer attention to its signature item—wrapped in a tortilla that stands out as chewier than most around town. When there’s enough grilled char on the burrito, it can be quite enjoyable. But more often than not, Well Dressed’s burrito wrapping comes out gummy, requiring a more aggressive, less enjoyable chowing-down approach, especially when the burrito inevitably cools off on the way back to the office.
Well Dressed’s daily burrito specials can be a double-edged sword. They often appeal to carnal indulgences, at least mine—spicy, cheesy beef; fried chicken tenders with a chili ranch dressing; marinated beef and pork with punchy, seasoned mayos or sour cream. The accents have a tendency to overpower, creating off-balance ingredient consistency inside.
It’s not easy to craft a burrito where the innards are evenly distributed. Well Dressed can churn out burritos with awkward pockets of contrasting flavors and textures. Since Well Dressed has a busy lunch crowd, it’s difficult to count on a perfectly wrapped and packaged burrito everytime—something Chipotle has been able to nail, somehow, as a high-volume national chain. (On a recent Well Dressed visit, one take-out marinated beef burrito boasted a large open wound of oozing black beans after the foil was peeled away. A disappointment for sure, but it goes with the territory.)
Burritos on Well Dressed’s regular menu, sadly, aren’t as exciting as I remember them from years ago. The flavor of marinated beef, pork, and chicken can be overpowered by beans and sour cream. I would love them more if tomatoes were more dominant, but that’s my personal preference. Others may prefer that mashed-up beany, sour creamy mess. I used to.
In today’s burrito culture, choice reigns supreme. But at Well Dressed, you can’t inspect your burrito’s construction underway like you can at Chipotle. That public assembly-line process wouldn’t fit in Well Dressed’s tiny space.
Well Dressed’s grilled fajita-style burritos, with onions and peppers but sans sour cream, should appeal to the better—healthier—angels of my nature, telling me to eat something less-dressed up. But a grilled salmon burrito I had recently again fell prey to its side elements. The salmon itself was bland, and the package was weighted down by black beans. (On other visits, salmon fared better as a non-burrito grill special.)
Unless it’s in a fish taco, it turns out that wrapping seafood in a tortilla is difficult to execute well. Surfside’s St. Barts burrito, with blackened fish, shredded lettuce, avocado, and pico de gallo, can create a soggy package with watered-down flavor. It’s a weak spot on the otherwise wonderful menu of the Glover Park burrito and taco place known for fresh ingredients. The salmon burrito at Well Dressed may underwhelm in the flavor department, but at least it stays together better.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been eating plenty of burritos to jog memories of my burrito-eating glory days, for better or worse. (After a few days of eating burritos for dinner or lunch back to back, my digestive tract wasn’t able to stomach a Burrito Ultimo from Baja Fresh last week. I’ll spare you the gory details.) What I’ve learned through this process is that my burrito attitude has shifted. Where I once loved a spicy, beany mash, I now prefer a burrito where only a couple of ingredients stand out.
Take Surfside’s Andros burrito, for instance, with grilled steak, grilled corn, tomatoes, yellow rice, and light cucumber dressing. It’s a simple package, where the juicy steak is the central element. I never feel corpulent after eating it. Similarly, a super-sized spinach burrito I had last week at the Burrito Brothers location in the International Square food court, filled with leafy greens and pico de gallo, was interesting for those same reasons on the balance of flavors.
Still, the counter clerk remarked, “Wow, that’s a big burrito.” It was, certainly. Just not as large as those at Well Dressed Burrito. In my recent burrito exploration around town, I’ve found Well Dressed’s burritos to be just too indulgent to digest, too massive to finish in one sitting. I’m full just thinking about it. Then again, for some burrito fans, a post-consumption food coma is something to relish with glee. Just be sure to take something to ease digestion.
Well Dressed Burrito, 1220 19th St. NW off the alley, (202) 293-0515
Burrito Brothers in International Square, 1825 I St. NW, (202) 887-8266
Burrito Brothers of Capitol Hill, 205 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, (202) 543-6835
Surfside, 2444 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 337-000
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Photos by Darrow Mongtomery