Location: 1403 W. 39th, KC MO
Food: Burrito plates, mostly
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Price: Cheap eats!
Rating: two napkins
Rating: two napkins
A Chinese restaurant called Szechuan used to inhabit the corner spot at 1403 W. 39th, across from Donna’s Dress Shop. But it’s gone now. I know. I, too, am shocked.
The new lessee is KC restaurant veteran Jose Mendoza Jr., whose former establishments include Mendoza’s Deli and Elijios Cantina. The new place: a Mexican concept called Burrito Joe’s. The Chipotle just west of Burrito Joe’s on 39th is a staple of my weekend lunches and the idea of local competition immediately drew my interest. And truthfully, new restaurants opening up in historically unsuccessful locations like the former Szechuan garner my instinctual gawking, like driving by a bad traffic accident. I giggle shamelessly when I see these predictably empty dining rooms with staff perched on bar stools watching Sportscenter, trying to pass the time. But it’ sad. I really shouldn’t.
Burrito Joe’s doesn’t look like much from the outside, at least not yet. I like the corner-facing doorway and its big gas lamps (though right now they’re shrouded by a nasty maroon awning) but it could definitely use some kind of sprucing up for added curb appeal. On the inside, I found it to be more cozy than Szechuan had been (yes, I did eat at Szechuan, but it was so unremarkable and pathetically void of business, I knew it just wasn’t going to make it and felt it would be kicking a man while he was down to give it a one napkin review in that state; it wasn’t too bad, though).
Overall, the space isn’t impressive, but it’s not offensive, either. Given the relatively simple and fun concept it espouses, though, a small menu basically focused on big burrito plates, I couldn’t help comparing it to Chipotle and thinking Burrito Joe’s needed to step up the liveliness a bit. After eating the food, though, I backed off this notion.
Yes, the menu is comparable to Chipotle. They serve burritos with a few obligatory alternative entrees for those who refuse to conform. But no, they’re not going to be a faceless corporate quick service restaurant. Although an in-n-out style of service is apparently in the works, the vibe conveyed at Burrito Joe’s through their food and even their service is one more along the lines of an informal Mexican family meal. And not a fancy, massive Sunday afternoon family feast, but something on a smaller, more intimate scale. It’s almost like the feeling of being a kid at home, going into the kitchen at lunch time and your mom (assume your mom is Mexican) happily asks, “What would you like for lunch? I can make up a burrito for you!” Friendly, casual, informal, and they’ve got just the right mix of ingredients to pull together exactly what your empty stomach needs.
We tried two different burritos, two different ways: first, one of their three vegetarian burritos, called The Happy Veggie Burrito. Going vegetarian is a good way to keep the calories in check when eating Mexican food, which can be awfully taxing but I refuse to cut out of my diet, so I was excited to see they hadn’t skipped this important option. It hit the spot, too, filled with deliciously grilled veggies like peppers and onions, either squash or zucchini, and black beans. Inside, too, there was a sauce to bind the ingredients a little.
I ordered my burrito with queso fresco and then opted to make it a spread for an extra buck, meaning it gets topped with more meat, sauce and cheese and reheated to melt the cheese. This turned out to be a dollar well-spent. The sauce and melted cheese really dress up the tortilla and please the eyes when the platter is placed on the table in front of hungry diners.
We cleaned our plates but had to roll ourselves out the door. We were stuffed and I remained so until late that evening.
In the end, I left Burrito Joe’s surprised. I liked it quite a bit more than expected. I liked that it was a little different than the other Mexican restaurants around—more focused in its offering with a killer hook: those homemade tortillas. I was impressed with the value; for fast food prices, we got large burritos with a side of rice and free chips and salsa. And to have it right there on 39th, owned and operated in a space I’d love to see successfully inhabited by a Kansas City family was a special kicker for me. It will be interesting to see how they do, as well as interesting to see whether it truly reels me back in for repeat visits or not. I can’t quite tell if I’ll become a regular at Burrito Joe’s or not, but my first trip in was definitely enoucouraging.
Rating: two napkins