Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's a Wrap!

Burritos have always been traditionally Mexican, but since the 80's, people have been trying to wrap all kinds of things in a big flour tortilla. People wrap up cold cuts and cheese to make a pseudo-sandwich.   People wrap up salads.   These days McDonald's and KFC even offer snack wraps that have hamburgers or fried chicken in them.   Ever since the trendy low-carb diet craze, people have been substituting tortillas for buns and trying capitolize on the wrap craze.   But only certain places do it well.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
The traditional predecessor to a wrap is of course the burrito.   So named for the way the farmers would bundle their wares on their "little donkeys", or from the backs of which they would sell food from (like lunchwagons from the 1800s), burritos in Mexico are considerably smaller than the mammoth purses in the U.S.. There is some debate about what distinguishes a burrito from a soft taco, but the general consensus is that a burrito is a little larger, may feature more ingredients, but most characteristically the way that it is wrapped.  Tightly tucked in on both ends and rolled like a sleeping bag, burritos are much less messy than a loosely folded or cigar rolled soft taco.  It is this tight wrapping technique that distinguishes the best burritos or wraps.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
There are quite a few Mexican places on the island, each with their own burrito offerings.   However, while places like Maui Tacos, go for the wet approach of making a huge, plate-sized, overstuffed burritos, swimming in Mexican red sauce, this approach, which really requires a knife and fork, is not extremely condusive to the portability that has made wraps so popular.  For me, the best wrapped burrito on the island can be found at a little place called BC Burrito on Waialae by Koko Head.  For one thing, the tortillas they use are more fun and colorful than most places, with flavors like spinach (for a pretty green burrito), jalapeno & cheese, and tomato & chipotle.   Not only do they add flavor, but the texture is a little softer, more doughy, more elastic, and a little more sticky than the traditional flour or corn tortillas.   The result is a very tightly bundled wrap that retains strong cohesiveness and does not fall apart while you're eating it.   For an addtional level of structural integrity, they wrap your burrito in  aluminum foil, which you can peel off, one circle at a time, exposing only what you're going to eat while the rest of the foil continues to hold everything together.  This tight cohesion not only enhances portability, but compresses the ingredients together into a much more unified food item, rather than just a hodge podge of separate flavors.

Gutbuster Burrito (with Carnitas) from BC Burrito
BC Burrito uses their excellent wrapping technique to envelope just an entire Tex Mex meal into a single handheld monstrosity.  While their Super burrito is more than large enough to feed any really hungry sane individual, I opted to try their enormous Gutbuster burrito.  This gargantuan thing is as long as my forearm, and thick as the thickest part of a wine bottle or softball bat.  It is also extremely packed with rice, meat (their carnitas have a wonderful smokey taste), cheese, sour cream and guacamole, and salsa (of which my favorite is a very tasty chipotle & corn mixture).  It is so tightly packed with stuff, that just holding it you can feel the incredible weight of all that food.  It's a bit much, even for me, and I left the place feeling as overstuffed as the burrito itself, but immensely satisfied and happy.

Potato Burrito from BC Burrito
The most original and tasty thing at BC Burrito however is departure from the traditional Tex Mex form.   It is their signature potato burrito, filled with seasoned potatoes, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, salsa,  and a nice creamy ranch.  Their potatoes are prefectly seasoned, diced and fried, and surprisingly full of flavor.  As my wife would say, they're full of potatoey goodness.  It really says something that my wife, who really despises Mexican food in general, likes their potato burrito.  They've replaced the Mexican flavor with something a little more universal.   But if you want to add that Mexican flavor back in, they've got a big bar with several dozen different exotic types of hot sauces.   Of course, the only hot sauce that truly has the authentic Mexican blend of flavors and spices, is Cholula (which they have in large quantities).  Add a little Cholula to anything and it tastes authentically Mexican, right?

The potato burrito is a great example of how wraps have evolved beyond the traditional Mexican burrito.  On the mainland, even Chinese food gets wrapped burrito style in something called moo shu pork, which is pork, julienne black mushrooms, maybe some bamboo shoot slivers, some egg, and hoisin sauce all rolled into a crepe.   In Hawaii, with all of our Chinese population being decended from Cantonese farmers, this dish is almost unheard of.  I, myself, had clue what this dish was the first time I went to the mainland, where it is a common "Chinese" menu item.  Luckily, I had experienced this dish once by the time Disney named their little dragon, Mooshu, so I could catch the reference in Mulan.  But I'm not sure that everyone here in Hawaii (or in China for that matter) did.  Regardless, it just goes to show how just about anything gets wrapped up these days.

Turkey Bacon Wrap from Salad Creations
Since the advent of the low carb diet, wraps have become very popular, especially salad wraps.  Now, I have never understood the point of low carb diets.  Supposedly, you can eat something as fatty as a hamburger (smothered in gravy even), but throw it on a bed of shredded cabbage instead of white rice or a bun, and suddenly it becomes healthy for you, and you can even lose weight by eating it?   Yeah right.  But I will say that salad wraps are tasty enough.   These days if we're craving a salad wrap, we head over to Salad Creations in Koko Marina.   They chop their salad, so the mixture of small chopped up pieces fits better in the wrap than other places where big leaves of lettuce in your wrap can get unruly and cause the whole thing to fall apart.   The other nice thing is that they add just enough dressing to bind the salad together within the wrap, adding a little more of that necessary cohesion.

My very favorite place to get different types of wraps on the island though, is sadly gone and way before it's time.  It was a little place in Manoa Marketplace called Pili Wraps Cafe.  They used to use tortillas that were very similar to the ones served at BC Burrito, resulting in the same tightly packed, cohesive goodness.   However, instead of filling those wraps with just Mexican flavors, Pili Wraps put all kinds of things in their wraps.   They used to make a chicken caeser salad wrap that would put Salad Creations to shame.  It had the full caesar flavor and crunch of a real salad, but tightly bound in handheld form.  They also made a terrific spicy Thai peanut sauce chicken wrap and an Indonesian chicken wrap that really captured the flavors of Southeast Asia.   But my favorite was always their Cajun chicken wrap.   Instead of the Mexican rice you would find in most burritos, this wrap had real Cajun dirty rice.   The chicken was perfectly tender grilled white meat chicken.  Everything was then smothered in a wonderful creamy, spicy Cajun sauce that actually had the right blend of spices.  Sinking your teeth into this warm soft wrap was a great combination of textures from the ever so slightly chewy doughy tortilla, to the tender meaty chicken, to the soft beads of rice.  It was warm and filling and utterly delicious.   I was very sad to see Pili Wraps close before they got the chance to establish a following and make some lasting memories.   BC Burrito may wrap the perfect burrito, but Pili Wraps used to dominate the non-Mexican wraps.

Wraps are still changing and evolving, but when people wrap them as expertly as BC Burrito or Pili Wraps, they should be more than just a passing food fad.

1 comment:

  1. i agree with the potato burrito being the best thing at bc burrito! that was what i tried the first time i went there. i ordered it because i thought there was meat in there as well, but then my friend notified me that there wasn't any. but i was pleasantly surprised to find that it was still very tasty. so on the second trip i was excited to try a carne asada burrito. unfortunately i was dissappointed and found it to be quite bland.