Red Burrito champions the taco revolution
As a matter of course I stay away from chain restaurants. I will review the odd one, if there is something significant about its opening, or if it is hotly anticipated, but for the most part it is my preference to focus on independent businesses rather than corporate ones.
Of course, the challenge here becomes one of taxonomy. What comprises a chain? The burger joints are easy; I think it’s kind of cool, for instance, that A&W launched a vegan burger patty this year and subsequently ran out of supplies because the uptake was so strong, but I would not write a review on the topic because, well, it’s A&W.
But there are a number of B.C.-born chains that do not qualify as fast food restaurants. I have an uneasy relationship with these big-box, high-volume venues because although they represent compelling business success stories, they are attended by myriad controversies related to the homogenization of dining, supply monopolies, questionable front of house recruitment practices, and a tendency towards style over substance. Sometimes, in my effort to prioritize independently owned and operated restaurants, I overlook spots that are turning out solid, honest fare served up by people with a genuine love for their industry.
This week I consider two such overlooked venues, each previously dismissed by me out of hand as “chains” when, in fact, they still offer personable service and a good meal.
The first is Red Burrito, the steamy-windowed casual burrito and taco joint on Lonsdale Avenue near 15th Street. I have enjoyed many a hearty meal in this space and have always been impressed by the plethora of ultra-fresh, made-in-house ingredients on offer here with which to top one’s chosen tortilla vessel, from pico de gallo to tomatillo salsa, slow-braised beef to coarsely chopped guacamole. Red Burrito is a locally owned and operated business with five locations, the original still going strong on Commercial Drive at the busy corner of First Avenue. The locations are not franchises, but all share the same ownership.
Red Burrito was quietly championing the same values that informed the city-wide taco revolution before the latter fully took hold. Theirs is a menu that emphasizes fresh, thoughtfully seasoned ingredients and the restaurants are not afraid to run out of food before closing hours, evidence that consistent quality takes priority over volume of sales.
I ducked into the Lonsdale location on a dark, chilly weeknight with The Boy in tow in order to pick up an assortment of burritos. Patrons order at the counter and first select their preferred platform for ingredients: burrito, taco, or bowl. For the first two options, a decision needs to be made about the type of tortilla: white flour, whole wheat, or tomato. For my taste, white flour is the way to go; I am of the mind that the tortilla is simply the container for the real ingredients and I would prefer it not to interfere with the taste balance of the fillings. The Boy and I chose three burritos: grilled chicken, braised beef, and vegetarian. We loaded these with fillings that included rice, black beans, pico de gallo, salsa verde (spicy tomatillo sauce), chopped onions, cilantro, guacamole, pickled jalapenos, sour cream, and a squeeze of lime. The vegetarian burrito benefitted from the addition of sautéed onions and peppers (an optional substitute for the beans on any burrito, making it a fajita burrito).
The brilliant Sunday Times food and culture writer A.A. Gill once wrote a scathing but hilarious polemic on the burrito, at one point comparing its texture to an “orangutan nappy.” While I disagree with his assessment (partially due to a lack of comparative data, for which I am thankful), I do nevertheless prefer some contrasting textures in my burrito and was therefore a big fan of the grilled chicken, which boasted a slightly crispy, caramelized exterior and tender, succulent interior. The beef burrito had a tremendous depth of flavour, revealing flavours reminiscent of a slow-cooked winter stew, while the vegetarian version was an explosion of fresh flavours lifted by the caramelized onions. The burritos are generously stuffed and tightly packed, making for filling meals and great value at $10. Guacamole is an addition at $2.30 but is exceptionally fresh and liberally applied. Housemade horchata, a traditional sweetened Mexican drink made from rice, milk, cinnamon, and vanilla, was a nice way to cap off the rich meal.
Red Burrito, 1455 Lonsdale Avenue. Redburrito.ca. 604-980-0980.
Pemberton Ave. C-Lovers knows how to please fish & chips crowd
The second restaurant that I have given unduly short shrift in the past is C-Lovers, the long running fish and chips specialist located at the far North end of Pemberton Avenue and Marine Drive, tucked unassumingly in a strip mall, flanked by a gas station and an insurance broker. C-Lovers is indeed a franchised operation, but one that is once again B.C.-born; the company website reports its first ever Albertan opening this year.
C-Lovers appeals to me on a very personal, nostalgic level. As my wife DJ is from Northern England, we have visited that part of the world with some frequency over the years, including a couple of trips with the kids. Fish and chips, demonstrably perfected in that part of the world, has featured on many a dinner menu on my visits and take-away in particular is almost second nature to me now. A fish supper from the local chippie can be transcendent. The signature service of these English venues is a small cardboard basket into which the fish and chips are placed (along with a pickled onion, if you are in my party) and then the whole lot is wrapped tight in large, unbleached sheets of paper. The scent of fried potatoes, golden fish, and malt vinegar-soaked paper is a fond sensory stimulant for me, conjuring memories of many a great meal with friends and family. C-Lovers has this service down pat, stuffing their takeout baskets full of crispy fries, generous, perfectly cooked fillets of cod, haddock, salmon, or halibut, and wrapping it all in the aforementioned style of paper. C-Lovers also does prawns or oysters and chips, as well as various seafood burgers, chowder, a host of sides, and chicken and chips for that one person in your group who is not in the mood for fish. All C-Lovers seafood is certified Ocean Wise.
I dropped in recently to pick up fish suppers for the kids and I, opting for cod (my favourite fish for this sort of meal) and halibut (the preferred fish of my truly West Coast kids). The portions here are generous and a one-piece fish and chips is more than ample for a kid and sufficient for an average adult appetite, while a two-piece cod and chips is an enormous meal, featuring two golden sheets of moist and tender fish and a mountain of fries. The Pemberton Avenue C-Lovers, which has been around since 1996, plies its trade admirably; every meal in our order was cooked just right and the fish was clearly very fresh, the restaurant turning over a significant number of meals every night between a brisk takeout business and a decent dine-in crowd. While no pickled onions were available, a dilly, briny deep fried dill pickle did the job. A two-piece cod, one-piece halibut, fried pickle, coleslaw, and extra fries came to $44 before gratuity.
C-Lovers, 1660 Pemberton Avenue. 604-980-9993. C-lovers.com.