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Gone west 

Great Western Burrito Co. has moved over, not up

When Great Western Burrito Co. fired up in Midtown in 1995, it seemed to mark a kind of breakthrough. Si, mi amigos, many of us were familiar, even over-familiar, with Mex-American wrap-and-roll cuisine, heavy on the sour cream and do you want chips with that?

But in order to eat great burritos, we had to put up with the adolescent attitudes of Frijoleros' and Tortillas' counter clowns. Then came the artsy-fartsy pretensions of grunge dives like Raging Burrito and Burrito Art which are bearable only when the cravings come on strong.

Great Western delivered something different, even quirkily authentic: A strip mall hole-in-the-wall staffed by real people cooking and serving real Southern California surfer-dude food. Hey, who else in town offered burritos -- the word means little donkey or burro -- stuffed with artichoke hearts and portabella mushrooms? Who knew that a regrilled-and-flipped quesadilla stuffed with shredded roast pork, chopped jalapeños and spinach sauteed in olive oil could be so light and delicious?

Bottom line: The burritos and quesadillas, the warm chips and cilantro-spiked salsa, even the honey lemonade and homemade brownies didn't taste like product, like factory-made catalog items delivered three times a week. Even less-than-finicky eaters could tell that the spinach leaves were fresh, the pork was actual pork, the flour tortillas were grilled to order and the chocolate wasn't some kind of ersatz analog.

In a word, Great Western felt spontaneous. It felt right. Despite dump-de-hump background music and a lack of seating in dirty weather, the place was fun to visit. First-time restaurateurs Frederic and Glenda Davis struck me as latter-day Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, a young, athletic couple madly in love with the notion of putting on a burrito show.

The Midtown stand has since closed. Frederic Davis and a co-owner have opened a larger, spiffier version on the edge of the West Side's rapidly gentrifying industrial district. A man who lunched with me one day glanced around and inquired, "Is this a chain?" Exposed brick walls, brass light fixtures, wood booths, blond library chairs, a ton of stainless steel behind the service counter and a full bar featuring tequilas and premium liquors define the operation's fern-bar aspirations. The place feels like a Ruby Tuesday with a Taco Bell accent. It appears to be doing bang-up business.

Great Western's signature "Western" burritos -- grilled steak, chicken, pork or mushrooms with cheese, potatoes, yellow peppers, salsa and sour cream --are still around ($6.95). So are the "Classics" -- the previously mentioned meats as well as spinach, tofu, green chilies, portabellas and mixed vegetables -- with black beans, rice instead of spuds and minus the sour cream ($4.50 and $5). Quesadillas follow about the same interior specifications as the Classics ($4.50, $5).

Spinach tortillas now are offered as an alternative to the more traditional white flour tortillas. Guacamole is nothing special these days; the accompanying commercial chips are at least served warm. The brownie is much the same as always.

I tried a couple of old-timer wraps. A pork and spinach quesadilla tasted great but was very greasy. A shredded pork Western was off balance, with most of the meat trapped at one end.

My interest lay in newer menu items, labeled "Original." Presumably the word is intended to mean unique or unusual; I recall few if any of these wraps in Great Western's early days.

A spinach and portabella sauté on spinach wrapper with roasted peppers, Parmesan cheese, rice and balsamic vinaigrette, though notably oily and short on mushrooms, was the best of the bunch ($6.95). A Southwestern Cheese Steak -- beef, onions, portabellas, peppers, Monterey Jack cheese and steak sauce -- did its job despite lacking spicy Southwestern punch ($6.95). The Hawaiian Luau model -- essentially a fried rice burrito -- contained pork, chicken, grilled pineapple, rice, cheddar cheese and ginger soy sauce ($6.95). Using a better grade of soy sauce, the concept might have worked. As executed, the brown soy sludge merely injected a cheap, flat, funny flavor that overwhelmed the rice, pineapple and chicken.

A Chicken Veggie Ranch burrito brought to mind budget days in the school cafeteria. You remember? End-of-the-month time when the hard-pressed school lunch ladies resort to using as much "commodity" cheese and butter as the government can supply. (Those price-supported dairy products have to go somewhere.) Great Western's overstuffed dairy dip features a throat-clogging portion of shredded Monterey Jack, about the same amount of shredded lettuce, several tough broccoli florets, enough buttermilk ranch dressing to salt down a side of salmon and a smattering of dry nubbins described on the menu as "grilled chicken breast." At $5.95, this two-hander salad bar does not appear to be a prudent investment.

Great Western offers a wide selection of bottled beer to wash it all down with, plus bottomless soft-drink cups -- in that guests tap their own. What you lose at the Hawaiian Luau or financing the Chicken-Veggie you can make up in free-flowing Coca-Cola. What a deal, amigos.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or elkcam1@hotmail.com

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