Beans, Burritos and Office Space
Acapulco will make you want to stay forever
I would like to use this space to formally announce that I am moving to a new office space on the back patio of Acapulco's Tacos and Burritos. You might know it as the little building on San Mateo, south of Central, painted in bright yellows and blue-greens and topped with a loud sign depicting palm trees.
It's like some kind of freakish, multicolored growth rising jagged and defiant in an area of town where every other business has either up-and-ran years ago or appears to be sleeping. It's quiet. Even at 6pm on a Friday. Cars slither by—always headed north—driven by people who stare warily from behind their wheels. A gangbanger might suddenly appear between two seemingly long-dead buildings for a second before disappearing just as quickly, like a mirage of residency.
I've yet to mention the office move to the owners. I've been trying to ease them into the transition slowly—make it seem like I'm a part of the scenery before I start installing WiFi and ship in my new desk. Sometimes when employees come out to change the trash or sweep the patio, I yell angrily into my phone: “Buy! Sell!” It seems to be working so far, and nobody's asked why the man in the suit lurking by the concrete tables and irregularly ordering burritos won't go home.
If they were to get an answer, it would be simple. But it would only lead to more questions. Why won't I go home? Refried beans.
Yes. The mushy brown stuff that serves as filler in every Mexican dish you've ever had has been a source of mystery for me ever since I had my first taste as a boy in Texas. Why are they fried twice? Are they really magical fruit? How many can I eat in a sitting?
It's been my experience that most people take them for granted. Like many staples, you hardly notice them until you get a bad batch. And there are a number of ways a chef can ruin refried beans. But at Acapulco you won't find crusty lumps or watered-down puddles. Here, the irreplaceable side dish is perfect in texture and flavor, clearly crafted by the slow and steady hand of a master.
My first taste of these perfect beans came as a side to the Acapulco special ($6.99), which had been handed to me through a side window of the little building. It came in a simple Styrofoam container. I'd carried it to the back patio which seems a world of its own. The small space is mostly blocked from view behind a series of well-placed shrubs. The awning is covered by a sheet of green plastic, giving everything a distinct tone—like a '90s art film.
I popped the container open and found a pretty little dollop of beans, topped with shredded cheddar and nestled into one of the depressions. With a plastic fork, I scooped some into my mouth and had the pleasant sensation of savory time travel—back to childhood and Mexican taco stands. I started poking at the rest of the plate and found that the whole thing looked very different from the fare I've been finding in ABQ. When my Texan relatives visit, I have to explain that “Mexican restaurant” means something completely different here.
But this looked like the comfort food I grew up with. The dinner included a cheese enchilada, a chile relleno, chile con carne in red sauce, Spanish rice, a large tortilla and the traditional taco stand “salad” of lettuce strips and ranch dressing. I cut into the chile relleno first. It was the only distinctly “New Mexican” thing on the plate, since it was a stuffed green chile instead of a poblano. (I know how distressing it probably is for you to read that, but you have to understand that not everyone has access to green chile. People have to make do with what they have.) It was stuffed to the gills with cheese and breaded perfectly with a thin, crispy layer.
I took a few bites, eyes rolling in my head, before turning to the enchilada. It was basically the archetypal version of the dish. Close your eyes and imagine the perfect cheese enchilada in red chile sauce, and you won't be far off. It was tender and delicious, lacking the soppy grease and excessive cheese sometimes found in lesser variants. Throughout all this, I was dipping a tasty tortilla in a mild, but delicious red chile con carne and smacking my lips like a horse. To wash it down, I'd ordered some homemade lemonade ($1.99), a great cap on the warm summer afternoon.
The next day, inspired by the low price of my bill, I came back at lunch time and ordered the tamale special ($5.75), which came with two tamales and the same rice-
It should be noted here that I was ordering this meal contentiously. I had been so impressed the night before that I decided to order something I'd probably never get if left to my own devices. I'm just not a big fan of tamales. (Gasp!) Masa seems more like an industrial binding agent than a food source. Or at least that's what I'd thought until the moment I tasted those wonderful bastards soaking in red sauce. The masa-meat ratio was dead-on, and by the second bite, the idea (which had been forming without my involvement, somewhere in the back of my head) suddenly flashed that I should just … not leave.
Over the next few hours, as I turned this new thought over and over, I ordered a bean and cheese burrito ($2.99) that made my knees weak and a chorizo and bean burrito ($3.95) that tasted like no other chorizo I've ever had. It was like hearing a new favorite song for the first time. I'm getting flush just remembering it.
It was about halfway through that burrito that the plan began to solidify. With a mouthful of chorizo I made eye contact with one of the kitchen staff, who'd come outside to change the trash. I think that was when I decided to move my entire operation to Acapulco. The food there isn't especially inspired or innovative. You won't find any fresh takes on old ideas, or whatever whatever. What you will find is masterfully crafted classics that some of us didn't even realize we were missing so badly.
But I'll tell you this, dear reader, I will never have to miss it again. From now on, if anyone wants to schedule a meeting, you know where to find me. There is a two-burrito minimum. Have your people call my people. We'll work something out.
840 San Mateo SE
Hours: Mon-Sat 7am–7:30pm
Vibe: An oasis in a ghost town
Alibi recommends: Chorizo burrito, green regular burrito, Acapulco special and anything with beans.