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What Makes a Good Burrito?

A variety of ingredients and intense flavors define burritos made locally.

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

Aerolite May 24, 2011 at 05:26 PM
La colmena store on west lake st. serve very good burritos.
Cecile Mills May 24, 2011 at 05:54 PM
I have to say I'm prejudiced, but I love the food places in Pajaro because I live in the hills nearby. The Pajaro Food Center is the closest grocery store to my house. Pajaro Food Center take-out was my main place for years as I worked til late and the Pajaro Food Center became my go-to place--they're open til 9 p.m. The prices are great, the food is well-prepared and ready, the staff is friendly and helpful, and the choices allow me varied meals. I also must point out wonderful Carnitas--the shredded port--at the Mexico Meat Market--it's their specialty Go to the back of the store, like you do with the Pajaro Food Center. The Mexico Meat Market is down the same street as the Pajaro Food Center going towards the Pajaro Bridge. The address is 22 Porter (that street starts in Watsonville as Main, then becomes Porter as you cross the bridge, and then as you go around "the curve" it becomes Salinas Road--don't be too confused). Another Mexico Meat Market treat is their ice cream---it's fantastic. Made from fresh ingredients, Mexico style-- I've already sampled the arroz (rice pudding), coco (coconut), cafe (coffee), fresa (strawberry), and vanilla, and I've got more to go. The price is right at the Mexico Meat Market too, so enjoy. Maria is the owner along with her husband the butcher Ari who makes the great carnitas tacos and burritos. She speaks fluent English as do others there. Take a quick trip to heaven and cruise Pajaro for some of the best eating anywhere.
Emma Walter May 25, 2011 at 06:17 AM
D la Colmena has super delicious breakfast burritos and awesome carnitas burritos!! You definitely need to give them a try!
Emma Walter May 25, 2011 at 06:21 AM
The daily specials at $3.95 are an awesome deal on a short budget
Jean Vengua May 28, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Thanks everyone for your burrito tips. The artichoke hearts burrito is a new one on me, but I'd love to try it. Emma and Aerolite, I've been to D' La Colmena, but haven't had the burritos -- I'm sure they are great. Cecile, it looks like you know your local vendors pretty well; I will check out the Mexico Meat Market!

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