Don Juan’s Mexican Kitchen

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Here’s a tip you will want to keep to yourself: Don’t go to Don Juan’s new-ish Olympia location. Instead, make the pilgrimage to the original Tenino spot. It might not have the fun bar and quirky ambiance of its counterpart, but it also does not have a one hour wait. Calculate in travel time, and you’ll still be in and out of Tenino before you’re seated in Olympia.

What stays the same in both locations is the overall quality and professionalism. Many maintain Don Juan delivers the region’s best Mexican food, something I largely agree with. This is how a tortillaphile deserves to be treated.

Don Juan’s take on the California burrito — the focus of this dissertation — combines traditional flavors with a fairly unique twist on CaliMex. A burrito with French fries? Potatoes can be a staple in the California burrito, so I’m sure fries aren’t unheard of, but it’s an appreciated touch all the same, and not something you see every day.

The flavor profile works well, and the fries aren’t too soggy, even when snuggly wrapped in a blanket of beans. Flanked by rice and cheese, you get a clean base palate, with none of that unseemly mush we so often have thrust upon us.

It makes for a good foundation for the carne asada, but that can be irrelevant if the main attraction is bland and improperly prepared. That is not the case here. The meat is nicely charred with a good bite, and the flavors are — and I don’t care if this brings me to hyperbolic levels — exceptionally deep. Everything melds together in harmony, each note crystal clear by themselves, but angelic when brought together in crescendo.

This is why the Tenino tip is important. You don’t want to wait around to experience a burrito1 powered awakening. Put on your expedition pants, and venture to what could be Tortillaphilia’s regional temple. You just might end up becoming a Tenino convert

1 FYI — on the happy hour menu, though every other item holds the same quality.

Amy’s Cheddar Cheese, Bean & Rice Burrito

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The world of frozen burritos is a cold and desolate place, but once in a while, rare as it may be, a beacon of relative happiness appears out from the grocery aisles.

Don’t get me wrong, you won’t confuse Amy’s Cheddar Cheese burrito with the real thing. Barrio won’t be losing sleep, nor will your local taco truck need to diversify. As far as a guilty side trip through the frozen tundras of your grocery store goes, though? Hey, we all get hungry and desperate now and again, so you might as well make the best of it.

Amy’s success largely comes down to its lack of whimsy and wacky. You don’t need to look further than evol. to see how Big Frozen Food is gunning for the young, hip tortillaphile market. Amy’s is different. Restrained. Dignified, even.

You simply get the three advertised flavors: cheddar, rice, and refried beans. You can actually distinguish the flavors in the burrito; it’s not just one big mush, even when microwaved. (Note that it’ll take 50 minutes to prepare this in the oven — that’s a long wait, and it defeats the purpose of possessing a layman’s burrito.) So often we have to settle for a tortilla filled with sodium. That’s not the case with Amy’s.

I would go so far as to recommend keeping a small cache of these in your freezer. When you’re too busy to throw something together yourself, and heading out is out of the question, Amy’s will do just fine.

Rating is based on the Grocery Store Curve™
Score: 3 out of 4 stars

PCC Community Markets

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We’re seeing a welcomed upswing in burrito availability these days. Grocery store delis are taking on their civic duty by adding burritos to their menus, and the days when we had to go with a wrap in lieu of the true original stuffed tortilla are slowly drifting away.

PCC Community Markets in Columbia Park1 is one of the grocery stores that have taken the burrito bar to a legit level. Here a trained professional helps you customize a burrito to your own needs and desires. Every ingredient is fresh and the tortillas are prepared on-site, and I find myself forced to question if I can keep using grocery store burrito as derogatory slang anymore.

The two base ingredients you build on are black beans and Spanish rice, wrapped in a flour tortilla of your choosing. I felt wholesome and went with a healthy whole grain option. It’s not an amazingly flavorful tortilla in and of itself, but it’s serviceable, and it didn’t go soggy.

You can choose up to four additional toppings. That might not sound like a lot, but there are some flavorful, and even original, picks. You don’t see jicama slaw very often, but PCC’s got it, and mighty tasty it is. In place of more typical grocery store choices like ground meat and shredded chicken, you can go with pork adobado and chicken verde. That’s a decent step up on the highfalutin-meter, and one that makes a difference.

The guacamole is available, but a more experimental avocado tomatillo salsa should be more tempting for a tortillaphile. Or go tropical with the grilled pineapple salsa. I mean, full respect if you enjoy a classic combo like sour cream or Pepper Jack, but the point is you get choices, and you really do not need more than four toppings. You can make an esoteric burrito without sacrificing fresh and clean flavors, thanks to the quality of the ingredients.

Fresh, clean, and esoteric: those are words and burritos we all should get behind. Go support your local market if you want a quick fix — if it’s as good as PCC, you’ll feel better for it. And if it’s not, you might as well just do a fact-finding mission to PCC yourself.

1 And elsewhere — they have multiple stores in the Seattle area.

Taco Bell Egg Tacos

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I beat Taco Bell to the punch by designing my own egg taco, but now that the real thing is widely available… A tortillaphile has to get to the bottom of what possibly is the oddest creation in the Bell’s sordid history.

There are two egg tacos for you to enjoy: one naked, one dressed. These have to be the worst adjectives to describe any kinds of food, but I suppose we have to live with. A Naked Egg Taco and a Dressed Egg Taco. One sans a conventional1 tortilla, the other wrapped in one.

I have what I consider valid concerns over the eggs themselves. Knowing the Bell was once in a legal battle to prove their meat was the real deal and not a by-product, I suspect we are in a similar situation with the egg. If I was to use this for, say, baking, would I achieve the same result as with a store-bought egg? I doubt it.

The rubbery concoction has little flavor, and what’s there certainly does not taste like an egg. Grease, perhaps, but not the old fashion, diner kind. This oil can only exist in the Bell’s kitchens.

Wrapped inside the egg-tortilla is bacon, sausage, hashbrowns, and what could pass as a cheese sauce. There really isn’t a whole lot more to say about it, as you probably know what to expect from a Bell taco. Different wrapping, same content.

Should you go against my advice and try one of these, you probably want to steer toward the dressed taco. Not only because there is something inherently wrong with eating anything called a naked taco, but also because the tortilla masques some of Taco Bell’s (probably quite literally) patented flavors.

Really, though, stay far away from the egg tacos and Taco Bell in general. Only a trained professional should sink to these levels.

1 Conventional might be going a bit far. It’s more like a fluffy pita.

Remi’s rating…
Score: 0 out of 4 stars

Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill

Great view? Check. Good atmosphere? Indeed. Amazing tacos? Weeeeell…

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There are reasons to dislike Hearthfire, but I wouldn’t go as far as naming the taco one of them. One might feel a little dirty going here due to Anthony’s proprietorship, but the aforementioned view and atmosphere sort of make up for it.

Get deck seating and you will be hard-pressed finding a better view than the straight-on glory of the Olympic Mountains. I could probably get into a whole thing about preferring a local establishment to a chain restaurant, but this is the world we live in, so let’s all just carry on.

The taco. It’s not horrible. I’ve had worse. It’s not one a tortilla aficionado will swoon over, but then, when you go for the view and an inoffensive meal (quite probably with out-of-town guests) it will at least soothe your cravings for a while.

Based around charred sirloin steak, the taco comes wrapped in a perfectly average corn tortilla. I’m a little saddened they didn’t go with the more traditional two-tortilla base, but what can you do? That aside, the cabbage is actually the stand-out of the show, adding just a light kick of acidity. Props, too, for the pinch of basil on top — very avant-garde.

There isn’t a whole lot more to say about the taco. Not really. Although, do notice the singular use of taco. Steak Taco Combo is a bit of a misnomer. My assumption would be a combo of two tacos1, but instead, the name refers to the accompanying tomato basil soup. That would be OK in theory, had it not been for the sodium-bath the soup is.

I wouldn’t bring anyone to Hearthfire to wow them over Olympia’s cuisine, but the view is hard to beat. It is somewhat of a destination in that sense. Even inside, you have huge windows pointing toward the mountains. That could just be the differentiator to make up for an inoffensive meal, but then, should you rather decide to explore the culinary avenues of life, you probably will want something more.

1 You can get an additional taco for a whopping $3 extra.