In search of the best burrito |

In search of the best burrito

Stewart Oksenhorn dives in for a big burrito bite.

Burritos are a fundamentally good thing. The burritos that my old roommate Paul lived on ” refried beans from a can, week-old rice, generic-brand cheese (and maybe some peanut butter and jam, if available and necessary) ” were adequate to the task of filling us up. The burritos my wife would have me eat ” brown rice, organic avocados, raw cheese and hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-range chicken, wrapped in a spelt tortilla ” are tasty, despite being good for me.

But as a true believer in the transformative power of Mexican food, I’m looking for something beyond adequate or tasty. I’m looking for the holy burrito, the one good enough to cause visions of the Virgin Mary, the kind that will prompt a lunchtime drive of improbable distance ” heck, even to Carbondale. A burrito that will make burgers, pizza and tuna fish sandwiches pale in comparison as lunch options.

I started the quest at the Cantina, and found what I expected: a solid burrito, more dependable than sublime ” and definitely a match for the biggest appetite. The Cantina’s burrito, like virtually every burrito in the valley, came in choices from chicken to beef to carnitas, those spectacular morsels of pork cooked overnight. Also, like most every local burrito, the principal player was not served alone on the plate. No, a mix of some combination of meat, rice, beans, cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and lettuce ” often served “smothered” with either salsa verde (green) or rojo (red) ” is never enough. So when you order a burrito, you can expect it to be accompanied by sides of more rice, more beans and salad, and preceded by baskets of chips and salsa. Lots of chips and salsa, or hombre, you need to find a new spot.

I had my first taste of true South-of-the-Border ecstasy at perhaps the least-known of places. Taqueria Sayulita, which opened last year as a lunch-only spot in Club Chelsea on the Hyman Avenue mall, is the real deal. Chef Marcario Meralopez has spent time in various Aspen kitchens over the years, squandering his true talents on Italian and French cuisine. But at Sayulita, the Mexican-born Meralopez’s inborn skills come out. Examine the list of ingredients, and the restaurant’s (actually more of a bar, populated almost exclusively with men) take on a burrito seems nothing extraordinary ” until you taste it. Served with rice and a salad, it’s a bargain at $8. And the chips and salsa are the best in town.

If I could get such a burrito in Aspen, I thought, just imagine the treasures that await downvalley. After asking what I considered to be the most discriminating audience ” several workers and shoppers at a Latino market in Carbondale ” I took their advice and sat myself in the bar of Mi Casita, on ‘Bonedale’s Main Street. The recommendation was spot-on. This burrito ($8.95), smothered in chile verde (even though I asked twice for rojo, but no matter) had a complex flavor, of all things. Mi Casita’s burrito is heavy on the seasoned shredded chicken, light on other ingredients, but it makes up for this by crowding the plate with sides: a bit of guacamole, some salsa cruda, rice and an especially good salad that hinted of a Caesar. The chip basket and salsa bowl were never left empty, thanks to a heads-up busboy, and what filled that bowl was top-notch.

I soon learned that merely having a downvalley (or midvalley) address didn’t necessarily mean a standout meal. El Korita earns my highest praise. (Indeed, in my 2003 survey of Mexican food, the El Jebel spot was on top.) It isn’t just me; when I entered one weekday afternoon (el Tres de Mayo, not el Cinco), there was a wait for a table. But El Korita specializes in more ambitious dishes like seafood cocktails, and the burrito ($8) seems too common to merit their full attention. My chicken burrito was smothered in a thin, indifferent rojo, and the dish didn’t come to life. El Korita still gets my nod ” but not its burrito.

Slightly better is the chicken burrito at Aspen’s Su Casa (where a tofu burrito is also available). One negative is that, alone among the valley’s burritos, Su Casa’s was small (I had to eat two full baskets of chips to fill up). It’s also short on spice, and on the mushy side to boot. A nice touch to the plate is the spiced, crinkle-cut jicama on the side. But when the star of the plate is an obscure, white vegetable, it means your dollar is best spent elsewhere.

Two places offer a somewhat different take on the burrito, and in both cases, the tinkering brings favorable results. At Aspen’s Big Wrap, the Mexican wrap is a constellation of distinct flavors ” rice, beans, cheese, salsa, sour cream, choice of meat or guacamole ” with an emphasis on the freshness of the tastes. The Woody Creek Tavern’s burrito lacks meat ” theirs is just black bean and cheese ” but still manages to be heavy on flavor. And sometimes, if you ask real nice, they’ll substitute some of their exceptional french fries for the standard rice.

Virtually every Mexican restaurant in the valley has a burrito, and to my dismay, I didn’t get to El Horizonte, Taqueria El Nopal (where a smothered burrito is the Tuesday lunch special), or Dos Gringos Burritos (as far as I can tell, the only local spot with the word “burrito” in its name).

So many burritos, so little time.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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