REVIEW: Mexican bland-off

Mucho Burrito Fresh Mexican Grill Restaurant

9406 – 137 Ave

(And four other city locations)


There’s nothing more irritating to me than someone who can’t be irritated — and worse yet, will take any kind of culinary abuse with smiling grace because “oh well, it’s still better than staying home.”

I remember vividly watching diners move away from an upset customer at a restaurant a few years ago – literally asking to move to other tables — because he kept sending his meal back. They didn’t want to be around someone so…objectionable.

Thing was, he was right. The food was effin’ terrible. Really, really bad. We all should have been complaining. Instead, like a compliant herd, we all weighed the hassle of complaining against the rapidity with which we could exit stage left, and opted for a swift departure instead.

Those customers one table over? They didn’t even worry about whether he was right. They just shied away, subconsciously not wanting to bite the hand that was quite literally feeding them, even though the entrees were so much high-priced dog food.

This willingness to accept mediocrity is perhaps what bothered me most about Mucho Burrito, a relatively new Canadian franchise of “deluxe” Mexican fast-food that has in just a few short years spread to more than two dozen locations north of the border (and two in Washington State.)

The attraction is obvious: the product is cheap to make but at a higher price point than other Mexican chains. If they were a sub chain, they’d be called El Quiznos, or something.

My friend and I caught a couple of their mammoth burritos at the North Gate Mall location in Edmonton. Essentially, it works like a sub shop: three clerks build your burrito, taco or quesadilla in front of you. You can pick from several sizes and four meat selections, including chicken, beef, marinated steak, and pork, plus tilapia filets if you want fish.

Then it’s a selection of beans, rice, and vegetables to complete your burrito – cilantro was a nice choice — which the clerk then flash cooks in a sandwich press.

Mucho Burrito’s franchise claim is that its product is superior, from fresher toppings to fresh cuts of meat cooked and spiced daily. But it’s awfully hard to tell; they’re left soaking in the same heating trays as the dubious contents at other fast food chains. And by the time you’ve layered the spiced meat, some salsa, white rice, a little guacamole and burrito sauce, it’s just a mix of vaguely taco-flavoured fast food, like any other.

True, these burritos are enormous. The “medium” uses a 10-inch wrap, and feels like it weighs close to a pound. But beyond that, there was little about it that tasted appreciably better than something from Taco Time. And it certainly wasn’t in the same kind of league as a chain like Chilis, or a local chain like Julio’s.

So what you’re left with, really, is a synthesis of some of the more contemptible elements of the North American diet: bland mediocrity at absurd proportion. It doesn’t taste bad, and in a pinch you could use it to beat an intruder unconscious. It’s that big. Approach one slowly and an old bearded dude standing behind you says “That’s no Moon. It’s a space station.”

But for a lot of us, bigger isn’t better. Tacos that blot out the sun might seem like a sensible idea, but when the price is correspondingly high – it’s $8 for a medium burrito – it’s just wretched excess. If I’m going to eat this much food, I’d like to be stuck on a raft for a few weeks to make it worthwhile, or on my third week at Curves.

The wrap was fresh – they had a choice of flour or whole wheat – but sealed with a schmear of lukewarm water. Bleah. The contents seemed reasonably flavourful but of middling heat and, again, damp from being in heating trays. The sauces were thin – most of the burrito sauce wound up on the silver foil wrap, like so much donair drizzle. The “medium” spice salsa seemed almost spiceless.

“Deluxe” Mexican? Oh please. El Charro in Tucson this most definitely is not.

Still, if you need a lunch large enough to snap a gastric bypass band, you could do worse. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience but my friend and I both agreed we likely wouldn’t be back. They say if you strike a food critic down she comes back that much stronger, like a Jedi. But why take the chance.