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April 2017

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Fast Mex at Baja Burrito

The late Dame Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop cosmetics chain) wrote of a visit to Mexico City when she was taken to Fonda Meson de Alonso, where she was promised "real Mayan cooking." The house special was a taco filled with live beetles. Roddick kept her menu firmly in front of her face until the bill was paid and she could leave. But food writer Raymond Sokolov, in "Why We Eat What We Eat," declared that Fonda Meson de Alonso merely made a pretense at serving authentic pre-Columbian dishes as a publicity stunt; though the ant eggs in green sauce and iguana consomme were sure to grab the diner's attention, those were mere novelties: the rest of the menu featured beef, pork, and goat - all post-Spanish meats. Sokolov sneered that Fonda Meson de Alonso used wine in a quail dish - a European technique. ( In case you were going to be in Mexico City and wanted to sample the mosquito eggs in mole, Fonda Meson de Alonso does not appear to be in business any longer.)

Now here comes Gustavo Arellano, author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America" and the syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican!" Raised on nopalitos, birria, and Asadero cheese served by his Zacatecas-born parents, he was confounded by the Mexican combo plate put in front of him at an Anaheim restaurant. After researching the history and evolution of Mexican food as well as tracking the inroads into American culture, Arellano now says that Mexican food is too complex, too varied to be neatly summed up by whether a taco is deep-fried or what kind of cheese is used. It's not a static cuisine, bound forever by Escoffier-like rigidity and rules. According to Arellano, if it was made by a Mexican, it's Mexican food.

Which brings us to Baja Burrito, a teacup of a storefront in a tiny strip mall on South Bonnyview Road that occupies a spot vacated by Blimpie's, near the ever-present Starbucks. Many was the time that Femme de Joie and Amico del Signore drove past and wondered aloud, "Suppose that place is any good?" It was just out of convenience that A. del Signore did stop in one day, buying lunch for a friend, and reported back to M. de Joie with great enthusiasm that this was a place worth visiting.

To get to it, you either have to be driving west on South Bonnyview, or turn at the light onto Eastside Road and swing around through the back of the strip mall. There are a couple of tables out front, along with the special-of-the-day board. Inside are more tables, including a couple of surfboard-shaped bar tables in the window. Order at the counter from the menu board and your food will be assembled as you like it, Subway-style. There's likely to be a line around lunchtime, but it moves fast.

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Burritos are the specialty of the house, and you can have it your way: carne asada to al pastor, chile verde, chicken, vegetarian. Never previously a big fan of burritos - that pasty white tortilla always put him off his feed - Amico del Signore has been converted. After trying several kinds, he has settled on the pulled pork as his favorite: a pile of ultra-tender shredded pork in a flavorful but not spicy sauce. Black beans and refried beans are both made in-house, and the difference between them and canned is quite noticeable - try one or both, plus the fresh toppings (none of which were shredded last week to save time; their bright colors spoke to their very recent prep). Secret ingredients: try the roasted corn salsa and the roasted tomato salsa, as well as the hot pickled carrots on the side.

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This might be Femme de Joie's new favorite fish taco in town. After ordering, she watched the counter staff carefully stir the batter and dip the fish filet, then deep fry it for a very brief time. There are no pre-packaged fish sticks here. Topped with a slightly sweet creamy sauce and pico de gallo, these fish tacos were light, not greasy, and full of fresh flavors.

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Hot mess? No sir, that's the nachos with pulled pork and cheese sauce. On our first visit as we stood and dithered about what to order, two ladies came in who knew what they wanted - nacho lunches for each. Watching their orders being assembled put the nachos on our to-try list. A far cry from the dry nacho plate appetizer offered on most menus, this was a full meal.

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There are two salads on the Baja Burrito menu, one involving that ubiquitous deep-fried tortilla shell bowl, and this one: just the fillings with your choice of toppings. Chile verde was pleasantly piquant with tomatillos and cubed pork, a great tart contrast to the other rich ingredients.

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Tuesday is the only day tamales are offered at Baja Burrito, so Femme de Joie took advantage of the daily special. Soft, moist masa had a savory corn taste and the generous amount of pork filling was tender and not overwhelmingly spicy. While the rice is pretty average, the black beans are delicious with a simple fresh salsa topping.

Baja Burrito serves a very steady stream of hungry customers in a very under-served area of town. On weekdays starting at 7 AM, they make a breakfast burrito, and stay open late enough to pick up a fast meal for dinner. Daily specials include chile rellanos on Wednesday, tortas ("the best in town!" the owner crowed) on Thursday, and menudo Saturday and Sunday. The food is freshly prepped every day and is just different enough to place it above similar burrito places around town. It's fast without being unhealthy, inexpensive, and a good value. Service is quick and always friendly, with a great willingness to show the customer the different ingredients and explain how each one is prepared. So is it authentic? Frankly, we don't care; we think Gustavo Arellano would approve. On your way to I-5, or on your way home, stop in.

Baja Burrito, 2400 South Bonnyview, Suite 130, Redding, CA 96001. 530-243-2244. Open Monday-Friday, 7:00 AM - 7:00 PM, Saturday 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM, Sunday 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM. Cash, cards. On-site parking lot. Daily specials. Vegetarian and vegan options. Bottled beer. Follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Baja-Burrito/159725954071932

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