Personal essay: in search of a real burrito
written by Naomi Tomky | illustration by Brooke Miracle
“But where can I find real Mexican food?” approximately a million newcomers to the city have asked me in the decade since I started as a food writer in Seattle. I have a list of places to send them, places where the tortas bulge with multiple meats as they do on the streets of Mexico City, places where they roast lamb overnight in the ground to serve on Sundays as is tradition in Hidalgo. But that’s not what they want. They’re asking me where to find the Tex-Mex rice and beans with orange cheese they knew in San Antonio or the French-fry-stuffed burritos they ate on the beach in San Diego: hyper-local foods that will never taste as good anywhere but home.
Seattle will never have that burrito for them. It exists in a time and a space that is not here and now. But that doesn’t mean it’s a lesser city—for food or otherwise. Instead of searching for poor imitations of the fast-casual foods of your childhood, I plead with newcomers—seek out Seattle’s specialties. Find the tiny teriyaki shops that are disappearing from the city, the few remaining fish and chips houses that haven’t been overtaken by corporate cod, maybe even encourage our food-stand newcomer—the cream-cheese hot dog.
Just 38 percent of Seattleites originally hail from Washington State, and that means most people here have a hole in their heart shaped like a favorite food from their hometown, be it breakfast taco, po’boy, or New York slice. All locals can do is shrug their shoulders and offer up an oyster on the half-shell. But as transplants increase, so too does the audience for Nashville hot chicken, Carolina biscuits and deep-dish pizza—still, it is not the same here and it will never be.
Food is subjective and circumstantial: a burger eaten at Dick’s at 2 a.m. when you’re 17 will taste different from the exact same one at age 25 in the clear light of day. Often, the food on the table is secondary to the twang at the end of the sentence, the humid magnolia-scented air or the nautical décor that reminds us of another place, an earlier era. The restaurants in Seattle will never be the burger shop where you slurped shakes in high school or the barbecue pit you peered into as a kid, because those places ping a feeling inside, reminding us why we love those foods in the first place.
You won’t find your burrito here, because its greatness stems not from the perfect combination of rice and beans, but from youth and nostalgia. Give up the fight, save the stomach space for when you go home. Instead, spend your energy finding the same sort of foods here: support your local oyster bar, figure out why Seattleites call char siu bao “hombow,” and eat your Than Brothers cream puff while you wait for your pho.