Friday, March 10, 2006

The Chinese tortilla thing

I promised I’d talk about the Chinese tortilla phenomenon. I think it’s mostly a New York thing, but I believe it has spread to other east coast cities. I’m pretty sure I saw one the last time I was in Philly.

The original one was Fresco Tortilla, the one on Lexington, just south of the stretch of Indian restaurants, I think. Then they branched out and became a chain. Copycat chains followed, with names like Fresh Tortillas and Fresh Taco Express. All staffed and owned by Chinese Americans. All serving fake Mexican food–most of it bad, some of it surprisingly decent.

If I remember correctly the original Fresco Tortilla owners had arrived in Texas, or some other place that wasn’t New York, as immigrants and worked in the kitchen of a Tex-Mex restaurant that had this fresh tortilla machine. You throw in a ball of dough, and out pops a perfectly formed little tortilla, which then gets heated on a griddle. When this enterprising couple moved to New York they bought one of those machines and opened up a little taqueria that looks like a dumpy Chinese takeout.

These wheat flour tortillas are nothing like any Mexican tortilla I’ve ever had, but they’re actually quite nice in their way. They’re soft, flaky, and a bit chewy, more like a thin Greek pita with a buttermilk biscuit complex. The trick is getting something decent stuffed into one of them.

Most of my recent experience with these Chinese tortilla joints has been at one in my Brooklyn neighborhood–I’m not sure if it’s Fresco or Fresh or something else–not that it matters. Regardless of the chain, the menu and the preparation is pretty much the same in every one of these places. Most of it is a bland, failed approximation of Mexican food that wouldn’t be out of place in a coach-class meal on a bankrupt airline. The beans are mushy and tasteless, the guacamole watery and tasteless. The “Tex-Mex chili” pales by comparison to the cans of the now defunct Broadcast chili that I devoured as a child. The Mexican rice has an odd texture suggestive of an orphaned component of a long-forgotten TV dinner . Come to think of it, much of the food is unintentionally retro, a new Chinese immigrant version of early-sixties quasi-Mexican food.

I’ve assiduously avoided the tofu tacos, but I have tried the sauteed mixed vegetable, which is basically subpar Chinese takeout vegetables served in a tortilla. The shrimp filling is also reminiscent of bottom-rung Chinese food. The difference between ordering a "tortilla" and a soft taco at these places is that the taco is served with iceberg lettuce shreds and tasteless cheddar shreds. I’ve never tried a burrito, having already nixed the rice and beans, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near the nachos, especially since I wouldn’t go anywhere near any nachos anywhere.

So how come I eat at these places on a fairly regular basis? The answer is: the fajitas and the prices. The chicken fajita, served with onions and peppers, is rather tasty, and most importantly it marries very nicely with the tortilla. The al carbon, which I guess is skirt steak, is also pretty good. It actually helps that I’m not really a “beef man”; since I rarely go out for a good steak, much preferring lamb and pork, there isn’t a looming high standard ready to browbeat my taste buds when I do eat plebeian beef.

The food is very fast and very cheap. A chicken fajita tortilla generally goes for $1.69, an al carbon for $1.89 (all beef–with onions & peppers it's called steak fajita). I usually make a meal of two of them, three if I’m really hungry. Or sometimes I’ll get a quesadilla sincronizada (asynchronous is not an option)–chicken fajita ($2.99) or al carbon ($3.89) with melted Monterey Jack cheese between two tortillas. Because of the longer time on the griddle to melt the cheese the outsides of the tortillas get somewhat crisper. I can’t place what the quesadillas remind me of, but there’s a weird, primal comfort food effect when I dig into one of them. It’s like eating an imaginary childhood breakfast dish from a parallel universe.


Blogger SalvadorDelMarketing said...

Very good post! thankyou :) I don't know what to think about it, just the same, mexican food is delicious, and a lot of mexicans are sleeping.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where in Philly? I'm a new yorker living in Philly and I'm really craving some Chinese mexican food

8:43 PM  

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