Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hard Times in Burrito-Land

It's likely that my husband and I are among Anna's Taqueria's all-time best customers. We have at least two or three meals there every week, which may not seem like much — but we've been at it steadily for about 14 years. That's a lot of rice and beans. At about $11 for two, it's a cheap date.

I know people who burned out on Anna's decades ago, but we never have. Ever. We are invariably up for a burrito, even if we had one yesterday. Or for lunch. I'm not sure why we don't get tired of eating the same old thing. It might be because we are boring, unadventurous eaters who like predictable food. Or it's because their burritos offer a unique blend of tastes and textures, creating a Perfect Storm of satisfaction every time (almost). Plus, they are cheap and nutritious. And they have cheese.

It was more difficult to get our burritos when we didn't have a car, and the nearest Anna's was on Beacon Street in Brookline, past Coolidge Corner. But we managed on the T.

When we bought our condo, we spent two weeks painting and cleaning. I did most of our packing alone in the evenings, because my husband's department was inconveniently hosting a major conference at the same time, which kept him busy round the clock. But somehow he managed to surprise me often with burritos during that exhausting time. (I think he bummed rides from people to get them to me.) Fortified by Anna's, bagels, cookies, and the occasional Burger King, we were ready on moving day. And I still lost seven pounds.

When we got our first car, ten years ago, Anna's in Porter and Davis Squares became very convenient on the professor's commute home from Medford and on movie nights at the Capitol and Somerville Theatres. When MIT got its own Anna's, we walked across the bridge. And when, after years of procrastination, the Cambridge Street Anna's opened, we enjoyed walking to and from Beacon Hill with a burrito in the middle.

Despite our long history with burritos, we are not Mexican food aficionados. We are boring; we are bland. We don't like hot, spicy flavors or rich meats. We eat the same burrito, year in, year out, with only the occasional deviation. We don't order hot sauce, hot peppers, or even salsa, because of the cilantro. (To both of us, it tastes like soap.) We order the regular size, with cheese. I get red beans, black beans, rice, lettuce. My husband gets grilled chicken, black beans, rice, lettuce. Occasionally I'll order grilled vegetables and he'll have steak. In the old days, we'd order extra cheese and sour cream. This makes the burrito more luxurious — at the price of an expanding waistline. Nowadays we keep our burritos basic.

Periodically, we've noticed, the owner (or his henchman) makes a visit to all the shops and exhorts the staff to be chintzier with ingredients. For the next few days, you will get a miniature burrito, and sometimes an argument if you suggest that you might want more than 36 beans and 90 grains of rice. I once walked out of Porter Square because a woman tried to charge me extra for any rice at all — after I'd ordered thousands of burritos over the years that all came with free rice. If you happen to complain, you will suddenly find that the entire crew doesn't speak a word of English.... But this Scrooge-like attitude always blows over in about a week, and then the crew will cheerfully make you a normal-size burrito with plenty of rice again. After all this time, some of the guys will greet us and tell us what we're having. We love that.

More than a decade of experience has given us opinions about the comparative quality of burritos at the various branches. Despite having the same mix of ingredients, a burrito can be tasty or bland. I think the key factors include the freshness of the tortilla, how thoroughly the beans are cooked, and how much salt is used in the cooking liquid. The rice is pretty constant.

The Anna's at Porter and Davis almost never disappoint us. Davis used to be my favorite; I've only had tasty burritos there. The MIT Anna's tends to be a let-down; we expect those burritos to be dull and are pleasantly surprised when they aren't. The two Brookline Anna's generally produce a fine burrito. The Beacon Street branch is our top Anna's destination. We rarely go to Harvard Avenue because it's harder to park.

And for the best, saltiest burritos, the Beacon Hill shop is the place to go. Parking is usually impossible, so we walk — across Back Bay, the Public Garden, and along Charles Street — about a mile, working off a few calories.

After all this love and loyalty, I hope you can imagine my horror when I ordered a grilled vegetable burrito on Beacon Street last Sunday and found it filled with soggy, bitter, rubbery, sour veggies. It was My Worst Burrito Ever. The beans were also too hard, so the parts of the burrito that weren't bitter were tasteless. I should have sent it back but I kept eating, foolishly expecting it to get better. The bad aftertaste lingered until I broke down and bought a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. I could have used three.

For the first time in a long time, I was in NO mood for a burrito on Monday or Tuesday. But, yesterday, a friend and I walked to Coolidge Corner and she suggested lunch at Anna's. I was ready. When we got there, she admitted that this would be her First Anna's Burrito. If I had known she was an Anna's virgin, I would have hesitated: Sunday's burrito was that scary.

We both ordered rice and beans; I figured that would be safe. Mine was utterly tasteless and hers must have been, too. Maybe they ran out of salt. I hope they haven't decided to stop using it out of some misguided health concern. Salt is the spice of life, if you ask me.

I felt sorry for my friend; no doubt she thinks I'm crazy for loving Anna's so much.  At least I don't have to feel guilty for turning her into another wild-eyed Anna's addict. As for me, I'm staying out of that branch for awhile, and I won't be ready for another burrito until............ tomorrow.


  1. I was just at Davis on Wed. I got my usual--chicken, black beans, cheese, with salsa, guacamole and EXTRA hot sauce. It was delicious and the darling crew was sunny & friendly as ever. Don't give up! (Followed by a highly successful visit to Goodwill, where I bought an old classroom globe and some family heirloom silver (well, no one will ever know it isn't)

  2. Thanks for letting me know that bad burrito syndrome isn't spreading across the other shops. Congratulations on the family silver! I'm dying to know if it's sterling! And if so, what pattern! My family heirlooms usually come from eBay.

  3. I don't have the instinct for eBay. I enjoy my infrequent forays to Goodwill though and I usually manage to donate about 5 to 1 (i.e. I give 5 items for every 1 I buy).

    No pattern on this silver, I got a few wine coasters, two in crystal with silver trim and one in plain silver (for a grand total of $4). I'm giving them as gifts, actually, to young marrieds in my family.


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