LET’S TALK ABOUT BURRITOS JUAREZ. At first finding myself in a small West Lawn strip mall parking lot, I wonder why I’m not headed to the smoky pleasures of the pocho id that is bustling Zacatacos, just to the north. However, something even better awaits, Burritos Juarez, merely by crossing a side street.
But first, let’s make it clear: burritos are tacos. Bill Esparza and Gustavo Arellano have fought the good fight here in doing the legwork, but the burrito is definitely a form of taco, mostly found in Mexico’s northern states that consume flour tortillas and corn, rather than the all-corn diets further south. It probably starts with a guisado (simple stew), a flour tortilla and a smear of refried beans. And that’s what you’ll get and, lo, it will be good. In America we grew them into the oversized mission burritos (named for the neighborhood in San Francisco, not anything south of the border) stuffed with rice, or iceberg lettuce and industrial tomatoes. But in Mexico they remain modest in size, and you can reasonably expect to want three or four of different fillings.
I like to meditate on the nature of the rajas con queso burrito, which, while not the most obviously appealing menu item, should be pretty damn close to a must-order. A slick of melted cheese (Chihuahua, of course) blends blistered poblano peppers on a tortilla. While the rajas con queso excels in its simplicity, the chile relleno burrito is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a deep dish pizza burrito, as the cheese overflows out of the tortilla if you don’t manage to pick it up fast enough.
The tortillas, incidentally, are made custom for Burritos Juarez, and trust me, the lard-laced thick specimens are well worth a visit in their own right. You’ll probably end up with somewhere between 2-4 burritos, some stews, and the job of figuring out how to best lace the serrano-addled salsa verde across the steamed beef from the head of your barbacoa burrito. The thick tortillas have far less stretch than those used in mission burritos, and deserve further study. The blister marks, on a good day for the kitchen, give you a leopard spotting that would be fitting on the underside of a Neapolitan pizza.
CIUDAD JUAREZ HAS BEEN ONE of the most maligned cities in common discourse, held up in both American and Mexican media as the Fallujah of the current cartel drug war. Burritos Juarez is a new entrant in Chicago norteño cuisine, which has been dominated by entrants from Durango, which, although norteño, is not a state that borders the US. The deshebrada, a shredded beef stew, is prevalent at restaurants specializing in Duranguense cuisine, but the version at Burritos Juarez is heavily spiced using fresh, rather than dried chiles and serves as an introduction to the burritos available. You’ll want to try it.
On the other hand, you might want to avoid the influence of Juarez’s northern neighbor, presented in the form of a salchicha burrito, a bizarre mismash of a Vienna beef hot dog, beans and cheese on a tortilla. I’m sure it’s a taste of home for somebody, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it.
I think, in another neighborhood, in another era of food blogging, Burritos Juarez would become an object of cult-fascination, a window into the alternate history where gabachos learned to love the guisados rather than the wan meats a la plancha that dominate the overstuffed, mission-style burritos and their ilk that drive “Mexican” restaurants across the nation.
The Chile Relleno burrito is the closest thing to a deep dish pizza burrito, as the cheese overflows out of the tortilla if you don’t manage to pick it up fast enough.
The history of how the mission style evolved and deviated from the norteño style burrito is one of useful study, and this nation’s set of burrito preferences always manages to befuddle me. I owe allegiance to the stew burritos of my childhood at El Tepeyac or Al and Bea’s bean and cheese sack in L.A., but apparently most people prefer the rice-laden stylings that are roughly based on the mission style. I think that Chicago and the greater midwest has a lock on the addition of iceberg lettuce to their burritos, and even places like Burritos Juarez are beholden to the demands of consumer capitalism and offer the not so good “Chicago style” burrito.
But look past that and go to one of the best chile rellenos in Chicago. Placed into the flour tortillas that you’ll head home dreaming about, it becomes an eggy, cheesy, delicious mess that will, without fail, drip across your hands. You won’t be mad, though, picking stray bits of chile off the paper wrapping you unfolded your burrito from.
You might also find yourself indulging in the permanent special of the colita de pavo torta. Literally translated as “turkey tail”, these chile-marinated bits of turkey (which I’m pretty sure are the oyster meat from the thigh) grace about the best version of a torta we can expect from a non-specialist. You can tell that the taqueria is an excellent one from the attention to detail—rather than canned jalapenos on the torta, we get freshly grilled strips of the pepper.
Burritos Juarez deserves to be on the map of any short list of excellent regional Mexican restaurants in this fair city. Maybe we can correct one small historical injustice at a time. You can fill your burrito with guisados or even a la plancha asada and pastor, but either way, you’ll be tapping into some primordial taco id before the Chipotlization of everything wrecked perception of the fine burrito. You’ll exit listening to a Southwest jet on Midway approach while cops pull up to neighboring restaurants, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t have to wait 40 minutes to get some of the best Mexican food in Chicago, and why this isn’t filling the Norteño slot on ten best lists all over town.
Hunter Owens believes in Burrito Justice, sans rice. His most recent piece for Fooditor was The Fooditor Guide to Birria on Chicago’s Southwest Side.
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