The burrito’s origins are rooted in Northern Mexico, where the dish is traditionally made with braised meat, salsa, and a small helping of beans, held together by a handmade flour tortilla. The traditional burrito, and more broadly Mexican cuisine as a whole, relies on the contrast of flavours and textures — succulent meats, fiery roasted chillies and the freshest onions, cilantro and tomatoes, all enveloped in handmade tortillas made by perfectly combining the simple ingredients of harina and manteca (flour and lard). The burrito’s beauty lies in this harmony.
In contrast, the food we regard as a burrito in Ireland is complete and utter rubbish – barely fit for consumption. To call a burrito from Pablo Picante or Mama’s Revenge “Mexican food” is an insult to Mexico and its culinary tradition. The handmade tortilla has been replaced by a bland wrap, designed like a heavy-duty garbage bag to contain as much tasteless rice, overcooked meat, and watery beans as humanly possible. The widespread popularity of substandard Dublin burrito shops invites the question: how is there is such a booming market in this city for such utter mediocrity?
Firstly, we must blame the United States of America. The United States is responsible for the widespread bastardization of Mexican food. Americans managed to reduce a diverse body of regional cuisines – based on the fusion of Mesoamerican and Spanish cooking and recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage – to a flavourless, unimaginative parcel of meh. More specifically, we must blame Glen Bell of California, who began the empire of culinary mediocrity, Taco Bell, in the 1950’s. That food empire is responsible for such monstrosities as the Doritos Locos Taco and the Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Bell’s success paved the way for later quasi-Mexican food chains, such as Chipotle. Founded in the early 1990’s, it popularised the unimaginative assembly line burrito creations we know in Ireland today. But perhaps most of all, we must blame the public. Those who consumed the horrendous creations of Taco Bell and Chipotle were the ones who allowed the trend to flourish, valuing convenience over flavour and frugality over authenticity.
Great Mexican food can be made in America, just not in a cheap, tawdry corporate way. All across Southern California, small taco stands turn out thousands of incredible, inexpensive meals every day. These independently owned and operated restaurants, invariably staffed by hard working Mexican-American families and Mexican immigrants, exercise pride in preparation along with respect for the simple, traditional staples of Mexican fare: the taco, tamale, torta, enchilada and burrito. Perhaps the best example is Las Cuatro Milpas in Barrio Logan, a traditional Mexican neighbourhood in San Diego, just miles from the border. Here, an all-woman collective prepares each component of Mexican food from scratch every day. Huge cauldrons of braised pork, seasoned rice, and roasted chile salsa simmer in the open kitchen. A team of women prepare thousands of fresh flour and corn tortillas within view of diners sitting on folding metal chairs on a bare concrete floor. They have been doing it since 1933. People line up, sometimes for more than an hour, to partake.
San Diego is among the dozens of cities in South Western America that benefits from the cultural fusion between Mexico and the United States. In states like Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, whose histories and cultures share deep ties with Mexico, Mexican-American cuisine flourishes. This is largely because of the Mexican diaspora in the region. In these states, both traditional Mexican and Mexican-American cuisine can be found. But while the tasteless gringo’s burrito has become ubiquitous in the face of globalisation, it seems that many great traditional Mexican foods such as tostadas, pozole, sopes, chile relleno, tamales, nopales, ceviche and mole have failed to become as internationally recognised. In a country like Ireland, which is still far behind in the international food scene, the intricacies of traditional Mexican cuisine have been all but ignored, while the quasi-Mexican wrap we call a burrito continues to flourish.
But there is hope for us here in Ireland. With every year, the nation becomes more progressive, more culturally diverse, and its food scene, especially in Dublin, continues to improve with the introduction of new and innovative restaurants. The success of Asian fusion restaurants, such as Opium and Govindas, illustrates the constantly growing appetite for international cuisine, and Mexican fusion eateries 777 and Xico prove that we are not entirely incapable of making good quasi-Mexican food, as long as customers are willing to dish out for a meal. Our Mexican food will probably never be as good as Southern California’s, and that’s okay. But we can do better than Tolteca. We have to.
As Dubliners, we must be conscious consumers, and rise above the temptation to gorge ourselves on the bland, albeit convenient garbage that the Dublin burrito shops peddle to us. Each time we buy a burrito from Little Ass, we are only further supporting this unimaginative insult to Mexican cuisine. But most importantly, we need a hero. We need a Mexican food joint that is actually affordable for students, while still maintaining dignity in taste. Luckily, traditional Mexican food requires only simple ingredients and is relatively inexpensive to make. But it requires pride in preparation and respect for its source. Let’s stop making Mexican food so bland that even Donald Trump would eat it. Let’s stop using premade tortillas that are more akin to kitchen roll than edible food. And for the love of God, let’s put that Tolteca burrito in the trash where it belongs.