Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The term "California cuisine" generally goes hand in hand with Alice Waters, the slow food movement and organic, local ingredients. That's one type of California cuisine, of which I am a big fan.

But San Francisco's greatest gastronomic contribution isn't frou frou cuisine such as macrobiotic greens salad with toasted walnuts and strawberries in aged balsamic vinaigrette. No, its greatest contribution to the culinary world is the burrito. Look up "burrito" on Wikipedia and there is an entire section dedicated to San Francisco burritos. Why? Because San Francisco is home of the best freaking burritos in the world.

Ask 10 San Franciscans where to find the best burrito and you'll get 10 different answers, but I can guarantee that every one of those places will serve up an amazing warm steamed or grilled tortilla stuffed to bursting with juicy, tender meat, perfectly cooked beans, rice and garnishes ranging from salsa fresca to crema to guacamole to melted cheese. My personal favorite is Gordo's (the best is actually the one located in Albany, a small city next to Berkeley, rather than their SF locations), but if you want to fully experience what I mean by the best burrito ever, you MUST order it exactly this way (which I can't take credit for - this is my little brother's regular burrito order and after years of always stealing a bite of his and regretting that I got a "healthier" version with no cheese, sour cream or guac, I now order it exactly the way he does, because if you are going to eat a burrito, eat a burrito): super burrito (which comes with melted cheese steamed onto the tortilla) with rice, pinto beans, pollo (NOT pollo asado but the stewed pollo bursting with its own juices), sour cream, guacamole, extra tomatoes and onions and extra hot sauce.

I'm also a big fan of El Farolito in the Mission - their greasy al pastor burritos bursting with juicy red-colored meat (from the spices) is one of the best counteracting agents to a hangover, tied only with a bowl of hot steaming pho or greasy pad thai noodles at the original Osha Thai on Geary Street.

Taste is subjective, and when you've had the best, you tend to be a harsh critic towards the amateurs. So I feel really bad that I have to give my first truly negative review of a food establishment in Tokyo, and that it has to be of a burrito joint that I so badly wanted to like.

I was ecstatic when I first passed by Frijoles last week, which proudly sells a ripped off version of Chipotle burritos and tacos in Azabujuban. Burritos in Tokyo?? Just what the doctor ordered, because a girl can only eat so much clean-tasting Japanese food before craving a big juicy burrito bursting with all the flavorful greasiness and goodness that a truly great burrito possesses. So when I finally headed over this evening to try it out, I was brimming with anticipation.

The first sign that something was off was when I grabbed my foil-wrapped burrito to add guacamole to it. It was cold. A burrito shouldn't be cold because the tortilla should be steamed till hot enough to melt cheese (which should be melted on, not sprinkled on cold at the end), the meat should be kept warm and juicy, the beans and rice should also be kept warm and the only cold thing going in the burrito should be a dollop of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. When done right, the heat of the cheese, meat, rice and beans melds together with the sour cream, salsa and guacamole into a symphony of gastronomic perfection, just barely held together inside a thin steamed or grilled tortilla ready to burst at the seams but expertly rolled so as not to.

My mouth wanted to eject the first bite of the burrito. Oh no no no, this was all wrong. The word "yuck" popped into my head. A burrito is a only as great as the sum of its parts, so I have to break down all the parts (pretty much every single part was wrong, which can only result in the aggregate of a wrong burrito):

1. The tortilla is too thick, not pliable and was COLD. Also, it doesn't taste the way a tortilla should. Tastes more like the flour concoction that people use to make wraps (which are not burritos).
2. The burrito was not wrapped correctly so it fell apart if you didn't hold it carefully upright.
3. The meat was cold, not juicy and not very flavorful.
4. The rice was not flavored with enough cilantro or salt and was also cold.
5. The pinto beans didn't have the correct velvety soft texture or that authentic Mexican flavor that I can't really describe but am pretty sure has to do with the addition of lard, which I'm pretty sure Frijoles' frijoles don't include.
6. The cheese was not melted on but rather sprinkled (very sparsely) at the end.
7. Because of 1-6 above, the ingredients of the burrito did not meld into a symphony of gastronomic perfection but into a rather cacaphonous...wrap.

In an interview with Timeout Tokyo, one of the owners states "We have the tortillas for the burritos, tacos and chips made exclusively for us every day by a noodle-maker in Saitama." UMMM, there you have problem #1. What the hell does a Japanese NOODLE maker know about TORTILLAS??

I'm sure there are worse burritos in the world, but frankly, this was the worst burrito I've had in MY life (although to be fair, I've generally only had good burritos since I lived in the burrito mecca of the world). Frijoles, please fix...everything about your burrito, because I really truly want to like you. Tokyo needs a good burrito shop, and I think the potential is there at Frijoles...if only they change everything about their burritos. Well, the salsas weren't bad.

I was so excited when I saw this sign!

The setup is an unabashed knockoff of Chipotle

Looks promising...

Verdict: um, NO, this is not how a burrito should taste

Food rating: *
Bang for buck rating: 2

The essentials:
Location: 2 minute walk from Wendy's in Azabujuban, Tokyo
Average price of meal for two: 3000 yen (~$33)


  1. i can't believe you wrote about this place too! my editor just did a food review of here in the latest issue...

  2. Was the review good or bad? Which mag do you write for? Most of the online reviews from Tokyo food reviewers I've read have been good, which boggles my mind - clearly the reviewers have not experienced a really good burrito before because if they had, they could not possibly think Frijoles is good.

  3. Truly, there is nothing hotter than a woman who knows and loves burritos.

    You nailed it with the comment about melting the cheese on the tortilla. But I have to disagree that stewed chicken is the way to go. I prefer pollo asado, provided it's marinated in achiote, adobo, etc.

    Taqueria San Jose and Papalote both do this. I don't get why more places haven't followed their lead.