Taqueria Playa Tropical – New Westminster, BC

Taqueria Playa Tropical
334- 6th Street
New Westminster, BC
(604) 544-5006

“The Royal City” of New Westminster has a long history in this province, as it was founded as the capital of the Colony of British Columbia in the mid-19th century and was the first to be recognized as an incorporated city.  Its history notwithstanding, the city of approximately 60, 000 people today remains a smaller player when it comes to being a destination for exciting dining options, and certainly no one restaurant comes to mind when I think of this area, as the place to check out if ever here.

With a few major roads that cut through the hilly city, I’ve only really checked out some simple, hole-in-the-wall type establishments, usually for a late breakfast or brunch.  But it was brought to my attention by The Friday Lunch that an intriguing new place had been spotted – the Taqueria Playa Tropical.  Heck, the name alone brings a smile to my face.  And being so close to Burger Burger has to mean it has good karma, right?

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Papalote – San Francisco, CA

Papalote Mexican Grill
3409 24th Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 970-8815

In seeing Shokutsu’s review of venerable Mission Burrito institution Papalote, it got me thinking. It’s so interesting how two people with a similar philosophy and preferences can look at a similar place with a completely different view point when dining in isolation.  Especially when they come in with different expectations. From his perspective, it was a recommendation from a local guide. “Several good meals” had been had. A solid, yet unspectacular review.

On the other hand, in my never ending quest for great burrito’s, driven by my first experiences in Pasadena CA, I ran across super burrito fan website burritoeater several years ago, who consistently had the Mission location of Papalote rated in the top 3.  Of particular note was the consistently high scores for the Carne Asada and the Tofu. The carniverous side of me was intrigued that someone who was so diligent and structured in his passion for burritos could place tofu on the same pantheon as meat!! Truly shocking.

Just off the corner of Valencia and 24th, around the corner from my favorite San Francisco coffee house Ritual Coffee Roasters, Papalote can be difficult location to spot.
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Mucho Burrito – Burnaby, BC

Mucho Burrito
Unit 100, 7515 Market Crossing
Burnaby, BC
(604) 569-2544

Easily accessible.  Reasonable prices.  And quick service.  I think those conditions come to mind when one thinks of fast food in general.  Fresh?  Perhaps less of a consideration for most, amid all the burger, fried chicken and pizza joints that abound these days catering to the masses.

Our colleague Foodosopher previous wrote about Mucho Burrito in Edmonton, Alberta.  And so when I spotted it had opened up what I believe is their first B.C. location in the Market Crossing area of south Burnaby’s growing community, I decided to grab a fast meal-to-go as I was driving by on Marine Way.  I did have a faint recollection of his visit, that did deal with the “Fresh Mex” aspect of this franchise-focused operation, although I knew I wasn’t in the mood for a burrito the size of my forearm.

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Villa Mexico Cafe – Boston, MA

Villa Mexico Cafe
296 Cambridge Street
Boston, MA 02114
(617) 957-0725

Lunch counters and gas station corners were home to some great food in the past, and are experiencing a come back. Low rent, high traffic locations, they seem like the ideal kinds of places for cheap, tasty eats.  The idea of food in a gas station always reminds me of  Crete Souvlaki in Calgary – one of the best tzatziki in town served out of a gas station.

Villa Mexico Cafe is located in a gas station in the swanky district of Beacon Hill in Boston. If you’ve ever walked around Beacon Hill, you’ll understand how different this is than the rest of the neighbourhood. The only indication that burrito’s are available inside, is a small sandwich board pronouncing the greatness within.

I don’t mean to carry a West Coast bias, but when it comes to burritos, I find that the East Coast just typically cannot compare. The East Coast has some great upscale Mexican eateries, but most of the time, I like my Mexican food fast and cheap. That means tacos, burritos, tamales, tortas.

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Baja Miguel’s – Las Vegas, NV

Baja Miguel’s
@ South Point Hotel and Casino
9777 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 796 7111

Baja Miguel's on Urbanspoon

Earlier in some other posts, I alluded to the fact that I was not in an overly hungry mood during my recent trip to Las Vegas, often sticking with just one big meal and a snack to carry me through the entire day. On one of those days, my main was a shocking one, especially when it came to volume. I often have to remind myself when going to the States, how large portions can be and to remember to downsize any order whenever possible (e.g. large to a medium for instance in the case of a soft drink).

Baja Miguel’s is located on the second floor inside the South Point Hotel and Casino. As I knew nothing about the building, I thought I’d take a chance and do a walk through to see if there was anything special about it, as I kind of felt sorry for it being located so far south of the main action on The Strip. As a result, I can confidently report there was nothing significant about the casino floor, and clearly no special attractions that would interest those non-gambling visitors either.

The customers that were inside the restaurant seemed to be a different group from what you’d find in the core of the city’s gambling area. A lot more roughly dressed, older (eg. over 40’s), and clearly tourists from mainly other American states, and with looks on their faces that they were here to grab a quick bite before heading back to the main floor gaming areas. At this point, as we were getting shown to our booth seats, I figured it was too late and frankly I was not that overly energetic to do a 180 degree turn and go find something else in the city. Decor-wise, it reminded me of a late ’80s chain restaurant that could use a serious renovation, though it was quite spacious and well lit.

I suppose one nice immediate touch was the delivery of a big basket of tortilla chips that were accompanied by a trio of dips (guacamole, another liquid-y bean sauce, and salsa). I think for the Latino man who brought it out to our table, this was his primary task, as I saw him make the same drop off at other tables when customers arrived, but never any of their food orders. Our server was a pleasant middle-aged woman with a rich Southern accent, I’m guessing she was from nearby Texas. Our glasses of water (with lemon wedges) and other drinks were asked for and brought out promptly by her as we started into the menu.

Scanning the large lunch menu booklet, it was divided up into sections labeled Botanas (Appetizers), Sopas Y Ensaladas (Soups and Salads), Platos Combinados (Combination Platters), Burritos, and what they called Traditional Favorites. Nothing really stood out for me, so I went with what they dubbed a Burrito El Patron, which included the choice of either chicken or charbroiled steak, added with jack and cheddar cheeses, rice, beans and sour cream and rolled in a flour tortilla.

When it came to the table, I was in awe at how big it was, covering the width of the entire plate and as thick as a generously stuffed sub sandwich. As I selected the steak, I was pleased to find they were generous with it, and the nice smoky, charcoal scent coming from them was nice as I was fearful of something just seared on a hot plate in the kitchen. The cheese that smothered the burrito was also not light handed, and I was happy that the tortilla was plenty soft and not stale nor brittle from being heated up too long. The overall flavor though I felt was weak, just not bold enough in the seasoning of the meat and the sauce was just as bland.

My dining companion went with a much more simpler plate in the Chicken Quesadillas, grilled with cheddar cheese, and served with sides of sour cream, guacamole and salsa. I had a few bites of it, and while the tortilla was again very nice, the chicken was quite stringy and when eaten alone, you could tell it was not really seasoned. Now to me, there is nothing worse than flavorless chicken meat, even if it is wrapped in a good tortilla and they expect you to eat it with the supplied sides to give the added flavor. Lastly, I did appreciate they did not overly compress it in a hot press as you find in a lot of bad North American chain Tex-Mex places, and it becomes the thickness of a centimeter.

It was not until we started eating, that we noticed a small card inside one of those clear plastic table stands, that showed there was a daily lunch special for just under $9. In hindsight, I had wished our server had mentioned this, as quantity-wise (soup plus choice of two entrees among an enchilada, flauta, taco or chili relleno), I think this would have been a much more palatable option.

To conclude my thoughts on Baja Miguel’s, I would say that it was not horrible, but just an average place in the true sense of the world. Clean, decent service and attitude, and plentiful servings but not overwhelming tasty. A step back from the down-home, but more glamorous restaurants in the more well known casino hotels. Basically, a first visit will be your last, unless you are actively seeking mediocre…

Baja Miguel's on Urbanspoon

Andale’s Mexican and Spanish Cuisine – Vancouver, BC

The now controversial animated cartoon figure, Speedy Gonzales, is a memory from my childhood of watching Looney Tunes television shows on Saturday mornings in my pajamas and clutching a box of cereal. His famous phrase “andale, andale, ariba, ariba!” remains in my head to this very day. The flashback came to me as I stepped inside Andale’s Mexican and Spanish Cuisine on West Broadway for a quick take out lunch recently. With not much time to spare, I was indeed hoping it would live up to its name and be fast, though I certainly had some trepidations about the authenticity and quality.

Deciding to play it safe just to be sure, and to get something filling and easy to take away, my first choice was a beef burrito with what they called a “colorado sauce”. It was a good sized, soft flour tortilla stuffed with a thick combination of beef and shredded sauteed onions. The entire package was dredged in a slightly thick but mainly watery consistency brown sauce, almost gravy like. It was totally missing any heat or depth of flavor, which threw me as I expected something I’ve had elsewhere with a sauce named similar to this one, which had red chilies in it.

As a result, the flavors were dependent on the bland burrito contents, and to make things worse, the whole thing was getting quite soggy from the sauce as I got about halfway through. The accompanying black beans were also really dull and tasteless.

The chicken quesadilla was not much better, in fact, I think I preferred the beef burrito. The fillings of cheese and chicken breast meat were again not really seasoned well, missing a strong semblance of heat as well. The slices were also draped in what was supposed to be an ancho sauce minus the heat, as all I could really taste was some onions and garlic, along with some herbs like cumin and oregano. Again, your run-of-the-mill quesadilla that could have been made in any of the city’s chain restaurants, or even at home by a half-decent home cook. The same forgettable black beans that came with the buritto were here again.

Both items came with a small mixed salad, but the take-out packs did not have any side portions of rice, or the free chips and salsa that were available through dine-in.

I’m not sure what the city’s best options are for true Mexican food, but this clearly was not it – just generalized, simplified, and taste-reduced Tex-Mex to me.  It made me long for the great meals I had at the home of an old college classmate from Mexico, who first introduced me to the cuisine of his country a decade ago.

As a positive, I’ll say it was fast, coming out of the kitchen ten to fifteen minutes after the order was placed. The sunny day brought out the patio lovers (mostly business lunches it seemed), but the inside was completely dead. I am curious what its like at night, both in terms of the clientele, the atmosphere (maybe the darkness hides some of the dreary and tacky symbolic plastic beer bottles handing from the ceiling, or the wall of sombreros tacked to it), and of course the food. If none of it seems any better, I’ll be outta there faster than my old pal, “the fastest mouse in all of Mexico”!

Andale’s Mexican and Spanish Cuisine
3211 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 738-9782

Andales Mexican Restaurant (Broadway) on Urbanspoon

Mucho Burrito – Edmonton, AB

Mucho Burrito
10124 – 109th Street NW
Edmonton, Alberta T5J 1M7
Open 11:00am-9:00pm daily

September 2008 re-visit post here

Original post below:

Baja Fresh. Freebirds. Chipotle. These are not Mexican by any stretch of the imagination, but can be classified as “Fresh Mex“, “Mexican Grill”or any other variety of classifications. What they serve, is a fresh, healthier alternative to the classic Mexican burrito. No lard. Fresh vegetables. That sort of thing. What they lack in authenticity, they make up for in quantity, and price. They serve a lot of food, at a good price point. A large burrito usually comes in the size of your forearm. And then some. I’ll admit, while this stuff isn’t gourmet, everybody has their favorite – and it is pretty tasty. And while healthier usually equates to “not as tasty”, this is one instance where I can honestly say “different, but good”.

Sadly, these franchises have refused to expand north of the border. I even inquired, nine or ten years ago, into getting a Baja Fresh franchise for Alberta. They were looking for development partners who could purchase territories, with a minimum of ten to fifteen million dollars in liquid, unborrowed assets. Needless to say, unless they were willing to accept money from The Game of Life(tm), it wasn’t going to happen. I lamented the fact that I could not get a big, cheap, fresh-mex burrito here, and limited myself to jaunts whenever i headed south of the border. Well, I am pleased to say, we finally have an acceptable alternative here in Alberta.  That option is Mucho Burrito.

Alberta has seen a few aborted attempts. Taco Time tried their Cantina concept. Chico Tecates brought in a salsa bar, but labour issues pushed them out of business. Taco Del Mar tries to do too much. Even Wrapture came out with a burrito campaign, but they were really masters of nothing. Mucho Burrito is the first dedicated Burrito chain – and they have learned their craft well. Right at the hands of Chipotle in fact.

When I first walked into a Mucho Burrito, my first thought was “Chipotle!”. From the decor, to the menu, to the assembly line, the burrito trays, right down to the brown bag they serve the tortilla chips in, everything was eerily similar.  To be honest, this actually does not bother me – copy away, as long as you can produce a similar facsimile to the end product.

The menu for Mucho Burrito is actually pretty basic – and available online, so i’ll leave some mystery to you all. Let’s concentrate on the burritos. They come in three sizes – 10″, 12″, and 14″. Choice of rice, beans, salsa, cheese, guacamole, roasted veggies and a filling. The fillings are basic too – all prepped in the back kitchen, and sitting in chafing dishes to keep warm. Barbacoa, Carnitas, Pollo, and Carne Asada. This is burrito 101.

I order the signature Mucho Burrito dish – the Mucho Burrito(14″) – which allows you to top it anyway you like. Looking to test the limits of their generosity, I load the burrito with any topping i can get my hands on. They comply, and promptly create a monstrosity – a meal for two. Tightly wrapped, I can say with some certainty, and glee, the quantity is definitely there.

Taking a big bite into it, I am thoroughly satisfied. The Carnitas is decent – good flavour, tender. Nothing i would call great, but for Alberta, it is a minor miracle. Everything is fresh. It’s so busy that everything has to stay fresh – none of it sits around that long. They’ve done an excellent job of balancing all the ingredients, and making sure that the burrito ends up as one goopy, flavour-filled mess.

Look, this is not French Laundry or El Bulli. Heck, this is not even Freebird’s. However, when you’ve been starving in the desert for as long as Albertans have, any bit of water is a big sign of hope. Like a good burger, somtimes simple and filling is what the doctor ordered. Is the product perfect? By no means. Would I rather eat real Mexican? Most of the time. But when I am in the mood for something big, sloppy and loaded, a burrito usually hits the spot. And for the first time in my recollection, there’s a fresh mex burrito worth eating in Alberta at Mucho Burrito.

Mucho Burrito on Urbanspoon