June 4, 2014

Have burrito - will travel

If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about something serious today: burritos.

How I love them. For me there are few food experiences as satisfying as watching meat, cheese, and vegetables get wrapped into a bundle the size of a small baby and then eating it as if I were channeling Joey Chestnut. Those of you who follow me on Facebook know of my ubiquitous visits to Chipotle, but really my love for burritos goes back to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican* restaurant in the Chicago suburbs called Los Burritos Tapatios, known colloquially as “El Tap.”

El Tap was a favorite of my college classmates, mostly because it was cheap, fast, and open until 4:00 AM which made it a perfect destination after a night of heavy drinking. I didn’t make my first visit until my junior year of college - as hard as it is to believe, I’d never really considered myself a fan of Mexican food before then - but one visit was enough to hook me. My first visit quickly turned into something of a weekly ritual, even during the period of nearly a year when I abstained from drinking. If anything, my visits became more frequent after I sobered up. I owned a minivan at the time so it became customary for my intoxicated roommates and friends to stumble into my room and pull me out of bed at 2:00 AM and drive them to El Tap because I was: a) the perfect DD, and b) I had a car big enough to seat them all. As payment for my burrito taxi service, one of them would buy food for me and I received a guarantee that there would be no vomiting in the car to or from the restaurant.

After college I lived briefly in the suburb of Glendale Heights, which is heavily Hispanic and overrun with little burrito restaurants and taquerias. I tried them all and liked nearly all of them but El Tap has always been my gold standard for the perfect burrito. They had another location in nearby Glen Ellyn and during my grad school days I would stop in on my way home after class. It was usually close to midnight but the place would be full of people working the night shift - truck drivers, nurses, policemen, and so forth. I usually avoid eating by myself in restaurants - something about it makes me anxious - but El Tap is the only place I’ve ever felt comfortable eating alone.

When I moved to Albany my burrito focus shifted to Chipotle, mostly because there aren’t that many other options. I like their burritos but I think that my ramp-up in visits might be sort of a comfort food thing. I ate at Chipotle a lot in Chicago too, and out of all the places I used to frequent out there (El Tap, Portillo’s, Potbelly’s, Giordano’s) it’s the only one that has locations in Albany. When it seemed like my entire world was changing it was soothing to know that I could go to Chipotle and the flavors would make me feel at home again, even if it was just for a few minutes. Nowadays Albany feels more like home than Chicago does but I still go to Chipotle almost religiously because, like I said, I think it tastes good.

Apart from Chipotle, the area burrito scene is pretty sad. We have Moe’s, another nationwide chain (I go there on occasion but if I’m ever given the choice between Moe’s and Chipotle I’ll always pick Chipotle.), and a regional chain called Hot Harry’s which I have not yet visited, mostly because I think their name sounds unappealing. Albany just doesn’t have the Hispanic population to support much in the way of burrito places. There are a handful of sit-down Mexican restaurants but they too “nice,” the type where you go for dinner and margaritas as an evening social event, not to scarf down a burrito at 1:00 AM. The closest thing I have found to El Tap is actually just a few blocks away from my house, a tiny restaurant and grocery store called La Mexicana that according to local food bloggers is by far the most authentic place around. Their burritos are good, excellent even, but they lack something I can’t quite put my finger on. The taste is there, the consistency and ingredients are there too, but I don’t think it could ever be a true replacement for El Tap. It’s Pepsi instead of Coke, U2 instead of R.E.M., a Camaro instead of a Mustang - the first things are all okay in their own right (well okay, Pepsi does kind of suck) but once you try the second you really don’t want to go back. If there are any other burrito places around there that I’m missing, please let me know. Until then, I’ll be at Chipotle. 

*Before anyone from the Southwest (ahem, Ashley) chimes in, let me say that I don’t really care whether or not my burrito experiences are “authentic.” I like them because they taste good, and I’m fully aware that what I eat may bear little resemblance to anything found in Mexico. It’s like American Chinese food - I know that the nuggets of unidentifiable fried meat covered in neon red sauce, canned pineapple, and white rice we call “sweet and sour chicken” is about a Chinese as lederhosen, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking it’s delicious. 

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