What's so hard about grilling a skirt steak to crunchy, salty, spicy goodness, slathering it with some avocado and salsa fresca, wrapping it in a tortilla and calling it carne asada? Turns out it's very, very hard for Portland. Our city has been infected by that all-too-common disease that ruins real Mexican food—the Mission-style burrito. How San Francisco, a city with exactly no real Mexican food, has somehow set the standard for burritos anywhere north of Magic Mountain is a total mystery. Since when did burritos contain beans, rice and (horror of all horrors!) lettuce? Why would one steam a perfectly good tortilla, rendering it limp and wet? I went in search of a carne asada burrito like the ones I was raised on in San Diego. I was looking for just the basics—steak grilled to well-done with a crispy exterior and a soft middle, and nothing but avocado, salsa and a non-steamed flour tortilla between me and gut-bomb bliss. But by the end of this journey, I had an all-too-intimate understanding of how Morgan Spurlock felt after filming Supersize Me.
1 — Hamburger meat and a slice of Velveeta between Wonder Bread.
2 — Tofurkey tacos at your vegan friend's apartment.
3— Your mom's carne asada casserole, because you're used to it, and she'd make it when you were sad.
4 — Grilled free-range flank steak with a dollop of organic avocado salsa.
5 — Pack your huarache sandals and your water purifier, you've won an all-expenses-paid trip to Tijuana.
(2817 NE Alberta St., 335-8283)
Sitting in La Sirenita at my dirty table and enjoying the dulcet tones of South Central L.A.'s hottest Chicano rap group, Akwid, it occurred to me that this taco shop is exactly what your stoner brother dreamed of opening when he was hanging out with his buddies and fighting the munchies. Complete with faux brick paneling on the walls and paper-towel rolls instead of napkins on the tables, La Sirenita serves up a shocking amount of food for the money. The carne asada burrito ($4) is the size of a bowler's forearm and comes with rice, beans, salsa and long, thin strips of carne asada. The tortilla is supple and the taco sauce at the tables is picante, but the meat itself? Limp and gristly. I don't think I'll return to La Sirentia, but I feel somehow more hopeful that I live in a world where Spicoli's dreams and aesthetic sensibilities become reality.
(703 SW Ankeny St., 241-0462)
I saw my first naked stranger at a Roberto's on Miramar Road in San Diego. I was eating a quesadilla with guacamole. It was long past midnight. I was 15 years old. I looked up and a man walked out of the restroom completely naked except for his work boots. El Grillo reminded me of that moment. After dining on a carne asada burrito ($5) filled with flabby meat and so oily it was slippery, I sojourned to the restroom, where through a back door, marked Absolutely No Minors, I was treated to the sight of a woman with a delicate butterfly tattoo on her lower back working an anti-gravity pole. This would have been such an awesome treat had it been nighttime, but it was, in fact, Tuesday at 2 pm. The food here is forgettable, but its location behind Mary's Club makes it a perfect stop for your Southern California friends who think their Mexican food has it all over Portland. (It does. But hey! Strippers!)
¿Por Qué No?
(3524 N Mississippi Ave., 467-4149)
¿Por Qué No? has no carne asada burritos. What they do have, according to the extremely earnest young woman behind the counter, is a "deconstructed burrito" called Bryan's Bowl ($6.50). I don't know what Jacques Derrida would say about a bowl filled with the makings of a burrito—meat, rice, beans, salsa fresca, guacamole, cheese and crème fraîche—but I enjoyed it. The crème fraîche was a nice touch and the meat was served medium-rare. Though, I did have to eat the whole thing with a repurposed spoon (that would be a fork).
(2839 NE Alberta St., 281-3662)
The carne asada here is the real deal. It's crispy and spicy, salty, and not at all gristly. Though the burrito ($4.95) comes with rice and beans inside, the fresh cilantro is a delightful addition. La Bonita's salsas are flavorful and unabashedly, nose-runningly spicy. I was disappointed the $2 chips came from a bag, but I was very happy to enjoy a burrito while gazing at an amateur mural of a woman holding calla lilies—the perfect touch to an authentic Mexican meal.
(15855 SE McLoughlin Blvd., 659-8124)
Rigoberto's is a little like the Promised Land. It's far away in Milwaukie, but it's part of a chain of taco shops in San Diego. It has all the trappings of a real taco shop—open 24 hours; housed in what looks like a Taco Bell from the pre-"Make a Run for the Border" days. Its windows are bordered with crooked brick arches and inside it is really, really cold. The hot carrots are spicy and sour with vinegar, and they're free. The refried beans are that pale, grayish pink unique to beans made from (shh) lard. I believed I had come home. Except for the carne asada burrito ($4.30), which was saucy and lacking the buttery addition of a ripe avocado. A disappointment, to be sure. But hope springs eternal and I'll return for two cheese enchiladas, rice and beans, because nothing's better with lard than dairy. Hmm, who does make the best enchiladas in town, anyway?