Aaron Gilbreath is a Portland-based journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, The Believer, and—hey look!—the Portland Mercury.
Having a “burrito-eating system” might mean that I’m fussy, but I don’t believe that being particular makes me difficult to please. I’m easy to please. Just give me a bean burro made with flavorful refritos wrapped inside a lightly grilled tortilla that won’t split at the bottom and spill beans on my lap, and I’ll be happy. Is that the mark of a difficult eater?
Burritos are hand food. Like hotdogs, samosas and satay, they are, as a form, cheap, filling and self-contained, which makes them ideal for people living with space, money and time restrictions. Whether they’re enormous, overstuffed Mission Style burritos or the thin, flimsy tubes of northern Mexico, burritos’ portability means they can be eaten quickly, without utensils, either standing in a cramped taquería or walking down the street. As someone raised in Phoenix, Arizona on both green chile and refried bean burros, I find the burrito a developmental highpoint in the span of culinary evolution, a food nearly perfect in its flavor and architectural simplicity.
Consider the burrito as an idea. Its most visible design element embodies its nature: the flour tortilla. Tortilla de harina is to-go container, utensil and ingredient, as injera is to Ethiopian food, pita is to schwarma, and the cone to ice cream. Tortilla’s message is one of relaxed hospitality: “Why lay these ingredients on a plate to be eaten with a knife and fork, when you can eat them and me at once, with your hands?” So too does the burrito’s name reflect the dish’s dependability and rugged functionality.
In Spanish, burrito means "little donkey." The reference is straightforward: on the 19th century Western frontier, donkeys carried miners’ heavy loads. So too could these large “rolled tacos” carry the mounds of charred meat and beans that frontier cooks piled into them, and they could manage the routine hardships of backcountry transport, the proverbial heavy-lifting of their four-legged namesake.
Although I’m no snob, I consider myself a burrito-devotee, meaning, I’m very particular about what I like in my burrito—just refried beans and salsa fresca, no cheese, aka “puro”; or a green chile burro, sin queso—and I could never live anywhere where I couldn’t easily access burritos. They are the defining food of my childhood, and my devotion to them runs so deep that it’s tempting to imagine them having descended from heaven, with God handing Adam a warm bean burro in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling painting¸ rather than giving Adam life with that outstretched finger. But as much as I worship this sacred torpedo, the so-called Cylindrical God, it isn’t perfect.
A) The ends can split and leak their contents.
B) When eaten upright, gravity forces fillings to the bottom, south of the culinary meridian along the tortilla’s rim. This leaves many early bites consisting disproportionately of tortilla, later ones overloaded with rice, beans or meat.
C) When added by the cook, salsa spreads unevenly, causing some bites to be tastier than others. Same, too, with guacamole and other condiments: they shift or aren’t always distributed to all corners.
D) Worst of all? The classic burrito bait-and-switch. Here you find yourself chewing layer upon floury layer of tortilla, with little of the main attraction, because the stingy cook put so little filling inside that calling this a burrito seems as fantastical as calling a head of lettuce a salad.
These aren’t problems of the form so much as creator errors. Some people fold better burros than others. You can’t fix the bait-and-switch problem, but you can reduce the stress and mess of issues A, B, C, and D. Hence my “system.”
Just as the Beatles’ songs evolved from effervescent pop to psychedelic soundscapes, so too has my technique advanced over time. Burritos aren’t croquembouche. Modifying their construction won’t ruin them. In one sense, burrito-eating seems a reflection of one’s larger approach to life: instead of passively accepting whatever the waiter hands you, with all of its flaws and untapped potential, take the burrito and improve upon it. At least that’s how I used to view my methodology. Now, at age thirty-eight, I’m comfortable admitting that I’m a little neurotic.
Step one: Pick up the burrito. Unlike a spaghetti situation, no one worthwhile will scoff for eating it with your hands. In fact, to those whose opinions matter, you will lose cachet if you don’t. Horizontality runs contrary to the burrito’s nature. Some joints might set your burro in a plastic basket or on a paper plate. Do not be fooled. These are but transient intermediaries in the transaction between the clerk’s hands and your own. Take the basket. Remove the burrito. Notice no utensils accompany it.
Step two: Check for structural weaknesses. Large cracks on the burrito’s ends? Hairline fractures? Sheering flakes? No one in their right mind would cross a bridge that had a fissure. If there’s a tortilla disturbance on one end, then I start eating that faulty end. But choose wisely. You can’t switch sides because food will then ooze from two sides at once, and holding the burrito level to slow the leakage while trying to brace and eat it will only hasten the spillage. Trust me. I’ve tried. Like jumping three ropes simultaneously, this trick requires an expert skill and lack of concern for appearances, which I don’t possess.
A word about leakage: It’s often the tortilla’s fault. That might sound like a line lovelorn burritos would use while breaking up (it’s not you, it’s my tortilla), but it is true. Some crack before leaving the kitchen. That’s why elastic ones made with lard make great burritos: they can withstand the minor but inevitable rigors of folding, squeezing, expansion and contraction. That’s also why lightly grilling instead of steaming helps reduce the risk of breakage: it toughens the tortilla’s exterior, rather than softening it to paste.
Still, let’s be honest. Leakage often results from lazy or unskilled rollers. They leave ends that unravel, tuck the burrito’s sides, but not tightly. I’m not saying burro-wrapping is as challenging as laying level concrete, but building dependable burritos with solid joints does require skilled craftspeople.
To complicate matters, the severity and likelihood of leakage varies by burrito type. Issues that plague the soupy bean or green chile don’t necessarily affect brawny, chunky carne asada. Frijoles refritos with a (blessedly) high lard content tend to be fluid and therefore more prone to act like the damned rivers that they are, seeking the lowest available point when given the opportunity. Big hunks of charred beef? Not going to slip through a torn tortilla so easily.
Step three: A pre-flight cross-check. Once you take that first bite, you’ve committed to holding the burro till the end, depending on the viscosity of your selection. Since I usually eat bean, I do everything I need before starting: scratch my nose; pour tea; take my wallet out of my back pocket so I don’t lean to one side. I think of these meals as I once thought of flights as a smoker: if you need nicotine, you have to get it before passing through airport security. (Admittedly, you can stand the sturdier Mission Style upright on its thick, wide end, leaving it like a dog tied to a tree, but too top-heavy a burro will spill its proverbial beans.)
Step four: Ready the fork and salsa. Although I never cut bites, I fork salsa into the top of my burro. Sometimes I feel like a 19th-century train conductor feeding coal into the engine. Other times I feel like I’m caulking the spaces between tiles. You need a tool for both activities, something to pack in the materials, and I ring my eating area with open salsa containers, alternating red, green and pico de gallo like a string of colored Christmas lights, to provide immediate access. I want beans and tortilla and salsa in each bite, a big payoff.
To get salsa in satisfactorily, I drop a bunch into my burrito’s open top, tapping the salsa container to dislodge any resistant bits as you would a salt shaker. Then I move to the middle of the burrito, tap in another bit, then fill the opposite side. This way, salsa covers the burrito’s entire crown, which I measure not in inches but bites. (For me, a good burro is usually three medium-sized bites wide (or two big bites), making a two and a half inch wide burrito rim about “three bites worth.”)
It gets weirder.
To keep the salsa inside, I position it below the tortilla’s lip. Balanced along the rim, chunks of tomato and onion can fall over the side like terrified boatsmen fleeing a wreck. To avoid this waste, I create room for salsa by removing beans between bites. I drop in salsa, take bites. Then between bites, I fork out some beans.
To draw beans to the surface, I give the burrito a squeeze—nothing hard, just a gentle nudge. Then I run my thumbs up the sides to bring up more beans and fork them. When I relax my grip, the rest drop back into the burrito’s interior, creating the perfect little pocket to deposit salsa. It’s crazy and delicious.
Not everyone warms to the idea of a system. As one friend said: “I find having a ‘technique’ takes all the enjoyment out of discovery.” It’s an understandable criticism. The act of discovery requires we make ourselves receptive to the unexpected, which necessitates setting aside as many expectations as possible, particularly ideas of what we will or will not find on our ramble, of what’s worth investigating. Some of my favorite dishes, albums and books were accidental discoveries: a favorite novel at a thrift store; overhearing a cool-sounding record mentioned on the bus; ordering Guay Tiew Look Chin Pla Tom Yum instead of ubiquitous pad Thai. If I, as a curious eater and reader, didn’t meet the world as an open node, attuned to chance encounters and guided by wonder, I would never have found these favorites. But with burritos, I’m no longer exploring. I’m enjoying what I like. And my burrito-eating system always, always, delivers what I want: salsa and beans in every bite; a tortilla that doesn’t break; and food that doesn’t stain my clothes. Few areas of life deliver such consistency.
Which reminds me: don’t hold a burrito over your chest like a bowl of popcorn. Hold it out with your legs apart so falling matter lands on the grass instead of on you. Mine is a “system,” but it isn’t perfect.