Entry-Level Eating

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Better Burrito

My mother and my little sister once went behind the back of the man who cuts their hair. Another stylist's scissors touched their heads, and although they were both happy with the results, their happiness was marred by the creeping guilt they felt from cheating on their hair guy.

It was like cheating--trading in someone who has been good to you, who you've loved and chased after for someone new and exciting, in hopes of finding that spark, that excitement. But, for me, in a new city, getting my hair cut by a new stylist, I can feel good about that. This small, transactional relationship, I can recreate in a new place, a new city, with new routines and new hair salons.

But not all such relationships are so easily replicated. This week I also bought my first DC burrito, and that I did not feel so good about. Although they certainly don't care, I felt like I was cheating on the New Haven burrito guys.

The burritos we ate in New Haven began with portabello mushrooms and juicy onions, which even devoted meat-eaters might choose, over beans and rice. Then, the cooling, fresh tomato salsa, flecked with green cilantro, and what must have been the secret ingredient, a crunchy cabbage slaw. Plus cheese, and from the squeeze bottles a spurt of sour cream and chipolte hot sauce. Guacamole was almost, but not always, unnecessary.

The burrito cart guys wore big black pants patterned with bright red chiles. One taught certain customers to say "es una noche hermosa" on fall evenings. One, a devoted socialist, was dating a girl who went to one or two of the same parties as my friends.

The best burrito cart I've seen in DC boasts its own traditions: a choice of beans (black, refried, or both--black and tan), an arsenal of hot sauces (there are fifty--hotness on a scale of one to ten; fruity or not fruity), and a free York Peppermint Patty mint. It is, I will say, a respectable burrito, perhaps the best burrito I've had outside of New Haven.

During one stint away from school, I experimented with other burritos, with cilantro rice or a medley of veggies, with generic hot sauce or no hot sauce at all.

I might have been eating Indian food, so far from my burrito were these other rice-and-bean based wraps. That the New Haven burrito and other burritos similarly contain beans, rice, vegetables, cheese, tomatoes seems as much a necessary coincidence as that a human and an antelope are built of the same fundamental particles. The building blocks may be the same, but the end result could not be more different. Southwestern TexMex? The New Haven burrito came from some other source of inspiration; it substantiated one day on the corner of York and Broadway as if unaffiliated with any other culinary idiom.

Is it worth ever eating again tasting a burrito? Once accustomed to a most successful version of a classic idea, why let less Platonic forms the dish impose upon the accumulated experience of the dish? Or to put it more simply, can I continue cheating on the best burrito I've ever had?

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