May 30, 2011

Burrito Joe's Moves In on 39th

Restaurant: Burrito Joe's
Food: Burrito plates, mostly
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Casual
Price: Cheap eats!
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).

There’s a fresh coat of paint on the walls—white and red—and new carpeting throughout. While a big U-shaped wooden bar eats up the center of the floor, currently unused as their liquor license is still a few weeks away, I noticed the space is larger than I’d thought previously. On the East side there are several booths and tables, a few small tables lining the north wall by the big windows, more tables and booths on the West side and then, through a curtain, an unused secondary dining area.

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.

Burrito Joe’s serves breakfast, so I’ll be returning sometime to review that, but on our trip it was lunchtime. I was pleased to be served free chips and salsa to start—a bonus not offered at Chipotle—which were decent but not revelatory. The salsa seemed fresh enough, but for whatever reason lacked flavor. It reminded me of the salsa at Manny’s, but better. Hot and mild are both provided.

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’ve gotta pause and mention the tortilla in specific, though. It stole the show. At first glance, these tortillas almost garner a double take as they’re slightly yellow in color and thicker than what one normally finds in a tortilla. My inquiry to our server, however, yielded the fantastic news that the Mendoza’s grandmother (Abuelita) makes the tortillas herself! A homemade tortillas is a thing of beauty, like homemade bread. The mass-produced stuff is normally a fine product and tastes fine, too, but the homemade tortilla just reeks of care, comfort and love. It’s the je ne sais quoi (how do you say that in Spanish?) of Mexican cooking. Almost crepe-like in appearance and texture, but tasting more of flour than an eggy crepe does, these tortillas had a major impact on my opinion of our food at Burrito Joe’s.

The second choice was a beef burrito, which can be ordered with ground or cubed/shredded beef. Loving slowly braised, fall-apart meats, I always opt for shredded over ground when I get the chance, and I was not disappointed in the least. The beef inside this burrito was, indeed, incredibly tender, a dark hue showing that it had been saturated in a seasoned liquid and its own juices for an extended period of flavor-fortifying and texture-perfecting time. Smoothing out the beefiness of the burrito were creamy refried beans.

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.

Burritos come with a side of rice, as well as lettuce and diced tomatoes, both of which actually appeared to be fresh, a somewhat shocking revelation as far as burrito accoutrements go. We ordered up a half-sized portion of guacamole for $2.75 which was a fairly generous cup-full. It was super-creamy which, to me, isn’t necessarily a great thing, but overall it was a pleasant addition.

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

Burrito Joe's on Urbanspoon


JohnEric said...

You must have gone to a different Burrito Joe's than Jon and I did. Our tortillas were not home made and the waitress told us "spread" meant that they melt the cheese on top, that's it. No additional meat and salsa. And the rice tasted off or burnt.

KCNapkins Guy said...

Who knows, JohnEric, being such a new restaurant, their food and service may be extremely spotty. If your tortillas were not clearly homemade, maybe they ran out of the good ones. Or Abuelita didn't make it into the restaurant that morning.
I got a similar description of "spread" yet I got what you see pictured, which was quite good.
But would surprise me at all if your experience was totally different than mine. Time will tell... I appreciate the comment.

Anonymous said...

My experience was similar to JohnEric's as well and I also thought, is this the same place I went to? Our tortillas were not home made and I was greatly underwhelmed with the 'spread'--just a little bit of cheese melted on top. I work at KUMed, so I'm sure I'll find my way back there at sometime, but I left feeling completely underwhelmed.

KCNapkins Guy said...

This is very interesting. I'm going to have to go back on a weekday to see what I think. I was just looking at JohnEric's blog and you're right - the tortilla you got is nothing like mine. And to be honest, a lot of the enjoyment I got out of my trip had to do with the homemade tortilla. It's teetering on the border of endearingly quaint and dumpy hole in the wall so without high quality food, it probably falls off in terms of customer satisfaction.
Thanks for the recon. I'll go back on a weekday soon and let you know what I find.

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