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Better late than never: Mercer County finally embraces the burrito

Mar 11, 2012 12:30AM ● Published by Community News Service

Tex-Mex cuisine has long been commonplace throughout much of the United States, but New Jersey in general, and Mercer County in particular, was in a long Mexican standoff.

So when Mexican Mariachi Grill opened in 2010 in Ewing, the area buzzed with excitement. New Mexican-inspired food was penetrating into suburban Mercer County at last.

Places had opened here and there before that—the 1996 opening of Princeton’s Taste of Mexico and Chapala’s 2002 arrival in Hamilton come to mind—but Mexican food had been more a curiosity than a mainstay in the area. Since 2010, though, the area has seen an explosion of eateries focusing or at least offering Mexican food. They have different styles—sit down, fast food, franchised, small business—but they all have something in common. The burrito.

In our count, more than a dozen places offer burritos in Mercer County and just beyond; all but one opened in the last decade. And more are coming: The chain Moe’s Southwest Grill will open in the former Blockbuster location at Hamilton Plaza on Route 33 in Hamilton Square. The owners of Mexican Mariachi plan on opening a location in Clover Plaza in Hamilton soon.

The most recent addition to the scene is Panchero’s Mexican Grill on Route 130 in Hamilton, in the same center as Harry’s Army Navy. Panchero’s opened in late January, and its Feb. 1 Dollar Burrito Night drew a crowd so large the line extended out the door and around the building.

Panchero’s is a chain, like Chipotle, Moe’s and Qdoba. The chains have much in common. All appeal to younger diners with restaurants with modern decor, irreverent marketing strategies and similar websites. Apparently, there’s only so much variation in the somewhat-fast, Tex-Mex food industry. But Panchero’s has its twists, like pressing tortillas fresh in front of you. And it has “Bob the Tool,” a plastic invention that enables workers to mix the ingredients of your food, eliminating those unsavory all-one-ingredient bites. It’s enough to set Panchero’s apart and—if Dollar Burrito Night is any indication—fill a void in Hamilton’s food scene.

Our staff fanned out throughout the area to get a sense of the state of local burritos today. These are our stories. –Rob Anthes

Auténtico o americano? You won’t find a typical American burrito in Mexico, but Felipe Cruz keeps it on the menu anyway at Taste of Mexico in Princeton. Cruz, a native of Oaxaca, in Mexico, and owner of both locations (at 180 Nassau St. and in Princeton Shopping Center on North Harrison), said burritos at Taste of Mexico are made with authentic ingredients, like grilled meat instead of ground beef. Cheese, rice, beans and marinated pork—which has a hint of spice—are wrapped in light flour tortillas making for an extremely filling bite. Lettuce, pico de gallo, crumbled queso fresco and sour cream decorate the top of the burrito. Cruz said flour tortillas are not preferred in Mexico, but are easier to work with than traditional corn tortillas and are an American preference. After placing your order, free chips and a selection of mild, medium or spicy salsa is served. Cruz said the medium ranchero salsa and hot “green spicy sauce” are the real deal, and have become more popular since he first opened 16 years ago. Customers may also order a special burrito, which includes the green spicy sauce inside and on top of the burrito. –Alexandra Yearly

How to eat a burrito The burrito is the perfect convenience calorie bomb. You can eat a well-made burrito with one hand while walking, driving, working, or riding a motorized scooter through Wal-Mart. And for a food that can be eaten with one hand, a single burrito loaded with toppings can weigh in at 1,000 calories or more. How to make a burrito: take a flour tortilla, wrap it around a big pile of meat, cheese, beans, rice, salsa, guacamole, hot sauce and really almost any ingredient that is commonly found in Mexican fast food. Grab it and go. This is the American-style burrito. Mexican Mariachi Grill (1505 Parkway Ave. in Ewing) is run by a family that knows how to provide the perfect, compact burrito for eat-on-the-go customers. Their steak burrito is stuffed with a generous amount of meat, cheese, beans and rice, but doesn’t overflow when you bite into it. It comes with free tortilla chips. You can also eat them with a knife and fork, and if your burrito isn’t made right, you may have to. ­–Diccon Hyatt

Meat not required As a vegetarian, I often find myself getting creative when it comes to what I can eat. Burritos are one of the easiest foods to modify, so they have become one of my favorite meals. With cheese, beans and guacamole, it’s hard to mess them up. Tortuga’s Mexican Village (41 Leigh Avenue, Princeton) has a few vegetarian options and ingredients that will make every dish great even without meat. I ordered a $9 burrito for lunch. While I waited I was given a bowl of tortilla chips and a delicious, spicy salsa. The veggie burrito arrived on a platter smothered in sauces and cheese. There were refried beans and rice on the side, which made it a real meal. The burrito can come filled with anything from veggies to beans, or cheese, but I chose avocado, which came wrapped inside but also piled on top. The restaurant, located in a residential neighborhood, was comfortable and packed with students, families and doctors from the local hospital. I’ll definitely go back to try some other options and to get more of that amazing salsa. –Carolyn Steber

Crossing over It wasn’t long ago that you would have thought it strange to find pizza outside a pizzeria. But now restaurants of all ilks ply diners with gourmet pies and trendy flatbreads. The burrito, if you think about it, is kin to the pizza: carb-loaded, customizable, kitchen-sinkish, laden with meat and cheese. Soon they’ll be everywhere. Truth is, the revolution is already on. Oliver, a Bistro (218 Farnsworth Ave., Bordentown), has had burritos on its lunch menu for a while. “I used to make it for employee meals all the time, and people said, ‘You should sell these,’” Oliver chef-owner Matt McElmoyl said. “But I make it in the classical French manner: all the chicken, pork butt, all slow cooked.” You can find burritos on the menus in other area restaurants as well. Tico’s Eatery and Juice Bar (33 Witherspoon St., Princeton) has them, and so does Boro Bean, a cozy coffeehouse at 9 E. Broad St. in Hopewell. Chances are it won’t be long before they’re in all your favorite haunts. –Joe Emanski

Balance is the key At San Francisco-based chain Qdoba, which recently opened at 140 Nassau St. in Princeton, burritos ($6–7) are filled with beans (pinto or black), rice, pico de gallo, cheese, meat, and salsa. Using Qdoba’s online nutrition calculator, I determined that my burrito was over 1,000 calories. It weighed 1 lb., 6 oz. It was the size of Alcatraz, but perhaps the focus was more on quantity than authenticity. One problem that can come up with burritos is balance. One side of my burrito was a mix of ingredients, and the other was a ton of rice. The rice suffocated the taste of the meat. I almost forgot I even had chicken. It’s still a good option and fits the criteria of being tasty, filling, and a good value. –John Leaver

My kingdom for guacamole Who doesn’t give guacamole and sour cream as free sides with a burrito? Turns out, a lot of places don’t. Three of my coworkers and I got into a condiment debate one lunchtime at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Hamilton after a server told us that guacamole and sour cream had to be ordered for an additional price. We all wanted both, but two of us decided against it. Why pay extra to enjoy what should come with the dish? When the four burritos came, we tried them with sour cream and guacamole and without. In the end, the holdouts relented, and paid for more sides. Health crazes may have gotten us into habits of ordering pasta sauces without meat, ice cream without fudge and even hamburgers and hot dogs without buns. But what really makes a meal a meal? Is a Reuben a Reuben if it doesn’t have sauerkraut? One of our crowd said to the others, “Hey, do you guys think on the way back to the office we could stop for coffee? I love how my favorite café now makes it: with chicory, on ice.” –Luke Elliot

Other restaurants in the area serving burritos include: Tortuga’s Mexican Grill, 1280 Route 33, Hamilton. Chapala Mexican Restaurant, 811 Route 33, Hamilton Moe’s Southwest Grill, 104 Hickory Corner Road, East Windsor

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