So eat it…
-Weird Al Yankovic
I love food. More to the point, I love well prepared food. I long for beef that is well seasoned, and not overcooked. I find handmade pasta to be inspiring, and dried pasta, so long as it is not over-saturated in boiling water, to be quite good as well. I despise over-reliance on processed sauces of any kind–Thai sweet chili to chipotle honey glaze. And to me, the chain family restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse, are the worst (even more so than fast food restaurants).
I believe food has the capacity to inspire. If one is lucky, a thoughtfully, and/or lovingly prepared plate of food can facilitate an exciting, comforting, jarring, and even an euphoric moment; fleeting as it may be. I have experienced these moments, myself, and I hope others get to have inspiring food experiences due to well prepared food too.
Quite often there is an added cost attached to my qualifier, “well prepared,” and as such, I have been labeled bourgy, elitist, and a bit of a food snob. This may be unfair, or it may be true. If the latter is the case, I think I can accept it as one of my many permanent character flaws.
I have one friend in particular who likes to remind me of my food snobbery. Recently, we ordered takeout from a restaurant called India Clay Oven, rather than
our usual spot, Star India. After I remarked on, what I believed to be, an obvious difference in quality (Clay Oven proving to be superior), my friend shook his head, and smiled. Food, he explained to me, was food. He could not, for the life of him, differentiate between the quality of the two. All food was good to him. He pointed out that my understanding of quality was socially constructed and subjective. Furthermore, he explained, food was fuel, and he believed we should be appreciative to have food of any quality, as some go without.
I agree that we should be appreciative of the food we are privileged enough to have. I do not, however, believe I should settle for poorly prepared food. I’m not saying we should spit out sub-par food and berate the chef. I do, however, believe in frequenting establishments that prepare things that I like, and foregoing the establishments I do not enjoy as much.
As for my friend’s assertion that my idea of quality preparation is something that develops through socialization… I had to let that one fully sink in a bit.
He is probably right. Is there really an objective and universally accepted set of criteria for a “refined” palate? Some folks find rare meat to be revolting, so who am I to say that their perspective on meat is wrong. Raw fish was mostly seen as abhorrent (and to some, still is) before sushi became mainstream. And, while one can be taught to notice and appreciate the nuances of an ingredient or food, ultimately all the analytical stuff falls short of answering the most important question one can ask about a dish: Does it taste good?
Taste–in the face of food competitions, food blogs, food critics, and foodies–is
subjective. I am guilty of being judgmental of the palates of others; secretly waiving them off as picky, unadventurous, underexposed, unimaginative, or just plain wrong. Reader’s choice awards, and “best ofs,” may reflect the populous, or an astute person’s perspective on food, but the fact of the matter is, one can never be wrong about what one likes.
Take one of my favorite meals on earth, burritos, for example. I have observed countless ways people have chosen to use a flour tortilla as a pocket for flavorful ingredients. Clearly, folks have different understandings of what a burrito should be. In San Diego, there are a lot of places that do burritos without beans and cheese. Also in San Diego, I consumed a burrito the size of a small baby, deep fried and topped with sauce (This was not bad, just different… and potentially life-threatening). A friend of mine, who is considering opening up a restaurant of his own, says that in Mexico, the quality of the tortilla is as important as the filling, if not more so.
So in the spirit of acknowledging my friend’s assertion that food quality comes through socialization, here are my personal socialized beliefs when it comes to burritos:
I have been socialized to think of a burritos as flour tortillas filled with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, and meat (guacamole, hot sauce, and sour cream is optional),
There are ways to ruin this beautiful parcel:
- Stiff Tortilla/Failure to Heat the Tortilla– During my two-year stint in Burlington, Vermont, I was pumped to see a burrito shop open up near my place of residence. Sadly, the burritos from this eatery turned out to be a disappointment, mostly due to their inability to get the tortilla right. I watched as the woman pulled out the stiff flour disk, laid it upon the cold steel counter, spooned meat rice and beans onto the disk, and folded the disk around the wet contents. The tortilla cracked, thus failing to hold the package together. Moreover, the tortilla was cold, contrasted poorly with the hot ingredients, felt crumbly, and tasted chalky.
- Ketchup/Marinara Sauce–I hate to pick on Vermont, but this should really go without saying. Ketchup or Marinara sauce is no substitution for salsa. I should be more understanding, considering my aforementioned adolescent theory that ketchup should replace tomato sauce with pasta, but I’m not. Grown people with a business should not substitute salsa willy-nilly with other tomato-based condiments/sauces. Thanks for teaching me this lesson, Vermont (by the way, this egregious mistake was actually made another “Mexican” restaurant, not the burrito place mentioned above).
- Undercooked Beans–I didn’t even know that one could undercook beans until I tried our cafeteria’s version of a burrito. I found the hardness of the beans to be unpleasant among the otherwise palatable ingredients. Similar to the cold tortilla, the beans were chalky.
- Lettuce–I am not necessarily a stickler for this one; it is more of a preference. I don’t like lettuce in my burrito. I can, however, take a little. I do believe that too much lettuce, and especially the wrong lettuce–romaine, and especially lettuce cut up–romaine cut like it is being used for a Caesar salad,
can really ruin a burrito.
- Peas and Carrots–Personally, I’m just not a fan of peas and carrots in my rice.
If a burrito does one or more of the following, there is a good chance it will make my mental list of burrito debacles. On the flip side, is my all time favorite burrito spot, which can do no wrong, Gordo Taqueria, specifically the one on Solono Avenue in Albany, California. Would it be selected as the best, highest quality, and most authentic burrito place of all time? It is debatable; I have seen it on a few lists, but it also has its long list of detractors.
Gordo’s, however, if I am being completely honest with myself, makes the burrito I have been socialized to believe is the epitome of excellence.
When my parents decided that their two pudgy sons should cut down on Burger King and McDonalds, it was the Gordo Taqueria burrito that helped my brother and I ween our way off of trans fats. When my parents were too tired to make dinner, Gordo’s. After long games of pick-up at the elementary school, Gordo’s. After our middle school basketball games, Gordo’s. After our high school basketball games, Gordo’s. When I came home on break from Vermont, the land void of burritos, the first thing I wanted was Gordo’s (Yes, I know it is called Gordo Taqueria, but we call it Gordo’s).
I have come to think of the men at Gordo Taqueria as masters of the burrito-making craft. They effortlessly construct each burrito with blinding speed. The tortilla goes into the steamer with cheese, the lever is pulled, a sound like a small locomotive coming to a stop sounds; the tortilla fused with cheese is tossed on to the counter; rice, choice of beans, choice of meat, “tomatoes?” (pico de gallo), “cream?” (sour cream), “guacamole?” (which I think is actually a combination of sour cream and guacamole), “hot sauce?” (“yes, please”). The master splatters the flour-based canvas with each ingredient like Jackson Pollock. Then, with a few flicks of the wrist, the maestro has the burrito neatly wrapped up. With a silver flash, and a few more flicks and twists of the wrist, the burrito is in tinfoil. A minute later, the burrito is out the door.
I drool a little bit, just thinking about a Gordo burrito. The cheese melts and congeals beautifully with the beans. A chewy tortilla encompasses the meal. Loose, yet not overly seasoned rice acts as a canvas for the rest of the flavors. Simple, juicy, lightly-charred chicken, hot sauce that is actually spicy. The burrito is not overly-soppy with excess salsa or sour cream, which I like, since personally, I want my burrito to be more composed, and less drippy. In the end, this dense torpedo becomes a product I would rank among my favorite comfort foods.
Now I must admit, I was a bit unfaithful when the flashy High Tech Burrito opened a block away (seriously, it was called High Tech). I also believe that Cactus Taqueria, about eight blocks up, might be a better restaurant. Yet after all these years, I still believe Gordo’s serves up the best burrito. Does this really mean anything? I don’t know… since it’s all socially constructed in the end.