Non-Chain Burritos

Sunday, February 5, 2006

It seems no local street corner is safe from "Chipotle creep," a phenomenon that has made the burrito chain almost Starbuckian in its ubiquity. But if you'd prefer to get your carb-and-cheese fix from Mom and Pop instead of the Man, don't despair. There are plenty of indie spots in the area serving up fresh, authentic and downright innovative burritos.

Just ask Jonah Feld, who runs Santa Monica-based, a compendium of his and his pals' "burrito eating adventures" across the country. Feld went to George Washington University (he loved the Well Dressed Burrito, below) and recommends sussing out local joints in your neighborhood and beyond. Burrito hunting "is a great way to explore," he says. Plus, smaller eateries often offer unusual fillings that you won't find in the corporate chains. (Goat, anyone?) "There are so many varieties, you can have a different burrito every day," Feld says.

Here are five places where you'll find great burritos -- and some local flavor, too.

Emily Heil

THE BURRITO JOYNT. Burritos don't have to be authentic to be tasty. (Take that, purists!) Case in point: this Mexican American eatery's Idaho burrito, which consists of an all-American steak-and-potatoes meal wrapped in a tortilla ($5.95 for regular, $6.75 for a super). Other quirky options, such as a barbecue-sauce version, share space on the menu with meat-bean-cheese standards. This suburban burrito mecca changed hands in the last few weeks, but new co-owner Gloria Ramirez plans to keep intact the former owners' Midwest-meets-Mexican dishes. That seems to be just fine by the suit-clad regulars who stop by the bright, no-frills establishment for quick workweek dinners. Open Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. . 6113 Franconia Rd., Alexandria. 703-924-8600. .

CASA BLANCA. Cubicle dwellers searching for lunchtime sustenance will find refuge from downtown's sandwich chains and grim weigh-your-food salad bars at this authentic Mexican-Peruvian spot. There's a yellowing 2002 calendar by the cash register and the prices seem to correspond (try the Burrito Mojado, a hefty tube topped with melted cheese and a housemade ranchero sauce, for $6.95). The service may be a little slower than your average chain taqueria, but the extra time waiting is always worth it. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. 1014 Vermont Ave. NW. 202-393-4430.

EL CHARRITO CAMINANTE. This bare-bones takeout joint stays true to its humble roots: The owners manned a taqueria truck off Route 50 for more than a decade before opening in this location three years ago, with only a few stools and a counter comprising the decor. But that just means there's less to distract from the standout food. Burritos (starting at $3) come dressed with chopped onion, slivers of peppery radish and fresh cilantro -- a refreshing, if unusual, combo that leavens the meaty filling. "It's not traditional at all," says Jose Zelaya, who owns and runs the operation with his parents, Jose Sr. and Ana. "But we thought it tasted better." Be prepared to wait, though: On busy weekends, an eclectic crowd of families, construction workers on lunch breaks and suburban hipsters form a line out the door. Open Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. 2710A N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. 703-351-1177.

LA SIRENITA RESTAURANT. Salty queso blanco -- white Mexican cheese with the tang of feta -- punches up the burritos at this sit-down spot in the heart of "Little Mexico," the patch of markets, taco trucks and eateries along Kenilworth Avenue. Fresh ingredients and authentic preparation make La Sirenita (which translates to "the little mermaid") a burrito destination worth seeking out. Filling options include a variety of meats, from salty beef (scary sounding, but not too seasoned) to beef tongue and goat. At $3.50, the burrito platters, served with rice and lime wedges, are a bargain. The atmosphere is festive, with Mexican pop music blaring from a corner jukebox and families filling the metal folding chairs in the cheery-but-basic dining room. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. 4911 Edmonston Rd., Hyattsville. 301-864-0188.

THE WELL DRESSED BURRITO. In-the-know lunch crowds have dubbed this spot the "well-hidden burrito" for its near-secretive locale in an alley between 19th and 20th, and M and N streets NW. But for those who make the trek, the rewards are from-scratch burritos prepared by the same people who run C.F. Folks, the eatery across the street. Co-owner Arthur Carlson credits the loyal clientele to Salvadoran chef Dina Hidalgo, who has been whipping up the burritos for the takeout's 19-year history. Why the odd locale? While renovating the kitchen of the CNF Catering company he and his partner operate, Carlson found some unused space that backed into the alley. After convincing the landlord to rent it to them, the Well Dressed Burrito was born. "We're all about pleasing the masses," Carlson says of popular fillings such as grilled salmon or vegetables. A platter that includes a burrito, salad and refried beans is $5.70-$7. Just be sure to time your visit carefully -- the place opens weekdays only, 11:45 a.m.-2:15 p.m. 1120 19th St. NW. 202-293-0515. .

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