While I stay far away from American fast food chains abroad (as I would at home), I’m not the type of traveler to feverishly stick to a diet of food only from the local culture when I travel. I get a kick out of seeing how a restaurant in Ghana might make a Chinese dish or what a beach side restaurant in France considers to be an “American” sandwich. I’ve had many laughs, some nice surprises, and only a few stomach aches from experiencing the ways people of one culture reinterpret food of a completely different culture.
A recurring theme of this kind of food exploration is an often masochistic quest to find a great San Francisco burrito abroad. As a misguided youth, I was once anti-burrito, but somewhere along the way, I realized what I was missing. Now I love being based in the best place to find them and on the road, burritos have become an elusive taste of home that can’t seem to be recreated too far beyond.
But that hasn’t stopped me from trying. On Cat Ba Island in Vietnam’s Halong Bay and in Aguas Calientes, Peru, I ordered burritos that were tasty enough, but beyond the incorporation of tortilla-like component, probably didn’t deserve to be called burritos. In Oaxaca, curiosity led me to order a “burrita” and I ended up with with something that resembled an oversized rolled taco with beans. I won’t even get started on the Tex-Mex restaurant in Salvador, Brazil where the salsa was actually marinara sauce.
One day in Berlin as I thumbed through my guidebook, I saw something that looked promising — a restaurant called Dolores, directly inspired by San Francisco’s Mission District where burritos as the world often knows them first rose to popularity (while the burrito originated in Northern Mexico and the flavors are certainly of the country, you’ll be hard pressed to find the kind of internationally known burrito you’re looking for in most of Mexico). I had to check out.
I ventured out on a rainy evening to walk to the Dolores in Mitte, quickly realizing it was much further from my hostel than it looked on the map. I got pretty soaked on the way and I was happy to take refuge in the cheery and brightly colored restaurant.
But I was immediately wary when I looked up at the menu. Tofu was featured prominently. Sorry vegetarians and vegans… it’s not that I don’t think there should be options for you, but that’s just not what you expect to see first on the list of protein choices at a burrito establishment. They also had a salsa entitled “smoky peanut” which just confused me. I did have to give them props for carrying Anchor Steam beer, a San Francisco-made brew that you wouldn’t expect to see in Germany.
I decided to keep things simple and try a classic chicken burrito. To wash it down, I ordered a glass of tamarind-strawberry juice. It was thicker than what I would’ve expected of an agua fresca, but tasty nonetheless. I sat down at a table in the next room and enjoyed looking at the outdated but easily recognizable MUNI map of the Mission District that was turned into wallpaper.
The burrito came with the tortilla loosely wrapped and it was covered in paper. Strike one, it was not tightly wrapped in foil. This is important, especially when it comes to eating a burrito with grace with your hands rather than a fork and knife. Strike two, the flavor of the chicken was way off. It tasted like there were hints of curry in the seasoning! Strike three, a lot of effort was put into making it healthy. While great Mission burritos aren’t necessarily greasy, they’re a whole lot more moist and a whole lot less self conscious. If you want a healthy burrito, you eat half and save the other half for another time.
Based on some of choices there, I suspect Dolores’s downfall was likely finding inspiration from a more yuppified San Francisco taqueria like Papalote rather than the more basic taquerias that often produce better flavors with less hype. And I’m sure recipes were created to cater to a more local taste rather a visitor from San Francisco seeking nostalgia or a challenge.
As you may have guessed, my opinion on this place was dictated by a fair amount of burrito snobbery, a smug side affect that can be picked up from spending an indeterminate amount of time in San Francisco. I loved the restaurant’s name and clear influence, but unfortunately those aspects raised my expectations. If nothing else, it was fun to see an attempt to recreate a part of my city abroad. It was more of a entertaining adventure in “What did you expect?” than a disappointment. So once again, I ended up with a highly edible burrito-inspired wrap, but not exactly a burrito. The quest continues.
Is there a taste of home that you crave more on the road in part because you can’t find it? Do you have a funny story of trying a non-local food while traveling and getting a plate of something strange?