What makes a good burrito? Until I lived near Watsonville, I don’t think I really knew. During my childhood, the only burritos nearby came from fast-food stands that served ground beef with bland frijoles, rice and melted cheese, wrapped in a flour tortilla.
If I was lucky, a bit of salsa and sour cream was included. There was rarely a choice of meat, and even then, it was only chicken and beef.
Still, the humble burrito has always been a standard take-out food in California. It’s cheap, portable and contains plenty of protein and carbs. For many years, it seemed just fine to me.
Things are different in the Pajaro Valley, however, where there are many taquerias and mercados (markets) and taco trucks. Naturally they all compete to make the best-tasting burritos.
But here’s where things get interesting. It begins with the variety of ingredients. Most of the small, family owned eateries in the Pajaro Valley offer much more than beef or chicken burritos. You can usually expect most, if not all, of the following choices:
- carne asada (roast or grilled beef)
- pescado (fish)
- pollo (chicken)
- carnitas (slow-roasted pork)
- lengua (tongue)
- cabeza (head)
- birria (meat stew, usually goat)
At , you can get a chile relleno burrito (a cheese-stuffed poblano chile with beans and rice, wrapped in a tortilla).
Generally you have a choice of rice and frijoles or whole beans, as well as salsa, and other ingredients, like onions and cilantro. I prefer my burrito without rice, and a minimum of beans. Too many starches obscure the flavor of the meat.
A sign at the announces that Sunset magazine has declared they offer “California's must-eat burritos,” so I gave it a try. The taqueria inside the market offers the usual array of meats (see above), with a choice of onion, beans, rice, tomatoes and red or green salsa. I ordered a burrito with only carnitas (slow-roasted pork), cilantro and onions.
The contrast between a boring, fast-food burrito, and the Pajaro Food Center’s burrito is ridiculous. The Food Center burrito doesn’t need beans or rice, or for that matter, salsa, to make it taste like a burrito should. The carnitas had been slow-roasted long enough to make the meat succulent. Some of the fatty juices were caramelized, adding notes of slightly sweet intensity. And let’s face it: grease is the word, and it conveys flavor straight to the brain’s amygdala. This was a great burrito.
On a tip from a friend, I also tried a burrito at on Main Street. Aside from the choices of meat mentioned above, their taqueria also offers adobada (marinated meat, often with vinegar and red chili sauce), buche (pork stomach), and a “desayuno” (breakfast) burrito. I ordered the adobada.
The burrito was rather homely (the thin, flour tortilla had absorbed a lot of sauce, and looked like a large, reddish-brown potato), but its flavor packed a wallop.
The generous portion of spicy ground beef was mixed with red chili flakes, onions, whole pinto beans and jack cheese. Leaking red chili oil, the burrito was a bit messy—but truly flavorful, with a lot of heat. Once again, grease was an important conveyor of taste; if you need to avoid fat, order a chicken or fish burrito.
What makes a good burrito? Among other things, experience, and a culture that celebrates variety and intense flavors. But don’t take my word for it. Come to the Pajaro Valley, where you’ll find the burrito of your dreams.
El Frijolito Restaurant: 11-B Alexander St. Hours: Mon.—Fri. 10 a.m.—9:30 p.m., Sat.—Sun. 10 a.m.—7 p.m. 831-724-8823
Pajaro Food Center: 307 Salinas Rd. Hours: Daily, 8 a.m.—8 p.m. 831-724-3654
La Princesa Market: 1260 Main St. Hours: Mon—Fri, 7am—8 p.m.; Sat - Sun, 9p.m—7p.m. 831-763-1834