Author – Jim (after a long debate on content, of course)

We all freqent them, and know them well. The mainstay of a college town, the custom burrito store. Also knows as “Qdoba,” and “Chipotle.” But have you also visited the lesser know, but similarly decorated “Pancheros” and “Burrachos.” In the end, they are ubiquitous, and essentially the same restaurant. But Amy and I have eaten about a hundred burritos and tacos and offer you a different kind of review. Instead of reviewing the all separately, we off the following best of list.

DISCLAIMER– in no way shape or form do Amy and I think these places a true and authentic representation of Mexican food. I (Jim) think Mexican food is truly food of the Gods, and deserves better than to be summed up by a review of the custom burrito world. Read later blogs for reviews of “real” Mexican food.  Also, we are intentionally reviewing the known chain burrito stores in the Madison area. We are, for now, excluding local restaurants here (this will be VERY rare, we promise).

First, the commonalities. Their interiors are all designed by the same decorator, lots of rich color, usually green or red on the walls, and lots of metal all around. And don’t forget the pseudo indigenous art on the walls. They all have essentially the same offerings. Choose your vehicle (burrito, taco, quesadilla, a salad and “burrito bowl” thrown in for good measure). Choose a meat, a salsa, and smother on lots of cheese and sour cream (we are, after all, in Wisconsin).  If you are a true foodie, at some point you try the “extra stuff”, and no, queso sauce doesn’t count. Sorry.

So, on to the review. Here are the best of the best, from outside to inside.

The tortilla – Pancheros: the only redeeming quality to a poor excuse for a burrito store. They designed their entire menu around one thing, the flour tortilla, and forgot how to flavor everything else. I personally don’t even care that a flour tortilla is good (when it comes to corn tortillas, this is a totally different matter).  Sure, it shouldn’t be crap, but in the end, I don’t eat a burrito in order to have a damn good tortilla. If you want a tortilla, don’t eat a burrito, eat a tortilla.

The meat – I think we are better served by digging deeper, into the different types of meat.

  •  Chicken – everybody’s stand-by – best at Qdoba, aside from the occasional gristle I bite down on. The flavor seems to be throughout the meat, rather than just a “rub” like at Burrachos (which, for the record, was like eating chiken frozen for 6 1/2 years before it was cooked).
  • Shredded beef (a.k.a. Barbacoa)- Q Doba, easily. You can taste the spices, cumin, garlic, cloves. You can flavor beef this way, it is a strong flavor anyway. Don’t be afraid to pile on the spice. Chipotle is just one flavor, salt. The others aren’t worth mentioning.
  • Pork – first of all, if you were to have me and Amy (yes, I guarantee we agree on this) choose only one foodstuff on the planet to eat, it would be pork. Pork friggin rules. It will forever make the best burrito. The winner, well its a tie between Chipotle (my choice) and Burrachos (Amy’ choice). Chipotle uses some primo pork, from Niman ranch. This is sustainably produced pork, and it shows. It tastes like, well, pork. Amy says its definitely better quality meat, but it is too salty.  It needs other flavors layered in.  Would a marinade kill them, but I say it tastes like pork.  At Burrachos, there are some other flavors mixed in, including what seemed like chipotle. Nice overall flavor, but not pure enough for me.
  • Ground beef – you not actually going to put ground beef in your burrito, are you? Why would anyone choose “random parts” over “tender, shredded goodness.”

The beans – this is the one part of the burrito which generally varies the least. The only part that really sets one apart from another is how correctly they are cooked. Beans should be slightlyal dente, not mush. Pinto beans tend to be a bit thinner skinned, so that become mush more easily than black. In any case, since beans are so often a background flavor, I haven’t noticed an appreciable difference between burrito stores, other than the occasional mushy mess here and there.

The salsa (and other flavorings) – Qdoba – they do the best job of making these distinctly different. None of them taste like Pace, which is also a very good thing. This is the “icing” on the burrito cake. Poblano pesto, ancho barbeque sauce (one of my personal favs), the gone but not forgotten mole sauce (one of Amy’s favorites), a ranchero sauce. There is clear, culinarily minded thought that goes into these salsas/sauces, unlike the cookie cutter salsas you get at the other places.

The cheese and sour cream – pretty much the same, everywhere. I can’ t wait until the burrito stores rock the world by offering something like queso fresco.

So there you have it, the ideal burrito. Someday, we’ll spend two hours going from store to store piecing together the ultimate burrito store burrito.