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Have It Your Way

May 30, 2012

Friday I’m going to be in California. I can’t believe it either. As it turns out Mrs. Fussy will be there too, although we are going separately and have completely different itineraries. Still, we will get to have one dinner together with old friends and drink the one last bottle of wedding wine we’ve been saving for just such an occasion.

Although she mentioned to me her desire to have a Cactus burrito.

That’s not one filled with nopales. Rather, it’s a burrito from Cactus Taqueria in our old hood. It’s not a traditional kind of place. It’s a more dressed up version of a traditional taqueria that uses happy meat and has some delicious moles on the menu to boot. If I recall correctly, her order was pollo mole rojo with black beans and no salsa.

I bring this up not to make you hunger for some of the inexpensive, delicious, and sustainable food options that are missing from our neck of the woods. Rather, I’ve been having a private discussion over on Yelp with an individual who had a bad experience at Capital Q, and I was reminded of a very valuable lesson I learned at Cactus a long time ago.

Cactus used to be a place where you would wait in a queue until the next burrito roller was available. Then you and your employee du jour would walk down the line as you detailed which items should be placed in the tortilla. Then they rolled it, wrapped it, and slid it down the line to the cashier.

It was a great system.

It was great not because it was efficient. Because that it wasn’t. It was great because one person took ownership of your dining experience. You and your roller were both in this together. You could look them in the eye. You could ask for a little more beans, or a touch more salsa. And you could be sure that your burrito would have exactly what you wanted inside.

Now here’s the thing. Not all burrito rollers are created equal. Over time, you learn to recognize the good ones, who are able to not just assure an even distribution of filling (so that you got meat, rice, beans and salsa in every bite) but those who were skilled in creating a good seal so that your burrito would not make a giant mess as you ate it.

And you know what? That’s fine.

When things are made by hand, there are going to be variations in the final product. People are not machines and the drive for standardization and consistency are what gave us things like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.

I’m much happier being able to see the imperfect hand of the craftsman in my food, within limits.

That said, when I was in line at Cactus and saw I would draw one of the lesser burrito rollers, I had been known to linger at the beverage cooler (pretending to be indecisive) and wave the person behind me up to the counter.

Sadly my local Cactus eventually abandoned the old system for a more streamlined approach, where you order from the cashier first. The register sends your order to a burrito assembly line where multiple people are responsible for crafting your food. And now instead of being able to keep an eye on the progress of your burrito, yours is just one of countless items being made by people who have no connection to you, or ownership in the final product. And the food suffered.

The point here is that it’s great when you can watch your food being prepared. Capital Q is one of those places. I love standing there and having them slice me pieces off the brisket.

“Maybe just a hair thicker”
“Can you toss in that fatty piece with all the bark?”
Or seeing the whole rack of ribs and asking, “Is there any way to get that end piece?”

The lesson here is twofold.

1) Work with the person on the other side of the counter to get what you want.
2) People are human, and some will make food better than others. And that’s okay.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 10:28 am

    I’ve really, really got to get to that place one of these days. Tour de BBQ, anyone? :)

  2. May 30, 2012 12:01 pm

    This is why Moe’s is better than Chipotle! At Moe’s two people handle your burrito. The first steams the tortilla and adds rice and protein of your choice. The second adds the cheese and cold condiments. At Chipotle they need at least 4 people for this task. Thanks for helping me figure this out.

    • May 30, 2012 12:26 pm

      Really? When I’ve gone to Chipotle, I usually get one person making my food start to finish, two if they’re really, really busy.

      • Kerosena permalink
        May 31, 2012 1:59 pm

        Four people made my salad when I stopped in for lunch last Thursday.

  3. -R. permalink
    May 30, 2012 12:28 pm

    I’d say that’s also an advantage to being a “regular” at certain places. The chef gets to know you a bit more, and begins to understand your personal preferences. I myself prefer a burger cooked between rare and medium rare, and some places just can’t quite figure out how to do this without leaving it either raw, or solidly medium. However, being able to stand at the kitchen door (or the counter as it were) and be able to prompt them with “a little more of this, or a little less of that, please”, can do wonders for you as a regular patron. Soon, samples of ideas in progress begin to issue forth from the kitchen and your opinion begins to matter as well. Most times, it’s the little things that can make all the difference.

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