Cheesy Dreams of Burritos

You never went hungry at the Plymouth house. This living ruckus of a house blared shenanigans within a four block radius of cheap amenities. Ronald’s “Golden Arches” were less than a stone’s throw as well as a liquor store infested with the characters of its community, both serving their own desperation driven dollar menu. Taqueria El Jalapeno, Viking’s Giant Submarines, and Beep’s Burgers filled in the gaps for a more indulgent appetite. Even if your evening had ended in hastily devouring half of your roommate’s rare bottle of absinthe he was saving for some vaguely more sophisticated occasion, a short crawl to salvation was all you had to muster the morning after. We all know that there are times a crawl can be a marathon, especially if it requires stairs or putting on pants. Some came prepared and some had to put on pants.

            It may come as no surprise that the dude, pondering his next several meals midchew with the one in front of him, writing this here food blog, falls to the category of more prepared.  People who cook to procrastinate more pertinent responsibilities rarely face an empty fridge and pantry. In six years and always rotating cast of roommates, I’d witnessed a variety of prevention stratagems to dire hunger with varying degrees of success, depending on if you played the long game, whole meals frozen or dizzying amounts of Tupperware leftovers, or the short game, a snack supplies deep enough to convince one you ran a string of successful hotel mini bar robberies. Nobody surpassed the brilliance of my downstairs cave mate, Xiomara. Her approach was flavorful, frugal, sustainable, minimal in effort, and safe from lazy predators scavenging for easy leftovers due to the vague aluminum foil covering . Xiomara had taken the lowly frozen burrito and made it her own, very literally. Every so often she’d make batches using smaller flour tortillas versus the gargantuan tortillas used for behemoth Mission burritos. Relying on the pleasure of beans and cheese together as one, maybe some roasted peppers for a little extra flavor and texture, cutting it open a perfect cross section of simplicity. A minute to two in the microwave wrapped in a damp paper towel was all it took to breathe life into its frozen state and thus find salvation. Many were jealous of her ready steady supplies, myself including. It was the right amount of sustenance for the level of effort most of us wanted to partake in to save our own decrepit states. She had the antidote while others writhed, arms out for a hopeful pity driven handout.

            On a late afternoon, a thick plume hovering from our living room leisure, hunger struck and lethargic, a dormant lightbulb flickered- what if I just made my own burritos? What if I had enough burritos for not just myself, but for everyone? What if I monopolized on these perma-stoned sitting ducks in my living room and collected actual dollar bills instead of just IOU’s for the food that I fed them anyways? Easy money!

Keeping a similar approach to Xio’s burritos, I outfitted mine with a scant but well rationed mix of carnitas, refried black beans, and some kind of jack cheese. Buying everything from a restaurant supply store I could make about somewhere shy of 250 burritos for around $60, pork shoulder being disconcertingly cheap when purchased in bulk. With enough pestering my dear patron saint taquera, Maria, at El Jalapeno, I was able to get the gist of how they cooked their crispy, never dried out carnitas; a slow braise with roasted onions, garlic, some spices, chicken broth, and a few halved oranges, cooked until tender, juices reduced with the veg before turning it to a thin gravy by way of immersion blender.

The melting pork chunks get roughed up a little, but not so much to where meat turns to ropes before getting re-crisped on a lard glistening griddle. Then instead of tending to futile scholarly duties I went about braising my pork shoulder and patiently simmering the black beans until rendered into a cumin scented swamp. After picking up a six pack of  something cheap I was ready for wrapping 200+ burritos. (The first batch’s yield was significantly lower than future ones due to my weak will, unable to stop myself from eating a solid third of my carnitas). Fast forward through that sixpack and fastidiously wrapping what felt like thousands of burritos, I opened up shop- a disposable blue plastic cup, “DONATIONS”  scribbled with a magnum Sharpie, sitting atop the fridge.

It’s funny to me that despite articles of clothing, lighters, records, booze and weed was regularly pilfered from one another in our circle of friends, these burritos were a testament to the hanging threads of the honor system. Maybe it was the fear of the Karma KGB that kept the desperate ones from thieving from the overly trusting lord of this juvenile cuckoo’s nest. I’m not a numbers guy, so maybe my math inflated what I was actually pulling in, but it didn’t seem so farfetched that I was collecting $40 profit per month. The profits never really surmised into anything substantial, as I managed to keep a lit match in my pocket all the time, so most of the funds were just being recycled into keeping the party vibes of this delinquent wonderworld bumping. Ultimately, it was just nice to have to have this new monthly project that I got to share with those around me, keeping the mouths of those I cared about most, fed on a steady diet of deliciousness within reach, even when captured in a vulture’s grip of a hangover. The rudimentary satisfaction over time led me to wonder, “Might there be others out there, their bodies enriched with spirits and cheap fermented grains, needing my aid?” There had to be…

For those lucky enough to have lived or once ingratiated with San Francisco know its inclinations to put on grand displays of its love for art,music, and the generally bizarre. You might plan your day aiming to go directly from A-Z, but you stop at unexpectedly at “Q”, a familiar but unnoticed street corner, because it would be a shame to pass up the moment your mind is questioning if you’re actually witnessing: the mythical man who carries a dog on his back, a cat upon the dog’s, and a rat riding atop the cat! He’s out there, believe me. Maybe you luck out like the day I was sucked in by a vacuum of 90’s nostalgia, contently standing front row to Alanis Morisette playing the 90’s eponymous album Jagged Little Pill in its entirety for F-R-E-E in the blissful confines of Golden Gate Park. My mind was in the same disbelief as yours that day, and yes Alanis could still throw down an excellent live show some 15 years after the album’s debut. Beautiful, bizarre, and totally free shit was out there for the taking if you put yourself into its orbit. It didn’t matter if you even really loved what you were seeing, but being part of that crowd, imbibing the eccentric energy circulating amongst the mob of people was intoxicating. The intoxicated were my people, and the people needed burritos.

If you searched through the vaults of CD cases, pirated Kazaa mp3’s, and now two defunct external hard drives with the deepest of dives into my listening history, bluegrass would be non-existent to scant at most, depending on how far you stretch the definition to include the banjo forward sounds of more general indie-folk bands. I wouldn’t outrightly say that I dislike the genre, but the vibe has always been outside the reach of whatever listening mood I’m in. Burritos are also a disjointing stretch when imagining typical fare at a typical bluegrass festival. Corn dogs and funnel cakes darts to the top of my assumptions. San Francisco as described earlier however doesn’t like to play by the rules and will surprise you with how they curate artistic exhibitions that may fall outside your comfort zone, hence their appropriately titled “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival”.  The festival being totally free and open to the public, with minor restrictions on outside food and beverages, and completely packed with locals and tourists alike intoxicated on the Bluegrass state’s finest export, Bourbon, and other alcoholic beverages, the prospects for a burgeoning burrito business replaced my eyes with cartoon dollar signs.

Most literary people who embrace “the line, the word, the way” are rarely the folk that you’d entrust to do your accounting or budgeting related tasks… It was Thursday afternoon and the weekend of the festival was nearing. All ingredients were purchased and processing; pork braising, black beans bubbling away happily, and pre-grated cheese, well, grated, because screw trying to grate five pounds of cheese on a broken and barely functioning box grater. I’d perfected my two salsa recipes after hours of extensive and dutiful research: mass taco consumption at El Jalapeno, repeatedly tasting for the nuances of their salsa verde and salsa rojo.) The question of how to get said burritos to the festival was still in the works. What vessel could I carry these little money makers in that would keep them warm for several hours from the time that they’re rolled?  What did the infamous Mission Tamale Lady do? Scanning through drunken hazy memories of closing down the bars where she angelically appeared, like the 500 club and El Rio, I remembered that her mountain of tamales were kept in an Igloo cooler.  While it made total sense, my brain never considered the possibility of these coolers to serve its exact opposite purpose of keeping things heated. Duuuh. Quick trip to Target for Igloo cooler: $35 + tax. And what about the free salsa to accompany? Another cooler for that. Queue the “cha-ching” cash register sound.  Better get some plastic ramekin cups? “Cha-ching”! Napkins? “Cha-ching”. Another $20 plus bucks devoured. Insecure over the quality and the lack of recognizable branding, I planned to charge charging $3 for a single burrito, or 2 for $5, burning up all possibilities of marginal gains. I rationalized that this was the investment cost that I would make up with the many more successful events to follow, and that this was simply the “market research” cost to figuring out what people would pay. The money will come, I told myself.

That Saturday morning was a blur. All delinquents on deck helping in their haggard state wrapping the 230 burritos, after their speed training of correct portion sizing and wrapping technique.  “Remember! Less is more! Left-right-center-tuck-roll” echoed over and over. Surprisingly, casualties from poor technique were kept to a minimum, and I would have proudly hired any one of these jokers. After a thorough triple check for all supplies organized, Ryan dropped wingman, Andy, the other honorary burrito boy, and I at the park in the early half of the afternoon, unloading our rig onto a sliver of open space along the busy Lincoln Way adjacent to Golden Gate Park.  After making our way into the park we strategized where was the best spot to set up. Eventually we decided on a spot where two trail heads merged between the two different stage locations, just far away enough from where any venue food stalls were located, not knowing if we were going to get hassled for our little side hustle. The first two hours went slower than a snail’s pace with the painful awkwardness of getting accustomed to our stadium vendor sales pitch, “Burritos! Fun-size burritos! 1 for 3, 2 for 5! Get your fun-sized burritos!”. A few stopped for a moment to inquire but were too hesitant to make the plunge in paying for these burritos that didn’t measure up to their mind’s equation of what a burrito should cost and look like size-wise. Afterall we were in the city that deeply respects and adores burritos, the namesake “Mission Burrito”, a denomination in and of itself that upholds specific standards and practices rivaling the seriousness of any wine A.O.C.  I recall maybe selling a total of five within those first hours, doing my best to battle off the voice in my head that I’d made a huge mistake. After a couple hours and people’s personal stash of Sabra hummus and pita chips had been long exhausted, and the effects of hoppy ales and medical grade marijuana had clearly engaged, a new twinkle in people’s eyes appeared as they passed by. I could read their faces with clarity, calculating whether they wanted to gamble on these stranger’s burritos or queue themselves up for a mediocre hot dog. Their eyes darted between my line free burrito cooler and the hot dog line, their facial expressions consumed by what seemed to be a life changing decision, potentially forever changing the course of their lives. Finally, their impatient drunkenness and inquisitive nature gave in to the allure of our burritos.

The timid initially bought one to sate the beast in their bellies, taking a few bites as they walked away only to stop dead in their tracks, realize their foolishness for not buying two in the first place. Once there were a few people congregated, the rest figured out how much we’d undersold the value of our delicious product, automatically buying a pair or two to rescue their friends still waiting in line for their hot dog.

When presented with the question of choice of salsa unsurprisingly most opted for the red salsa, which I’d predicted would be most popular amongst the beloved gringo community because of having the closest visual assimilation to your Pace, Tostitos, and other generic-ass tomato-based salsas. (No disrespect to either, as they hold a different place in my heart, helping me get through tough moments of confused indifference at Superbowl parties, not knowing what to do with my hands except continually dive into the salsa bowl). The bold who appreciated salsas outside of the spectrum of several shades of red, I could tell were delighted and surprised by the quality of our salsa verde, which had taken far more trial and error to get right. Spicy enough to know you’re not eating at Chipotle, using punchy serrano chiles to harmonize with the acidity of raw tomatillos, while the avocado soothes and envelops any overtly floral qualities of cilantro, keeping it undetected by the soap-tasting persuasion.

 The crowds started making their way out of the park, and just as we were debating if it was time to call it with just shy of a dozen burritos remaining, some cool guy in his cool guy sunglasses when the sun had already set an hour earlier, came up and bought four. He ate one right there, dabbling in both salsas. After some overtly audible animalistic sounds to express his enthusiasm, he proffered his personal chef business card, claiming: we really had some “righteous” flavors happening, and had the salsa verde was “killer”. He told Andy and I, should we ever want to collaborate with him and do something for his clients to hit him up on his Blackberry. “Fer sure,dude, ferrr sure!” we assured, laughing inside at the pretentiousness of his product-specificity on how to contact him. That said, as cool guy walked away with his burritos, holding his card in my hand, looking into a nearly emptied cooler, I couldn’t suppress a small glow. Put one in the books for the Burrito Boys.

Last photo taken of the not so infamous Burrito Boys

            P.S. The Burrito Boys unraveled not long after this historic day. Andy’s availability to assist in wrapping production and awkwardly hawk burritos at other potential venues and events was extinguished by his returning at the summer’s end to his residence of Chicago, where I had yet to call home. The “DONATIONS” cup continued living his content cup-half-full existence atop the refrigerator, neighboring the forever neglected green sprouted potatoes before greater forces eventually swept Cheesy Fantastico from his high perch at the Plymouth House. The house was changing in sync with the neighborhood; the downstairs, had gone from drunken philosopher’s lair to IKEA’S “Back to College” study lounge, traffic on Ocean Avenue congesting with Prius drivers wedging themselves between several lanes of track leaving the new Whole Foods Market. More members of the house were managing putting on pants and making it to work on time, less crippled by their nocturnal activities. Kitchen cabinets once rife with liquor and oversized boxes of Goldfish were replaced with essentials to actually constitute whole meals, largely killing the need for my frozen burrito business.  Perhaps my soulfully greasy but ultimately wholesome carnitas burritos were the harbinger of gentrification in my own home, leading people to the conclusion to generally eat better and cook for themselves? If there is any shred of truth in that, then I can sleep knowing I took gave something much greater to my people and the Burrito Boys did not die in vain. And that’s a wrap;)

If you have roommates you’d like to take advantage of or you’re interested in forfeiting a balanced diet for a steady consumption of pork, bean and commodity cheese wrapped in flour tortillas, make this recipe!  

The Burrito Boys’ Ingleside Burrito

250 8” Flour Tortillas  (or maybe just 8)

4 lbs Burrito Boys Carnitas (Recipe Below)

4 qts Burrito Boys Refried Black Beans (Recipe Below)

5 lbs Cheese (Quesadilla, Jack cheese, or even mozz will do) Grated

            Line a sheet pan with a cloth towel, keeping an extra handy to cover the tortillas after toasting. Over a gas stove on medium/low heat toast a couple dozen of your tortillas, flipping every few seconds, until tortilla has whispers of blisters and is hot. Set aside on sheet pan with towel, covering with towel on top so the tortilla steams and keeps warm. Work in appropriate sized batches depending on the speed of your burrito wrapping skills; toast less at a time if you’re slow, go crazy if you’re a real wrapping maestro.

            Tortillas ready, stripe the middle two thirds of the burrito with a couple tablespoons of black beans, followed by a large pinch of cheese, and finally a frustratingly small amount of carnitas, about 1.5 oz if you want to be more precise. The success of your wrapping hinges on your ability to not be a greedy meat head. The burrito will humble you and bring you to your knees as you fail again and again to successfully enclose all its deliciousness should not take heed of my advice.

            With the contents of the burrito facing you horizontally, start by folding from the sides towards the center, then fold the side closest to you over the filling, tucking it in to itself, then rolling the tortilla forward until the seam is on the bottom. Set aside, and keep on wrapping.

            Once you’ve got a sizeable stack of burritos, preheat a sheet pan or a griddle if you have one, over two burners on low heat, and sear the burrito closed by placing the seam side down on the griddle for 1 minute before turning it over for an additional 10 seconds.

            Wrap all the burritos in a square piece of foil just slightly larger than the size of the tortilla, following the same wrapping technique as the burrito itself. Your army is now ready to colonize every last nook of freezer space that your roomies thought was safe for their mediocre  microwave dinners. If they question what happened to their food, just tell them with a cold stare that everything had freezer burn and needed to be thrown out, but for a small cash or contraband donation they can have one of your burritos. Total monopoly.

Burrito Boy’s Refried Black Beans

4 29oz cans of Canned Black Beans (no need to flex on fancy dried beans here, but if you must..)

2 spanish onions small dice

10 cloves garlic chopped

2 serrano chiles, diced small , (to seed or not to seed? Can you take heat)

1 C delicious animal fat for ultimate luxury, (lard, duck, tallow) otherwise any oil will be fine.

1 Tbsp Ground cumin/coriander combo spice (1.5 tsp each)

1 tsp chile powder

2 qts chicken stock or water

1 Tbsp El Yucateco Green Habanero hot sauce

2 limes, zest of 1, juice of two

2 bay leaves, if subscribing to the cult 

Small handful of cilantro stems (optional


            Strain/rinse your beans over a colander. (While the goop from a can be beneficial for refried beans, if you don’t know your bean brand well the sodium/preservatives might push your seasoning too far. It’s akin to choosing to cook with salted vs. unsalted butter.)

In large heavy bottom’d anything, melt your chosen fat on medium/high heat until the quickly swims around in the pan. Add your onions, cook until the onions begin to color around the edge, stirring occasionally. Season with a handful of salt then add your garlic, chiles, and spices. Continue cooking an additional 3-4 minutes to let all those flavors bloom and the chiles soften. 

Add half your beans, stirring to coat the beans with the well lubricated onions. Continue cooking for 8-10 minutes using a wooden spoon to bash the beans up a bit, forcing out their starchy insides. Once most of the beans are pretty busted up, add 1 c of the chicken stock, scraping up all that pan fond. Add the remaining beans and stir to coat these beans with your bean mash before adding the remaining stock/water. Make sure there is enough liquid to cover by 1”. Bring up to a simmer on medium heat, doing the scum skim dance as you wait. Adjust your heat to low, add bay leaves and your optional cilantro stems, partially cover with a lid and continue to cook, stirring to scrape the bottom of the pot every 10 or 15 minutes. If you aint got nothin’ much going on, you can get these beans to a real tasty place in 30-45 minutes if you’re stirring frequently on medium heat, a full on stallion’s giddyup pace, but  I recommend taking the slow and old burro for a ride if you’ve got the time.

After the beans have arrived at a desirable sludgy texture, with some whole beans intact, turn off the heat, stir for a minute and allow to cool before seasoning to taste with salt, hot sauce, lime juice. It’ll be easier to accurately assess the seasoning closer to room temp. Don’t go overboard with seasonings as they’ll be accompanying some salty delicious pork with cheese to accompany, but still seasoned enough that you’d happily eat them by the spoonful. Burritos often don’t meet their full potential partly because the beans being overlooked as a critical component, when they take up a significant plot of the total burrito landscape, they might as well be amazing. It would be like making a BLT with unseasoned mayo- gross.. 

Burrito Boys Carnitas

Large Pot with a lid to fit a whole lotta pork in

Roasting pan or vessel to brown said meat and veggies

Immersion blender or food mill if ya got one.

5 lbs. pork shoulder cut into fist sized hunks. 

4 onions, 2 halved north/south , 2 sliced thickish

12 cloves garlic peeled and smashed

2 qts chicken stock

6 oranges halved

2 Guajillo chiles, seeded and toasted

8 oz. lard 

3 Tbsp ground cumin 

1 heaping Tbsp ground coriander

1 heaping tbsp dried Oregano

Kosher Salt

            Aggressively season your pork shoulder with salt first on all sides of your fist sized pork hunks. Mix together your spices and oregano and evenly distribute over the pork, massaging all the goodness into the meat. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

            Pull pork from fridge at least a half hour before cooking. Preheat a large roasting pan or a couple heavy bottomed pans real until just starting to smoke, adding the lard to melt into all its glory, then brown the meat until is golden on every conceivable surface. Don’t rush this step, and certainly don’t walk away for risk of burning the bejeezus out of your pork. 

            Setting your well caramelized meat aside, pour off, reserving for later, all but a few tablespoons of the lard in the pan, and on high heat give the halved onions a head start on their caramelization, placing cut side down, leaving undisturbed for 4-5 minutes of cooking before adding the sliced onions, garlic, and a large pinch of salt. Cook the onions and garlic until you build some fond on the pot and have gotten some nice color happening. Add one cup of your chicken stock to the onions, scraping up whatever gold has accumulated on the bottom of the pan, cooking for an extra few minutes.

            In your large pot add all your pork hunks followed by your onion/garlic mix, the remaining chicken stock, Guajillo chiles, and the orange halves squeezing their juices out as they’re added into the pot, and the reserved melted lard. Use water for the remaining liquid to almost submerge top layer of pork. Think gator eyes… Bring to a simmer, covering partially. Cook for the better part of 3-4 hours until fork tender. Set the pork aside in a bowl, cover tightly so it steams in its own sauna as it cools. Discard the orange halves and continue cooking the braising liquid on medium heat until reduced by 2/3rds, doing a bit of skimming here and there, but not obsessively. By immersion blender or food mill (both fine, results will vary, but no biggie), transform your liquid into a gravy like consistency. Should taste alarmingly rich, slightly sweet and tangy, with deep porky roasted onion garlic flavor. Keep warm on the side while you test your will power in the pulling of the pork stage. Brace yourself, for the power of the pig is strong, and your happy pile will diminish to a bleak nothingness. Roughly break up the pork pieces with your hands, adding a ladles worth of the gravy to the bowl, mix together and continuing to add additional gravy until you can hear the pork making little noises of joy that it is juicy, full, and happily reunited with its own nectars. Taste the splendor, then hide from yourself until ready to wrap.

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