Battle of the burritos: Writer Amanda Drane chows her way through three counties

Nov 12 2014

Daily Hampshire Gazette. November 8, 2014. By Amanda Drane.

Allow me to interrupt my grumbling gastrointestinal system to tell you what I learned during my recent burrito crawl — the region has no shortage of big, bruising burritos. And some of them even taste good.

Mine was a journey of epic proportions: Two days, 120-plus miles, a half dozen burritos — most of which weighed in at well over a pound of chicken, beans, rice, cheese, sauces and tortilla.

My apologies in advance to the burrito joints and their loyal diners who don’t find themselves represented in this only vaguely scientific one-woman survey. It would have been a logistical — and digestive — nightmare to hit every burrito outlet in the Valley.

So instead, trusty department store food scale and bottle of Tums in hand, I visited six restaurants across Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties. I leaned more heavily on locally rooted establishments, but threw in a couple of chains for good measure. And I didn’t alert any of the businesses to my purpose, so the burritos I ate should be much like the ones you can sample for yourselves.

•••

First to Amherst, the college town where Bueno y Sano has long been acknowledged as Hampshire County’s go-to burrito emporium. When I landed in the Valley seven years ago, I remember everyone saying, “You gotta try them — they’re huge.” My scale confirmed that the adjective remains apt: tipping the scales at 1 pound 8 ounces, the Bueno burrito ended up being my survey’s heavyweight champ.

Bueno’s Amherst location — another serves up food in downtown Northampton — is in a rectangular brick building at 46 Main St. I ordered one at the counter and settled in for the first bite of my burrito odyssey.

Mmmm. Not bad! But also, not great. The Bueno burrito got points not just for its size but also for brimming with fresh ingredients. But for all that goodness, it lacked a certain edge; the chicken, beans and rice had little discernible spice and the hottest of the buffet-style hot sauce offerings could barely earn the label “mild.” It was also a mess to eat; juice dripped constantly out of one end while I attacked the other.

Grade for size: A

Grade for flavor: B minus

•••

Next stop: Taco Bell at 203 King St., Northampton. To be true to the fast-food experience, I ordered one from the takeout window and was pleased to get it in my hands within 30 seconds.

The pleasure faded quickly. I knew after the first bite, that this baby would contend for the bottom of the burrito barrel. At 6 ounces, the burrito (if you can call it that) came up short in every category — size, ingredients, flavor, authenticity, creativity. I had to take five bites in order to even reach the chicken, which was found in scarce amounts at the burrito’s center. The rice was dry and the burrito, without liberal splashes of the mass-produced hot sauce, was virtually flavor-free.

Size: F

Taste: F minus

•••

Whew! Two pounds of burrito down, I decided it was time to call it a night and head for a good long run on the gym treadmill. (I hereby extend my public apologies to my workout neighbors for any smells, sights and sounds I might have brought with me from my binge. You know who you are and what you’ve been through.)

The next morning, I awoke only slightly queasy but under some serious deadline pressure. Claiming that I had more important things to do than spend the entire week on a burrito cruise, my editors informed me that I needed to stay at it until I had sampled the remaining four burrito joints by day’s end. I girded my loins (or whatever it is you gird when you’re about to badly overeat) and headed out.

I began the day with Veracruzana, a small, Mexican-style eatery at 31 Main St., Northampton. With cacti and colors everywhere, the place has a funky, fun vibe. Weighing in at 1 pound 4 ounces Veracruzana’s burrito struck my taste buds as a clear winner.

The shredded chicken and refried bean burrito was so packed with flavor I almost forgot to add hot sauce. The tortilla shell was pleasantly textured and well toasted. The chicken and beans were steeped in authentic Mexican spices and the side of guacamole added a contrasting kick of lime.

Size: A minus

Flavor: A plus

•••

Next, I drove to Estelita’s Taqueria Mexicana, 262 Oakland St., Springfield. The taqueria is owned by the same family that owned Mi Tierra of Hadley, who will soon replace their fire-ruined restaurant with another location on Route 9 near the original. Having eaten burritos in Mexico, I award points to Estelita’s for authenticity. With a counter tucked into an adjoining Latin Market, the taqueria is easily missed — I saw the sign but still walked by the door more than once.

Of all the burritos, Estelita’s offered the tastiest rice, carrying a perhaps saffron infused flavor that made it an equal ingredient instead of just a filler. Clocking in at 1 pound, 3 ounces, the burrito was milder in flavor than other winning entries, but it came with a house-made pico de gallo sauce that added some punch. The flavors were well-balanced and the lettuce lent an enjoyable crunch.

Size: B plus

Flavor: A minus

•••

I arrived at Chipotle, 530 Memorial Drive, Chicopee feeling tired, skeptical and more than a little overfed, but the chain delivered. The space is modern-looking — long steel tables and stools line the bright red walls. The young Chipotle staff members, wearing black shirt uniforms and visors, assembled the burritos right in front of me, giggling with each other as they went. Through the clear glass counter shield, it was easy to see that the ingredients were fresh, quality products. At 1 pound 7 ounces, the burrito was quite large, and heavy on the sauce — guacamole and sour cream oozed out from the first couple of bites. The chicken had a delicious, smoky, fresh-off-the-grill flavor and the hot sauce, included inside the burrito, carried a pleasant heat.

Size: A minus

Taste: A minus

•••

After Chipotle, I seriously considered a boot and rally tactic. (Readers unfamiliar with that term should consult the nearest college student.) Not wanting to let the hard-earned burritos go to waste, I soldiered on as I hopped onto I-91 and headed north to my last stop in Greenfield.

People’s Pint, 24 Federal St., is best known for its home-brewed beer and hipster vibe. But I’m happy to report that the place also offers a respectable variation on the Valley burrito theme. With long, wooden counters, young staff and low light, People’s occupies a sweet spot on Federal Street.

I ordered a burrito that turned out to be the most creative of the bunch — a Northerner’s take on the south of the border classic. Weighing in at an even 1 pound, the People’s burrito was garlicky and cheesy — two qualities that every gringo can appreciate. The menu provides multiple options for add-ins, and each burrito comes on a plate alongside a salad with sprouts, radishes and shredded carrot. I savored the virtuous greens at the tail end of my burrito spree of shame.

When I took out the scale at my window seat adjacent to the bar, the bartender appeared perplexed. I heard him murmuring to the manager and another staff member. Before they summoned the authorities, I came clean to them about my mission — and left a decent tip.

Size: B

Taste: A minus

Though it took me a couple of days to recover from this burrito adventure, it certainly was worthwhile. Bueno y Sano isn’t the only solace for burrito cravings — I know this now.

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