August 9, 2008

Ode to Papalote


I love burritos. In fact, I sometimes consider myself to be somewhat of a burrito snob. It seems a strange thing to claim to be a know-it-all of a food that, when translated from Spanish to English, means "little donkey." Yes, while some people are connoisseurs of fine wine, moose milk cheese, and rare melons (a black melon just sold in Japan for over $6,000!), I like to think of myself as a connoisseur of the widely popular (though culinarily underestimated) "little donkey." My snobbery only costs me, on average, $2 to $5 a pop. This is a snobbery I can afford.

Burritos have long been considered a dish of the people: they're cheap, they travel well, and when stored properly, they can stay fresh and delicious for days on end. What's even better is that the options for filling are endless. While some prefer their burritos to be stuffed with eggs, burritos, and black beans, others might prefer wine-marinated shrimp, Soyrizo or tiger prawns. If it's edible, chances are it has been stuffed into a burrito.

But even if it seems impossible to ruin the delicious, populist fare that is burrito, I am sure that all of us, at one time or another, have been a little less than impressed with the results. Sometimes the cook skimps on the main ingredients (which, in most cases, would include the fillings with the most protein: beans, meat, tofu or eggs). Other times the many ingredients are not evenly allocated before the cook begins the ever-artful wrapping process; as a result, one end of your burrito might contain all the lettuce and cheese, while the other end is heavy on the beans and guacamole. In any case, a dish that seems easy enough to master can go wrong in a number of ways.

Papalote, however, was very right. When I visited my friend Jaime in San Francisco last January, she told me she had a new obsession: a local burrito joint by the name of Papalote. Jaime's obsessions, more often than not, soon become mine. Over the years we have shared a love for Virgin Mary knick-knacks, Frida Kahlo paintings, and Tarot readings. If she loves it, I know it's cool. So, I was a little more than eager to sink my teeth into a burrito from a place she was tauting as "her favorite burrito joint--ever."

Boy, was I impressed.

I ordered the wine- and butter-marinated shrimp burrito, which also came loaded with black beans, rice, avocado, tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese. Mexican street food usually comes with a number of free sides, including salted cucumber, radishes, and pickled carrots; I was pleased, therefore, to find my plate adorned with radishes, melon and mango. The contents of the burrito were evenly allocated, so that with every bite my teeth sliced gently into a succulent, deliciously seasoned shrimp. This is rare; in the past when I have ordered a shrimp burrito, the pieces of shrimp were few and far between. Not with a Papalote burrito. Each bite gave me just what I wanted: juicy shrimp, Monterrey Jack cheese, black beans and rice, all fused together in both taste and texture. The flour tortilla was lightly toasted, which made the burrito much firmer and easier to handle--not to mention, tasty!

7 months have passed since I devoured this burrito, and I am still obsessing over it. The only problem is that there are over 2,500 miles between me and Papalote. Damn the size of this country...

While researching San Francisco burritos, I found that many residents of the Bay Area have intense feelings regarding local burrito history and culture. On Wikipedia, there is even an entry for "San Francisco Burrito"! Interestingly enough, San Fran burritos are noted for being loaded with rice (unlike traditional Mexican burritos) and hefty in weight. Many Bay Area blogs devote themselves entirely to the burrito. I admire their obsession with and respect for a meal that I hold close to my heart--and mouth.

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