The Good, The Bad, The Stereotypical, and the Strange About Eating a Burrito in Toronto

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A gig as the master of ceremonies for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual convention took me to Canada last week--specifically, Toronto. Dave raved about the West Indian food there, and I've long known Toronto offers one of the world's great multicultural mixes--but I was resigned to eat at the first Mexican restaurant I glimpsed at as my bus went to my hotel: Burrito Boyz.

How could I not, forthcoming book about the history of Mexican food notwithstanding? The logo alone demanded a visit--a stereotypical Mexican peon wearing the de rigeur uniform of a serape and sombrero, with a handkerchief tied around his neck...but also masquerading as a cholo? The gangland font? The sly smile sans eyes ripped from the pages of Lowrider Arte? The lettuce sticking out of the burrito? I thought Canadians were nice--yet this mini-chain employed two of the nastiest possible caricatures of Mexican manhood to draw in the curious? Great White North indeed.

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I visited on a Friday afternoon, in an underground location a couple of miles from the Hockey Hall of Fame. The line at Burrito Boyz went up to the door, all young people representing Toronto's many ethnicities. Behind the counter, though, was more Mexi-mocking. The woman who took my order wore a red paisley-print bandanna rolled tightly around her forehead ala Tupac, or Gwen Stefani in her chola days; another one wore a Burrito Boyz trucking cap, which either meant Canadians are severely unhip or as backwards as wabs and rednecks. And more of that damn font decorated the inside.

Burrito Boyz is a Chipotle rip-off, down to the choice of ingredients, the foil wrapping, and the non-Mexican meat selections (their fish burritos came with halibut or haddock, an interesting Canadian flourish). And their "large" burrito came out to about $7, but was as small as your average taquería rendition that costs half that. That's the least problematic aspect, though--simple economics, pendejo!

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How they got the Jumex right is beyond me...
I ordered my burrito and retired to the back of the building. My selection fascinated me, as this was a burrito that skipped across multiple regions of "Mexican" cookery and some that have yet to be discovered. The burrito, of course, is a borderlands creation that reached American obsession in San Francisco's Mission District. The mix of jack, cheddar, and another cheese is a Tex-Mex addition; the green pepper, wholly "Southwestern," just like the bold color choices. But who told Burrito Boyz that adding raw jalapeños to a burrito was a good idea? When we Mexis eat green chiles frescos for some heat, it's always serranos--we either roast or pickle jalapeños. And the steak was Chipotle-perfect, by which I mean it had no flavor whatsoever. The trucker-hat girl also asked if I wanted some "burrito sauce"--given I asked for sour cream, I declined.

The strangest part, however, came with their addition of their XXX Hot Sauce, supposedly containing habaneros. "No other burrito place in Toronto has something like this," she told another customer. Whoever requested the sauce received two dollops on each end of the burrito; the chef then used a tiny spoon to daintily spread the sauce across the rest of the ingredients. When I asked her to just squirt the damn stuff across it, I had to ask thrice. It was about as spicy as pudding, and are Torontan tastebuds that sensitive, even after decades of subcontinental migration?

Of course Burrito Boyz's burrito didn't work--the refried beans were chalky, the rice stale and more brown than pink, the green peppers overpowered most of the other flavors, and the jalapeños didn't allow the XXX Hot Sauce to make any appearance. It's a burrito in Canada, for chrissakes. But the chain is growing, and the burrito in Canada apparently functions as the burrito does here--as drunk food, according to an interview that the owners (not Mexis) gave to some Toronto rag or other. And in my short time and limited geographic range in the Queen City, I saw four other Mexican restaurants, including one that claimed to sell alambres. Will Mexican food overtake Canada the way it's invaded the rest of the world? Seems like it, and methinks a smart Mexi from here can make a killing up there hawking the real chingadera to those unwitting hosers--and ditch the bandito-cholo in favor of hot chica motifs.

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