7.29.13 | Apropos of Nothing

I don’t have a house in which to rearrange furniture, nor even enough furniture that, had I a house, it would be at all comforting or cathartic to rearrange it, so my computer is my surrogate house, and its files surrogate divans, ottomans, end tables and such. Some files are couch-ish, a pleasure to occasionally lie back in and daydream. Some are lumpy or have springs poking through. Some are unduly baroque and don’t fit the rest of the decor. Some are angular and non-ergonomic. Some I would be horrified if guests were to notice them. Some are slightly too large for the space in which I try to fit them. Others, despite my best efforts, maintain an uncannily disorganized resemblance to my actual physical desk, and none, sadly, bare any resemblance to a refrigerator.

In the course of my non-regular semi-annual file rearranging, I occasionally go into the metaphorical attic/basement to see what’s still lying around. Today’s rearranging, as will be revealed soon enough, involved a thorough going-through of the intensely unkempt junk shop called “Writing,” and re-titling each file with its date of creation, and a short description of its content.

In this folder, I re-discovered such gems as:


Celebrate endless summers grandly!
Baby-whales and cripples celebrate riding bikes,
flying above above above! Celebrate!

Celebrate riding bikes, grandly,
above above above! Celebrate endless summers!
Flying baby-whales and cripples celebrate!

Drukenly sing above above above!
Surf drunkenly! Fly
grandly, o Bella e Vagh’, drunkenly!

Drunkenly flying, above above above,
o Bella e Vagh’, drunkenly sing!
Grandly surf drunkenly!

Endless summer peanuts, o Bella e Vagh’,
celebrate endless summers! Grandly
above above above trash heap pianos: endless summers!

Endless summer’s grand, o Bella e Vagh’,
trash heap pianos! Endless summer’s peanuts
above above above celebrate grandly!

Flying above above above, celebrate
jazz boys and singers! Flying baby whales and cripples
surf drunkenly, flying!

Flying baby-whales and cripples celebrate,
drunkenly flying above above above,
surfing jazz boys and singers, flying.

Grandly, o Bella e Vagh’, DRUNKENLY
riding bikes! Grandly surf!
Celebrate endless summers grandly!

Grandly surf! Drunken
endless summers! Grandly, o Bella e Vagh’,
celebrate riding bikes grandly

above above above trash heap pianos! Endless summers
flying above above above! Celebrate
drunkenly! Sing above above above

above above above! Celebrate endless summers!
Sing above above above trash heap pianos
drunkenly! Flying above above above:

o Bella e Vagh’ Aurora! Flying
grandly, o Bella e Vagh! Drunken
endless summer peanuts, o Bella e Vagh’!

O Bella e Vagh’ drunkenly sing,
“Peanuts! O Bella e Vagh’Aurora!
Endless Summers! Grand! O Bella e Vagh’!”

Yippee! Yippee! Yippee!
Yippee! Yippee! Yippee!
Yippee! Yippee! Yippee!

5.14.06


…which was a birthday-ode-cum-exercise-in-rotational-structure, sent to a roommate in a semi-acknowledged squat known as “The Rooftree,” whose idea it was to acquire a plastic kiddie table as our only genuine nod toward “home furnishing,” and without whom said apartment would have remained unforgivingly furnished with only futon mattresses.

But the really exciting find was an essay I wrote early on at UCSD. It was about burritos, and demonstrates

a.) a naïve and wide-eyed amazement at my recent relocation to the West Coast and some extent of the culture shock I experienced being there…which was much more profound that the culture shock I experienced moving to Europe,

b.) the level to which David Foster Wallace had influenced my thinking about writing, nearly a decade after first encountering him. Internet linking wasn’t as suave as it is now, so I came up with a just-disorienting-enough system for unfolding scroll-friendly (friendly enough for my purposes, that is) endnotes, and,

c.) some obviously dated views on certain ubiquitous facets of American life in the teen years of the 21st c.

But back to the real point. The essay is about burritos and burrito joints in San Diego. I was still fairly new to the place and had not explored as broadly as I would, nor begun to settle into familiar routines, moving beyond just burritos to such culinary wonders as the “Diablo Shrimp Quesadilla” at Cotija’s, or discovering what remains to this day my favorite burrito joint in SoCal…El Zarape, the one spot which, even given a scant three days in San Diego, I make time to visit.


San Diego Unwrapped

The good ones are always in these odd little free standing “huts” (the way McDonald’ses look in pictures from the fifties) where you walk up to an order window and have outdoor seating, or perhaps step inside a tiny foyer containing a couple pre-fab enamel booths. (The only structures resembling these in the Northeast are ice cream stands, and they’re only open about four months of the year.) Or they might be located in smaller strip-type plazas, a neon sign of large separated letters announcing their presence long into the night after neighboring office supply stores and laundromats have closed.(1)

In the urban neighborhoods, and on those more urbanized strips of residential areas, they pepper street blocks more abundantly than gas stations or Subway franchises. Menus are nearly all the same, and tend even to be written in the same order.(2) Burritos usually fall someplace in the middle after the tacos and before the “extras.” Most offer a small array of soft drinks and horchata, a Mexican drink of chilled rice milk and cinnamon that is a mandatory accompaniment to any late night-burrito experience. (It probably goes without saying that the two primary determining factors in the late night burrito experience are 1.) the food, and 2.) those who supply it.)

Wahoo’s in La Jolla (3) is possibly the most well known among my particular demographic of burrito seekers, though I’ve never been there myself. My understanding is that there is another shop in OB, and that they are the quintessentially kitschy burrito/surfer joint, wielding a mean green cilantro sauce.(4) Having, as stated, never been there I can’t properly comment on either the food or those who supply it.(5)

It’s somewhat inherently antithetical to the aura of San Diego, but I prefer to find my burritos further east of the 5. Ray’s, for example, at the corner of Kansas and El Cajon in the heart of North Park (one of the mini-strip plaza variety), is a prime example. He keeps relatively conservative hours (Ray does), closing nightly at 10pm, but for my three dollars and twenty-five cents offers the TASTIEST burrito I’ve found. I believe Ray’s is actually manned by Ray himself (and someone whom I suspect is his wife), who, after asking you how your day has been, very cordially invites you to have a seat and let him bring you your burrito with a petite plastic dish of spicy carrot wedges on an orange tray. The meat to bean to rice to diced-vegetables to cheese to creamy extras ratio is nearly perfect every time. The guacamole has a hint of lime. The green sauce is not just hot but savory. The filling is heated thoroughly throughout, and the tortilla is warm and supple. And possibly most importantly for a late-night burrito seeker who’s looking to have his or her craving completely satiated, the heft of the burrito tips the scales toward the TRULY hefty.(6)/(7)

ENDNOTES

(1) I should state right up front that I’m completely uninterested in such phenomenon as Baja Fresh, Chipotle (the McDonald’s corp.’s answer to Taco Bell), and Taco Bell.(1a)/(1b) Even Baja Fresh, the most respectable of the trio, which seems to offer more of an East Coast Corporate Conception of What a Burrito Might Be variety of burrito than an authentic SoCal variety of burrito, is really for those poor souls not fortunate enough to live a stone’s throw from Mexico.(1c)/(See also (3a, et.al.))

(1a) I’m also not interested in places like “Alfonso’s of La Jolla,” or “Casa Guadalajara” in Old Town even though “this delightful Mexican restaurant captures the ‘Spirit of Mexico’ at it’s best” and you can “watch Hispanic dancers in a swirl of color, listen as mariachis keep rhythm to the music of splashing fountains,” and “come revel in a friendly fiesta amid San Diego’s most graceful courtyards.” because a.)I’m trying to live on a grad student stipend (meaning that I can’t really afford to watch swirls of color and listen to bands keep time with fountains), and b.) despite my newness to the area, I have relocated to San Diego and am now a resident as opposed to a tourist and therefore obliged to be disinterested in such wantonly touristic spectacles.

(1b) In the midst of thinking over this piece, I had a very interesting argument with one of my more (unfortunately) corporately-inclined friends about why I’d rather suffer the slings and arrows of potentially seedy roadside stoops than go to Chipotle and know what kind of burrito I’m going to get every time. I won’t go into detail, but I’m sure you can imagine my argument involved things like supporting the little guy (and enduring his mood on any given evening), the thrill of the hunt, the glory of conquest (finding that truly spectacular burrito), the endless variation on a theme, and yes, I did acknowledge that Chipotle MIGHT make a very quality burrito, and that seven out of eight times I have a burrito it MAY NOT be as good as one from Chipotle, but, clearly, that’s not the point.

(1c) I used to live a stone’s throw from Canada, but that did little in the way of satiating my insatiable craving for late night burritos. Though I do wield a mean hip check.

(2) The menus do present a point on which one might contend my fascination with endless variety. However, I find that the similarity of selections and menu ordering is mitigated by the variety of colorful (or not) ways in which the menus are posted, most often on a large board over the order window, though sometimes on small printed cards. It is truly *variation on a theme* and not that eerie similarity that one notices walking into a locally owned coffee shop that aspires to the corporate success of a Starbucks. In the latter, employee dress and manner, color schemes, floor patterns, menu font, furniture style, and even specialty drink names mimic those of the Deathstar, as though the small independent owner had read a grande how-to manual.

(3) Although my personal fetish is (currently) the burrito, “Wahoo’s” is properly known as “Wahoo’s Fish Tacos” and specializes first and foremost in that equally respectable dish. Perhaps I’m a bit premature in the placement of this footnote, but it may be worth a note to note that among the establishments discussed herein, there is a nearly even split between those that use the word “Tacos” in their title and those that use the more generic “Mexican Food.” (Alfonso’s and Casa G. apparently require neither designation.) My observations have lead me to the belief that little to no formal distinction in cuisine is intended by these terms, and that use of the word “Taco” is a metonymical use, implying all things found under the rubric of “Mexican Food” (3a), except perhaps in the case of Wahoo’s, which is clearly indicating a specialty in the fish taco.

(3a) So then just what is meant by “Mexican Food?” We all know there are radical differences in “Mexican” (and all other “ethnic”) foods across nearly all major urban centers.(3a-i) In the immediate region we can easily find Southern California (SoCal) “Mexican,” NorCal “Mexican,” Tex-Mex, and most certainly and definitely real actual authentic because you’re sitting in Mexico eating it “Mexican.” These distinctions are entirely wrapped (and even smothered in the saucy blurriness of) the socio-cultural relationships between the United States and Mexico, and very much resemble the evolutionary stories of various ethnic cuisines throughout the United States.(3a-ii) “Mexican” food (as we understand it today) began to evolve with the Spanish invasion and conquering of the Aztecs in the 16th century.(3a-iii) NorCal “Mexican” (a much more “health conscious,” leafy vegetable/tofu based variety) seems to have emerged in the ‘50’s (as LA boomed with the entertainment industry) and is the textbook case of chic restaurants appropriating locally ethnic cuisine into gourmet styles of cooking. Tex-Mex is commonly traced back to the mid-1800’s and the various armed conflicts between the United States and Mexico. Subsequently, American and Mexican cowboys mingled in work and feasting, and out of this feasting grew, most notably, chili (3a-iv), infusing the genre with the Texan predilection for southern-barbecue style sauces and the meats they marinade. SoCal Mexican is a bit harder to pin down, especially since if one looks, one can find in the SoCal region distinct Tex-Mex joints (barbecue and line dancing protocowboy hangouts), establishments that serve NorCal style Mexican (hippie co-ops), and all of the places discussed above that are neither, nor exactly real-actual authentic Mexican (in my experience a much more stripped down style of cooking, eliminating the “extras” and focusing on the rice, beans, a good sauce, and tortilla with which you eat them [the tortilla is less a “container” than a flexible, edible spoon, as it were] though no less tasty, and including things like potato tacos, which seem hard to come by on this side of the Rio Grande).(3a-v)

(3a-i) Consider (as a rudimentary example) the differences in Pizza from New York to Chicago, or likewise the phenomenon of California style Sushi.

(3a-ii) The food evolution process seems to follow a somewhat standardized pattern wherein a new ethnic group comes to a region and adapts their traditional recipes to the newfound local foodstuffs. Eventually the cultures mingle their recipes (or new foodstuffs emerge) and the cuisine evolves. Throw into the mix the modern phenomenon of the gourmet restaurant, and the evolution becomes expedited, as the gourmets seek to expand the repertoire of the restaurant and in doing so appropriate traditional recipes. These new gourmet versions then trickle backwards to the people from whence they came and the process continues.

(3a-iii) In a very literal way, it began at a feast between Emperor Montezuma and the renowned (infamous) Spanish explorer (conqueror) Cortez in 1516. The Spanish brought meats, rice, spices (coriander for example) and tomatoes. The Aztecs provided a variety of beans (most notably the pinto), their own spices (oregano), and indigenous fruits and vegetables (the chili pepper and corn (3a-iii-A), for example), including that crowning glory of glorious fruits, the avocado.(3a-iii-B)

(3a-iii-A) Corn was one of the most significant contributions of the indigenous cultures of this continent to the Europeans. The corn tortilla is unarguably the authentic “Mexican” form of the tortilla (though experience has shown me that flour tortillas are widely available in Mexico), the flour tortilla representing the Euro-American influence.(3a-iii-A1)

(3a-iii-A1) This being the case (with the corn and flour tortillas, that is), I am lead to believe that the burrito, as a phenomenon, cannot possibly be “authentically” Mexican. Corn tortillas are more rigid and brittle than flour tortillas, a condition which is exacerbated if they become moist. This characteristic makes them completely unsuitable for any type of burrito, as a burrito tortilla most be warm and supple, strong and yet giving, so as to support, without being intrusive, or impeding the bite, the multifarious ingredients of the burrito.(3a-iii-A1-x)

(3a-iii-A1-x) Though I find my logic to be both strong and supple in this matter, I was nonetheless recently informed (by Ray himself) that the burrito is an authentic Mexican dish, albeit from northern Mexico. Taking into account the problem of the corn tortilla, we begin to understand that the burrito might just be the perfect example of food evolution, not dating as far back as, for example, chili, but still, being a product of Mexican ingenuity, as, perhaps, shaped by the introduction of the more Euro-American wheat tortilla.

(3a-iii-B)

a v o c a d o

ah, oh, ah, oh

receding into

my belly

(3a-iv) There are entire books written on the history and evolution of chili. Trying to get a straight story on chili is like trying to figure out the menu at Starbucks (that is, nobody can really say how all of those drinks got there, and what they might or might not have to do with coffee). All accounts tend to include the city of San Antonio, Texas (the Vienna of its day [metaphorically and regionally speaking {which is to say that it was a crossroads} of course, since this is the exact time that the real Vienna was having its day] as the metaphorical crock pot of incarnation for the chili phenomenon.(3a-iv-A) Other historical chefs in the chili kitchen were the “cookies,” or cowboy cooks (old cowhands who’s retirement consisted in steering a wagon and cooking chili) stewing up hearty soups with beans and meats, and most importantly, the chili pepper itself, that infamous hot pepper that so captivated the German immigrants so as to lead one Herr Gephardt to devise a method of dehydration so as to never have to be without, even in the off season.(3a-iv-B) Chili is celebrated in the culinary world as the ultimate joining of Mexican and American cultures, having even received prominent showcasing at the 1896 World Fair in Chicago, where it immediately lit up the whole Midwest with its piquanty goodness (though, the mid-westerners, after falling in love with it, took, in their typically bland [even one hundred years ago apparently] Midwestern way, the edge off of the recipe by removing the garlic and most of the actual chili, and tossing in some elbow macaroni…yikes).

(3a-iv-A) The official dish of the Lone Star State is Chili, probably largely because of just how fortuitously the city of San Antonio seemed to bring chili to a slow boil, historically speaking that is.

(3a-iv-B) That tidbit about Gephardt and his dehydrating of the chili pepper was probably significant enough to have warranted its own footnote, but at this point I’m beginning to have trouble keeping track of this HTML-friendly system of footnotes I’ve devised, and thought I might make things easier by tacking it onto an (admittedly somewhat running-on) preexisting sentence.

(3a-v) By my estimation, the food found at the shops and stands I discuss herein (what I have termed “SoCal Mexican”), or rather, am eventually going to discuss herein (no really, I promise, I’m going to get there, I’m determined), is admittedly an Americanized version of Mexican food (and even in this, lets be honest, it falls under the grander schema of “junk food” [just because it’s not yellow and red {though Aiberto’s happens to have, interestingly, a yellow and red color scheme} doesn’t mean it’s not slowly killing you], which is itself sort of cross-cultural) closer to authentic “Mexican” than either Tex- Mex or Nor-Cal Mexican (as it well should be), omitting the heavy sauces from the former and the heathyness from the latter. Items come reasonably stripped down (though you can get them all gooped up with stuff), if there is a sauce it is a very light (in texture) chili sauce, and, notably, you can get corn tortillas if you want them.

(4) Further investigation has revealed that Wahoo’s, possibly one of the most well known Taco Shops in San Diego, isn’t native to San Diego, but was started in Orange County and only worked further south by way of franchise rights.(4a)

(4a) This brings up the question of Aiberto’s at University and Oregon. My friend A. swears it is actually Alberto’s, not Aiberto’s, and part of a California-wide chain (or perhaps franchise, the specific details of branch ownership are always a bit fuzzy in these matters), but I promise it is actually Aiberto’s (both of the signs spell it “Ai-“ and not “Al-“) and not Alberto’s. My suspicion is that it is independently owned/operated, but this is somewhat irrelevant when you consider that the food is so heavy and greasy it makes you want to die a slippery gastric death just eating the chips with guac. Ownership is also less relevant if you happen to visit at one of the more obscure of the twenty-four hours during which it is open, as you will be guaranteed a wonderfully savory mix of characters standing around waiting for their carne asada burritos (the heaviest and greasiest of the heavy and greasy).(4a-i)

(4a-i) I hold a certain virginal fealty for Aiberto’s even though, for a number of reasons (not least of which is that feeling of an impending slippery gastric death), I have discontinued my patronage, as it was my first late night burrito upon arriving in San Diego.

(5) However, if we travel just south of La Jolla (and out of range of the oppressive wealth) to Pacific Beach, we find Cotija’s, at Garnett and Dawes, about which I can comment on both the food and those who supply it. The cash register guy is always extremely pleasant, and seems in fact to get great joy out of filling this fundamental human need for late-night burritos. I find though, that I’m not terribly fond of the way they use too much sour cream, and the way the too much sour cream blends with the hyper-blended and hyper-creamy guacamole into this overwhelming almost yogurty abundance of creamyness.

(6) The uninitiated late-night burrito seeker might think ALL San Diego-area burritos have respectable heft, to say the least, but I assure you, there are subtle yet distinct gradations of heftiness, Ray’s burrito being INCREDIBLY hefty.

(7) Though Ray’s is in the heart of North Park, and North Park is immediately adjacent to Hillcrest, and even seems, by all indications, to even possibly be the next Hillcrest (Hillcrest having lost its edge to gentrification)(7a), there is still Hillcrest to be considered. The kids here rave about La Posta, on Washington by Third. It may be that they provide an especially quality product, or may simply be that they are open twentyfour hours, but these no-nonsense burrito craftspeople do good work keeping Hillcrest on the burrito seeker’s map (not to mention remaining both edgy, being open twenty-four hours and having booths right out in the parking-lot, and trendy, being open twenty-four hours and having booths right out in the parking-lot). I like those guys. They don’t smile.(7b) They take your order with a nod, start wrapping and slip it out the window with a casual “vegetaria…” La Posta succeeds most thoroughly at satisfying my latent proletarian tendencies. I’m not sure how or why these tendencies surface in my search for late night burritos, but they do.

(7a) I don’t know that Hillcrest ever had an “edge” properly speaking. It’s been implied to me by people who may or may not be in the position to know that it did used to have an edge, but since becoming gentrified has lost any edge it may or may not have had. As I believe I’ve stated, I’m still relatively new to San Diego, so I certainly cannot comment one way or the other, except to say that at the time of writing this, I find North Park to be considerably more edgy than Hillcrest, but with that bud of trendyness (the same bud, which, in Hillcrest has reached full flowering) that invariably precedes gentrification.

(7b) Hey, they’re making burritos at 2am. Would you smile?

ND

3.9.04

…which is of course a lie. I’m on the verge of the biggest life-shift since leaving San Diego and grad school and moving to New York City, and since leaving the East Coast and moving to San Diego to go to grad school before that. That heady blend of nostalgia and excitement at the unknown is in the air. Also, given the true and final completion of my studies there, San Diego has entered that realm of things under the file header “Don’t know the next time…” That’s mostly ok. I don’t miss much about San Diego. I miss the ocean and I miss the absurd ubiquity of amazing Mexican food, which is to San Diego as pizza and deli are to New York. It is everywhere, and because of its ubiquity one can assume a certain level of quality from any randomly selected proprietor…and, also like pizza in New York, I have found that although it exists pretty much everywhere else around the country, it turns out to be exceedingly difficult to find it at said level of certain quality. So I’m in Connecticut now (again), and there is a burrito place that I have made an almost reliably once-a-week pilgrimage to in Great Barrington, MA during the seven summers I have spent in Northwest CT, even despite the fact that the burritos are nowhere near as good as they were in 2002, before the place changed ownership. But yesterday, I skipped the pilgrimage and went to a truly spectacular Mexican restaurant, and had not only what has been one of the best meals I have had this summer, but also some of the best Mexican food I’ve had on this side of the Mississippi.
Which is admittedly less like rearranging furniture and more like labeling boxes, if we want to be absolutely clear.
As it turned out, that kiddie table, with its tiny yellow plastic chairs, really tied the place together. Imagination is everything in a good squat.
Of all of the residue one finds all over one’s self at the end of a long college relationship, some of it ends up being not so easy, or desirable, just to shower off. E.’s introducing me to David Foster Wallace was that.
I didn’t know how to do THIS back then.
Once the essay-proper begins, (these numbers) will not link to anything, but refer to notes at the end of the essay. Good luck and Godspeed.
And just FYI, I think there are about six people that have previously read this essay, and at least two of those six really liked it, so I figure a 30% approval rating nine years ago clearly warrants removing the plastic cover and mothballs from this piece of writing and including it in this, my significantly more mature, polished, considered, and adult-like presentation of my work…as is clearly exemplified by all the mention of “cripples” above.