Eating in Berlin: The Continuing Quest for a Good Burrito Abroad

by Ekua on June 11, 2012 in eats and drinks,Germany

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.ย  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?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex Robertson Textor June 12, 2012 at 4:27 am

I love this. Living in London I desperately miss good burritos. Every single time someone raves about a burrito here I end up finding it terribly wanting. Inappropriate seasoning is my chief complaint. I’ve tasted curry in my burrito in many places. I love curry but I do not want to taste it in a burrito.

If someone were to find a way to approximate the burritos of Taqueria Cancรบn or La Taqueria in a place like London, the response would be overwhelming, very very enthusiastic. But as far as I know it hasn’t yet been done.

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InsideJourneys June 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Alex, open a good burrito place or partner with someone and teach them how to do it. That’s what I’d do.

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Alex Robertson Textor June 19, 2012 at 8:16 am

That’s a great idea. But why stop there? London also needs a good Uruguayan chivitos restaurant and a real Iraqi-Israeli sabich stall. Both would be extremely popular if done faithfully.

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Ekua June 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Yes, it’s ultimately all about the flavors! I think people who don’t know that mistakenly think it’s simply about having meat, rice, beans, and salsa in a large tortilla. But if the meat isn’t marinated with those familiar flavors, the salsa is bland, and the rice is dry, it just doesn’t have the same effect. I can totally imagine how curry would weasel its way into a burrito in London! I have a friend who’s a chef who once traveled to Italy to become a certified pizzaiolo… I think there would be merits to extending that kind of training to other types of food ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Alex Robertson Textor June 19, 2012 at 8:17 am

Agreed, regarding both the flavors and the training.

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InsideJourneys June 12, 2012 at 1:53 pm

I can definitely relate. When you’re on the road for a while, your body begins to crave something familiar so even a name can conjure memories delicious enough to make your mouth water.
Many times in NYC, I’d see jerk (chicken/pork/whatever) on the menu but I realize I have ignore it. I’ve been disappointed too many times by barbecue sauce- or worse, ketchup-smothered meat. Good luck finding a decent burrito!

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Ekua June 12, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Ugh… ketchup smothered meat for jerk chicken? I tried it once at a Caribbean inspired restaurant in SF and I think everyone I was with was sort of puzzled by what we ended up with, haha. It will definitely be one of the first things I try when I find myself in Jamaica someday.

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Lauren, Ephemerratic June 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

On our round-the-world year, Todd and I tried many burritos as well. We are San Francisco Mission residents so it’s hard for us to go long without our fix.

Barcelona, Spain. Seoul, South Korea. Otres Beach, Cambodia. Somewhere in Bali. Nothing was right but it all came close enough to keep us from going crazy!

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Ekua June 12, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Ooo, a year without Mission burritos? That’s intense ๐Ÿ˜›

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Phil June 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I’ve also been spoiled by the few true mission burritos, but I’m sure my taste is nowhere as refined as yours. In West Africa, as you know, it’s a struggle to find many staples from home. Mexican and tex-mex are relatively nonexistent and when you find them, they’re usually a huge disappointment. Ekua, what do you say to opening up a mission burrito shop in Accra? ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Ekua June 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Haha… that’s an awesome idea! But I’d have to bring someone along with me who really knows what they’re doing!

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Lauren June 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Taquerias and Mexican food are what I miss the most when I’m traveling! I missed burritos and chips and salsa while traveling in Africa and I certainly miss it in Spain. Thankfully Spain has tortillas, chips and salsa and when I feel up for it I can create my own Mexican food at home but it’s just not the same.

Interesting it had Muni wallpaper, truly inspired by the Mission.

Didn’t know the burrito originated in New Mexico- I was road tripping in NM last summer and noticed how similar the food was to American inspired Mexican food but don’t remember seeing burritos on the menu. On second thought, I often don’t order burritos at restaurants only at taquerias.

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Ekua June 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm

I think you misread that… it’s not New Mexico, but Northern Mexico, near the border ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t think anyone’s figured out exactly where they came from, but the consensus is that they originated in Ciudad Juarez and that the type of large burrito that’s generally stuffed with meat, beans, rice and salsa and wrapped in foil was created in SF or in the Central Valley.

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Audrey | That Backpacker June 14, 2012 at 8:17 am

We always crave some kind of food when we’re abroad. For me it’s Mexican enchilladas here in Korea. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Ekua June 14, 2012 at 10:46 pm

So interesting to hear that Mexican food is something so many people are craving in other parts of the world. Goes to show how hard it is to recreate!

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Dani June 14, 2012 at 5:27 pm

That place looks so promising! I was ready to bookmark it for our next visit to Berlin but I guess we’ll have to look out for another burrito joint… It really is not easy to find decent Mexican / TexMex food outside of the U.S. and Mexico but we found a few decent places in India (can you believe it!) and in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Europe is just particularly bad at making good Mexican food, for whatever reason.

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Ekua June 14, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Wow, India and Chiang Mai? Those are two of the least likely places I’d expect. I think what I’ve seen in Europe is a lack of regard for the actual flavors that go into Mexican or even CaliMex and TexMex. It’s not just about a tortilla wrapped around a few things! Maybe give the second location of Dolores a try when you go to Berlin… I curious to know if it’s any different or better!

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Christine | Grrrl Traveler June 17, 2012 at 1:15 am

Can’t believe you found SF inspired burritos in Berlin, although it is an international city. I love that tofu was on the menu and I tend to think of Germany as a meat and potatoes place, it occasionally surprises me. When I travel, I’m always drawn to falafels.

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Ekua June 17, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Berlin attracts a young international crowd… it’s not too hard to find veg options there! But you’ll definitely still see a lot of meat heavy dishes there, especially at traditional German and Middle Eastern restaurants.

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