It’s almost Cinco de Mayo, the time of year when we eat burritos the size of our heads while downing margaritas (you can pretend you don’t like the frozen ones, but everyone likes the frozen ones). But just what are we celebrating, and why?
This holiday is a non-holiday — or, more accurately, it was a non-holiday before the US got its hands on it. It’s a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when the Mexican army triumphed over French forces, and in Mexico it’s not so much a thing.
“Cinco de Mayo is a ridiculous holiday for Mexicans to celebrate,” says Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” and the column “¡Ask a Mexican!” “A year later, no one remembers, the French came back and beat the Mexicans.”
The influence of the French empire remains in Mexican society, Arellano says, in the waltzes and frilly dresses of quinceanera celebrations, in foods like pan dulce. “The French won, and it is beneath us Mexicans to celebrate what’s ultimately a Pyrrhic victory.”
If Americans really want to celebrate Mexico, we should probably do it on Sept. 16, Independence Day. And aren’t burritos the food equivalent of Gringo de Mayo? “You know, they don’t really eat burritos in Mexico,” scoffs your obnoxious foodie friend, trying to get full on tiny tacos while you feast on glorious, sour cream-infused carbs swaddled in a cottony flour tortilla. “They are totally inauthentic.”
Wrong. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I wrote the book on Mexican food, and the book says burritos are absolutely authentic,” Arellano says. “A burrito is a regional form of a taco in the sense that it is a tortilla wrapped around something.” It’s border food from the north — Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, on into Texas, New Mexico, and California. “It remained very much a regional specialty until the ’60s,” Arellano says, when chains like Taco Bell and Del Taco got going. “And everything changed in the ’90s with the advent of Chipotle going to college towns and making them a thing with the college audiences. Burritos became cult items.”
They’re also functional. Alvaro Sandoval, owner of Tenoch, is from Veracruz, in the south of Mexico. Although his restaurants specialize in glorious tortas, Mexican sandwiches, burritos are on the menu. “I think it’s practical,” he says. “If you have a plate, normally I will eat it with corn tortillas. You eat a bite of meat and a bite of the tortilla. How do you take it if you’re just walking?” Plus, he says, you can customize your own burritos.
Although they don’t eat burritos in Veracruz, Sandoval eats them here. “They’re really good,” he says. And maybe, when people come in for their burrito fix, they discover other things too, like the quesadilla de maiz with nopales (cactus), which Sandoval recommends. Burritos: the gateway Mexican food.
The Somerville Mexican restaurant Tu Y Yo was known for a sign on its door that read: “No burritos served here!” You could get a grasshopper taco, though. The restaurant specializes in regional Mexican dishes, often created from family recipes, like a cochinita pibil (pork loin in a garlicky orange sauce) attributed to one Maria Ruz Viuda de Espinosa circa 1908. I call them to ask about their burrito policy. “Oh, we serve them,” says co-owner Adolfo Alvarado. “I put them on the lunch menu.” If you can’t beat them . . .
And you kind of can’t beat them. Like Sandoval says, they’re really good.
“Some people say ‘oh, you can’t have rice, you can’t have sour cream,’” Arellano says. “I love rice! Is it a crime against humanity to put sour cream on Mexican food? My argument is, if it tastes good, who cares?”
Authentic, inauthentic. Can’t you just let us enjoy our burritos? What could be more authentic than joy?
Here are a few places to get one this Cinco de Mayo:
This cheerful JP restaurant specializing in Mexican street food now has two branches, and one of the better burritos around. The tortilla is pleasingly stretchy; fill it with carnitas, lengua, and more ($5.99-$7.50).
224 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-6000; 658 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-522-4500, www.chilacates.mx
El Pelon Taqueria
The cultiest of local cult favorites, El Pelon is most famous for its El Guapo burrito, which combines sweet plantains and grilled steak. I prefer the straight-up carne asada ($5.75-$7.95).
2197 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton, 617-779-9090; 92 Peterborough St., Fenway, Boston, 617-262-9090, www.elpelon.com
Taco Loco Mexican Grill
This Somerville spot has a subterranean dining room and sometimes a line out the door. Chicken, often a bland option, here has plenty of flavor ($6.99-$8.99).
44 Broadway, Somerville, 617-625-3830
Taqueria Jalisco is all charm, with pretty yellow walls and tiled tables, and the sweetest staff around. Truth is, the tacos are better than the burritos, so get both, and drizzle on the trio of salsas ($7.50-$9.99).
291 Bennington St., East Boston, 617-567-6367
Their tortas are pretty incredible, and the same fillings will do nicely in a flour tortilla. The choriqueso (chorizo with melted cheese) torta translates well to burrito-dom ($5.90).
24 Riverside Ave., Medford, 781-395-2221; 3 Lewis St., North End, Boston, 617-248-9537; 382 Highland Ave., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-764-1906, www.tenochmexican.com
This bright blue storefront looks like a good place to buy a lottery ticket, which I’m sure it is. But it’s really here to serve you hefty burritos and more, prepared by the friendly fellow behind the counter. There are a few little tables next to the shelves of snacks and spices ($7.50).
571 Washington St., Brighton, 617-202-5074, www.teresasmarket.com