Burritos and Beer – A Brilliant Concept Marred by Action (Grade: C+)

UPDATE:  Drove by Burritos and Beer on August 26, 2011, and the door was plastered with UPS delivery notices.  Looks like the place is closed.

Some Tom Friedman wannabe (which is setting the bar very, very low) said, “Vision without action is merely a dream.”  This, of course, is just a cheap rip-off of the quote, “Vision without execution is hallucination,” which is often attributed to Thomas Edison or sometimes some random HP exec who likely rates as high on the douchebag scale as the Friedman hack himself.  The point here being is that lousy execution can ruin any idea, no matter how incredibly awesome said idea might be.

And an incredibly awesome idea is how I found myself at Burritos and Beer.  Yeah, I know it’s a fast food joint.  But burritos and beer.  Burritos.  Beer.  Burritos and beer!

Seriously.

Who can’t get excited about a concept like that?  Chipotle killer, here we come!

Or not.

Burritos and Beer is in the building that was formerly El Pollo Loco in the parking lot of the Bass Pro Outlet store, wherein the discriminating shopper can purchase such finery as pink camouflage thong underwear, green camouflage recliner chairs, fox urine and battery-operated telescopic spinning hot dog forks.  Even more impressive, you can buy all these romantic-evening ingredients while shopping alongside unshaven/unshowered men who appear to either:  1) be pregnant, or 2) have swallowed a watermelon or two.

The fact Burritos and Beer is inside a former El Pollo Loco restaurant is only relevant on account of the fact they kept all the El Pollo Loco décor.

The solution to all the pesky El Pollo Loco references around the shop?

Decals.

There are few problems in the world that can't be solved with a well-placed decal.

Yep.  Burritos and Beer took a bunch of decals and slapped them right on top of El Pollo Loco logos while semi-preserving the graphic designs that once were El Pollo Loco faux murals.

OK, so they’re trying to save money.  I get that.   But the old three-sided salsa bar is only ever two-sided full.  ¿Que?  And all those references on the signs to chicken being fire-roasted to order?  Well, if I believed for a second Burritos and Beer was fire-roasting my chicken to order – or anything else, for that matter – we might have something.  In reality, I watched them fish cubed chicken chunks out of some sort of liquid slurry last time I was there, so fire-roasting to order?  I don’t think so.

Let’s just chalk the whole decal up to cost-saving kitsch, OK?  OK.

Burritos and Beer bills itself as a “Mexican American Family Restaurant.”  This is four-word way of saying, “Fail.”  Here are some of the problems that immediately spring to mind:  1) “Mexican American” may describe some demographic population unit somewhere, but it does not describe any cuisine I’ve ever heard of; 2) “Family” means someplace that doesn’t serve alcohol and tolerates dozens of knee-high kids flinging French fries – and every other inanimate object within reach – onto the floor; 3) “Restaurant” implies someone comes to your table and takes your order and asks if you’d like a refill of your drink.

Now, to give Burritos and Beer credit, they actually try to make good on all of the above.  Well, at least #1 and #3 (I haven’t ever seen any kids in there, so I don’t know how well they tolerate the food flinging; they do serve beer, which is probably a God-send for all the parents of the aforementioned food-flingers).  As for “Mexican American,” they serve quasi-Mexican (known to the larger universe as “Tex-Mex”) burritos.  They also serve distinctly American fare, like mashed potatoes and French fries.  In re: “restaurant,” you order and pay at the counter, but they do bring the food to you, and they may even make a few seconds worth of idle chit-chat.  Don’t expect much else in terms of table service.  And, yes, you’re supposed to bus your own table.  Always a good way to end a meal.  (Don’t get me wrong here – the staff is definitely much friendlier than the zoned-out teens you encounter at most fast-food joints.)

Green chicken.  Burrito.

Green chicken. Burrito.

Burritos and Beer’s burritos are hit and miss.  The green chicken burrito (which I think/hope they meant to call the “green chile chicken burrito”) is one of their two “wet” burritos, which is to say it comes covered in a sauce.

Let me just stop here for a second and say that I’ve been to Mexico, and they don’t serve anything remotely like any of this there.

OK, sorry about that.  Where was I?

Oh, right, green chicken burrito.  Flour tortilla (obviously made somewhere other than Burritos and Beer), brown-ish rice, beans, chunks o’ chicken, and a spicy green tomatillo sauce.  Shreds of unmelted cheese on top.  The notable ingredient here is the tomatillo sauce, which is actually pretty good.  It’s tart and lively and surprisingly assertive in the heat department.  I mean, I really like hot stuff, but I was wondering if perhaps they should be warning the customers about the heat level.  All in all?  I liked it.  It was definitely worth the five bucks and change I paid for it.

The “Colorado beef burrito,” on the other hand, was far inferior.  It looked pretty

The Colorado minus the rapids.

enough, with a bright red sauce and cheese shreds on top melted through.  If they had left the beef out, it would have tasted pretty good, too.  The beef, however, appeared to be chunks of unseasoned skirt or flank steak that had been cooked to the point of a plastic-knife defying rubbery consistency.

Dear cooks:  you cannot cook either flank or skirt steak beyond medium-rare without attaining a leather belt-like toughness.  You must also season the meat heavily and bring it to room temperature before cooking.  After cooking, let it rest and cut it against the grain.  You’re dealing with cheap cuts of meat here, so you have to go the extra mile.

If you ignore the above, you get people like me madly sawing at the little cubes of beef with a pathetic plastic knife and fork, cursing all the while.  And then they go home and write snotty reviews, like this one.

A slight case of undermelting.

One of the fun things at Burritos and Beer is the salsa bar.  I love salsa bars.  They’re like little free wine tasting parties without the alcohol and the creepy bucket your snooty loser friends actually spit their wine into.  Burritos and Beer has four different salsas, and I am about 50% sure they actually make at least some of the salsas in-house.  All the salsas have their own heat rating.  What really entertains me here is that they start at “hot” and go to “super fiery.”

I am happy to report that Burritos and Beer has not dumbed down their salsa heat scale.  The “hot” avocado salsa is, in fact, quite hot.  The “fiery” roja and chipotle salsas are dangerous, and the “super fiery” habanero salsa will mess you up, amigo.

You wimps who ask for “mild” or “medium” hot sauce at Taco Bell might as well just order a side of ketchup and call it a day.  I mean, I know Paula Deen says she doesn’t like to “be hurt” when she’s eating, but my pocketbook was hurt when I ate at her vastly overrated theme-parkish exc

use for a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.  So Paula can load up on the roja salsa and kiss mah grits … dahlin’.  Burritos and Beer, meanwhile – you guys should just keep on doing what you’re doing in the salsa department.  Those folks complaining?  Nothing but weak-ass haters.

Some other fun stuff at the bar includes pickled carrots and onions, which are, in fact, traditional Mexican condiments.  I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do with them, but they’re a nice addition.  I also like the freshly chopped cilantro and onions, which would be even more cool if I had a carne asada or al pastor taco to put them on.  Hint, hint.  The one incomprehensible offering is the tin of whole serranos.  I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with those.  Pop one in your buddy’s mouth and watch him bleed from his eye sockets?

Burritos and Beer’s chips fall into that whole great-idea-crappy-execution arena.  Mad props for them frying their own chips – an art almost entirely lost in Hampton Roads (actually, it’s an art that’s non-existent in the whole state).  The problem is they aren’t very good at it.  My last bag of chips yielded a bunch of soggy, chewy triangles.  Nicely salted, but soggy and chewy nonetheless.

See, my first job was at a fast food Tex-Mex joint at which we fried our own chips.  I’ll admit it does take a bit of finesse, and you do wind up with a few rubbery chips when you’re learning.  But you don’t serve them – you throw those out.  Burritos and Beer was happy to charge me fifty cents for a bag of chewy chips.  Not cool.  Here’s the trick, B&B:  get the oil hot enough, don’t overload the fryer basket, and give the chips a few stirs while they’re frying to keep them from sticking.

Burritos and Beer has a selection of odd sides.  On the more normal/expected side are the refried beans.  Competent, yet bland and forgettable.  The “carne asada chili” is a Hormel-style two-bean chili.  Not bad, but neither Mexican nor Texan (you get thrown out of Texas for putting beans in your chili, and carne asada in Mexico is an unsauced meat).  More like Cincinnati.  The “Mexican rice” is its own mystery.  I’ve never understood the pinkish, dry, hapless “Spanish rice” that Tex-Mex places love to serve, yet is totally alien to anyone actually from Mexico.  Burritos and Beer’s rice is similarly dull, but it’s brown.  Whee.  I dumped some of the super-fiery chipotle salsa on the rice, and that helped out immensely.  I just wonder if the whole thing couldn’t get a head start with some hefty salting in the kitchen.  Just an idea.

Yes, they do sell beer. Mostly the mass-produced Bud-Light varietals with a couple Mexican lagers thrown in (Corona, Dos Equis, etc.), but beer nonetheless.  I still feel a little weird getting alcohol at a fast-food joint, but that’s probably just me.

In the end, I walk out of Burritos and Beer feeling very full and more than a little sad, especially as I eye some 300-lb slob wearing a “It’s not a bald spot, it’s a solar panel for a sex machine” t-shirt straining to climb into a non-jacked-up F-150 pickup with a sack-full of ammo and Slim Jims.  Because Barack Obama and Eric Holder are trying to ban ammo so that they can personally steal your guns and make you eat Chinese food, in case you haven’t heard (or worse:  go to the gym once a month – Nanny State alert!  Nanny State alert!).

The concept of burritos + beer is an awesome one – this restaurant just needs to own it.  Learn how to cook the beef.  Practice frying the chips.  Forget the mashed potatoes and French fries.  Add some tacos to the menu.  I would say drop the “Mexican American Family Restaurant” moniker and go with “Taqueria,” but I’m not sure the Hampton Roads denizens would get it.  They might just show up asking to see everyone’s green cards.  So, I’d stick with “Mexican American Family Restaurant,” and just install a few waiters.  And maybe put out an American flag or two – ‘cause that tends to confuse the locals long enough for them to order and pay before they start muttering about how “mezzicans er stealin’ are jobs.”

If you think I missed the boat, here’s a second opinion from Urbanspoon diners:
Burritos & Beer on Urbanspoon

Grade:  C+
Address:  1930 Power Plant Parkway, Hampton
Phone:  (757) 827-1281
Website:  http://www.burritosandbeer.com/
Note on hours:  their drive-through is open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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