I admit that it took me a while to warm up to Mission Burritos. And I'll further admit that I seem to be alone in this. Almost everyone I speak to who's eaten there talks about it with almost, well, missionary fervor. When I suggested to one friend that we meet at Mission Burritos for lunch, he was almost embarrassing in his enthusiasm. And he hadn't even tried the food at that point. He was shivering with delight simply from what he'd heard.
I just didn't get it. It may have to do with the fact that I used to live in California, and that the moment I passed by the faux Spanish mission style structure on Alabama I could feel the reek of the West Coast coming off of it. Not that I didn't like California, mind you. There's much about the state that I found absolutely enchanting. But its fascination with trends was one thing that always rubbed me the wrong way. Perfectly good institutions got trampled in the rush for the latest thing. And all I could see in my first look at Mission Burritos was a West Coast sneer at the many taquerias that make Houston eating such a pleasure. Why, I wondered, did anyone in this town need someone from California telling them what good Mexican food was all about? After all, if you've got Ninfa's, why do you need Ninfa's with a nose ring?
The first time I ate at Mission Burritos didn't change my opinion much. I ordered the chips (for which you have to pay extra) and smugly noted that they were stale. The queso, offered up in a little plastic cup, was a Velveeta meets Rotel joke. Even the big old beef burrito -- called, I couldn't help but snicker, a "BOB" in the worst cute-food way -- was less than impressive, a victim of what I came to call the salad bar syndrome: Just as some people who visit a salad bar pile so much on their plate that they kill the flavor of any individual item, the Mission Burritos employee who made my BOB dumped so much into it that it became a mass of nothing. It was a definite case of the whole being much less than the sum of its parts.
The second time I ate at Mission Burritos, though, my firmly held prejudices started to crumble. I had the muy awesome chicken on this go-round (called a "MAC," and still silly), and this time through, the person who made it was more judicious in the mix of ingredients. I could taste a nicely tart green sauce, fresh black beans, firm Spanish rice, smooth tomato and, most of all, expertly grilled chicken. I didn't want to like it, but I did. I took solace in the fact that the quemas salad, though flush with carrots and jicama and potato and roasted corn to go along with the greens, was bland. It was filling, but time in a freezer seemed to have stripped the ingredients of much of their spice. I was also able to buttress my biases through the desserts: a rice pudding that's simply there, and not much else, and a chocolate burrito (actually a crepe wrapped around sliced strawberries and melted chocolate) that's fine enough, but hardly anything to write home about.
Then I ate at Mission Burritos a third time, and began to see why it was that so many people had told me so many good things about the place. I also noticed that the items I had been harrumphing about -- the chips, the salads, the desserts -- were rarely ordered. In fact, when I asked for them, the servers seemed momentarily confused, as if flustered by being taken away from their true task, which is making burritos, burritos, burritos.
The trick to appreciating Mission Burritos, I came to understand on my fourth, fifth, sixth and now ongoing return to the place, is to go with its flow. Yes, there is something collegiately amusing about the warehouse-y feel of the interior and about the fact that the menu is written on large sheets of butcher paper that cover one wall. And yes, there is something a touch overdone in the cutesy names given to almost every dish, and the toys that are handed over instead of numbers if you order something that will take a while to make. But I've come to understand that there's something endearing in all this as well, just as there's something endearing in the way that the staff, almost completely composed of barely twentysomethings, wants to make the customer part of its team.
If you join that team, you can end up with some pretty good food for not much money. Mission Burritos employs an assembly-line, open to view cooking concept, where what you see is what you get, and it was my error not to take advantage early on of what I could see. The way to go here is with what's called the BYOB, or build your own burrito. Letting the staff make the selection of ingredients that will go into your burrito is to settle for second best -- something they try to hint at by asking what you want in even the non-BYOBs. But by making your own selections among the multitude of fillings offered, from rice to black beans to pinto beans to chicken to beef to red or green salsa to fresh tomatoes to mushrooms to sprouts and green peppers and cilantro and guacamole and onions, you can end up with a well-nigh perfect burrito that serves as a convenient and satisfying meal almost any time of day. (They also work cold, as I can testify after having bought an extra burrito one evening and then pulling it out the next morning as a quick breakfast. Coffee complemented it very well.)
I've even found some non-burrito selections that are standouts: the chicken soup, packed with large chunks of chicken and hunks of carrot floating in an almost delicate broth (the tortilla soup, which suffers from over-peppering, could learn something from the restraint shown in this dish), and in particular the tacos, which might actually be better than the burritos. The fish, beef and chicken tacos are exemplars of their kind, but the real discovery is the cheese taco. It sounds almost too simple to work, just a couple of different kinds of cheese melted together with cilantro-laced onions and then covered with lettuce, but it's close to transcendent, proof that in some cases less truly is more.
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Having now gone over to the other side, I find solace in the fact that though the idea of Mission Burritos is indeed from California, the force behind it is from Houston. Wendy Jones, who has worked in area restaurants doing everything from waiting tables to managing places owned by others, started scouting around for a concept that she could call her own about two years ago; a friend who'd lived in San Francisco suggested she check out something that was sweeping through that city. It was basically Mexican meals in a wrap, taking the notion of the burrito off the plate and putting it into the diner's hand. The trend was strongest in San Francisco's Mission District (which is where Jones got her restaurant's name, which in turn inspired the Spanish mission design), but all the burrito shops had two things in common: a slightly Gen X casualness and the inclusion of rice and beans inside the burrito rather than as side dishes.
Though most of the California burrito shops end up in strip centers, Jones decided to go for something freestanding, in part because it allows for outside dining, and in part because she found a location on Alabama that boasted a huge live oak tree that she could envision as both a centerpiece and a draw. And Jones's imported idea, which she premiered the day after Christmas last year, has proven to be less an invasion of Houston's culinary world than a happy addition to it. Just listen to what you hear. Ultimately, it can sway even the most prejudiced.
Mission Burritos, 2245 West Alabama, 529-0535.
Mission Burritos: big old beef burrito, $4.50 (regular), $7.25 (super); build your own burrito, $4 (regular), $6.75 (super); quemas salad, $4.95; cheese taco, $1; rice pudding, $2.25; chocolate burrito, $2.50.