Finding authentic West coast Mexican food in Charlottesville

Chipotle doesn't count

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I love the University because it provides a safe and welcoming environment for students to debate virtually all issues — politics, religion, school policy, new dorms versus old dorms, the El Jefe versus all other Roots bowls, etc. I’ve engaged in such conversations, and I truly appreciate the maturity and open-mindedness of students arguing for their chosen sides. I believe that the act of debating is healthy, but I must say, there is one debate that I’ve decided is a dead end since attending the University — West Coast versus East Coast Mexican food. Didn’t think that was a debate? My friends will tell you I’ve made it one.

I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life and ventured to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the quintessential college experience and a new perspective. Mexican food was a staple “genre” in my weekly meal consumption in San Diego — maybe a burrito one day for lunch, rolled tacos after school with friends, a quesadilla at the beach. Mexican food in San Diego was beloved by all, the “California burrito” being a fan favorite amongst high school students, consisting of carne asada meat, cheese and french fries or potatoes rolled in a flour tortilla. I knew accepting admission to the University meant saying goodbye to such cherished meals, but I was willing to walk away in the name of education.

If you’re from Southern California and have spent time away from it, you know that the Mexican food withdrawal is real. I had only been at the University for a week when my stomach began to long for a burrito — it didn’t even care about In-N-Out Burger, and that says a lot. One day, like music to my ears, my Charlottesville roommate suggested, “Hey! Let’s go off-Grounds tonight and get Mexican food.” 

Dopamine flooded my brain immediately. “Wow! Mexican food! And she’s a local — she must know a good spot,” I thought. We got into our Uber, and my mouth salivated, visions of carne asada beef danced in my head like sugar plums. As we pulled into the parking lot of Barracks, I became excited thinking about how close the joint was to Grounds — I could go once a week, possibly even twice! But I became confused as we exited the car, my roommate making a direct beeline for … Chipotle. “But wait! I thought we were getting Mexican!” I yelled. 

“We are!” she responded, disappearing through the glass doors.

I was shocked at the line when I walked inside. We have Chipotle in California, but they’re usually relatively empty — people opting for authentic Mexican food instead. In the Barracks Chipotle, however, people formed a tremendous, dense line zigzagging through a sort of barricaded pathway made of little poles and connecting chains. I felt like I was waiting to ride Splash Mountain at Disneyland. Forty-five minutes later — a typical time, I was informed — we made it to the counter.

It’s not that I mind Chipotle. I just don’t think it counts as real Mexican food — don’t even get me started about Qdoba. First, there is something so wrong about having to pay to get guacamole in a carne asada burrito — it’s one of the key ingredients. Second, I’ve discovered that the East Coast often thinks ground beef counts as carne asada, but there is actually quite a difference — like there’s a difference between chicken nuggets and chicken breasts.

The “build it yourself” aspect of a lot of Mexican food places on the East Coast where you tell someone in an assembly line behind the counter what to put in your burrito also doesn’t sit well with me. Mexican food isn’t simply about the components — it’s also about the craft with which it is composed. You should not be directing the action, and you should not see your food being made before your face — there is a certain amount of trust you must have in the system. 

Anyone in Southern California will tell you that the best Mexican food is found in hole-in-the-wall joints. There will be minimal standing room, little to no seating inside and you should detect some amount of sketchiness in the air. If your burrito comes wrapped in that thin, yellow paper, you know it’s a good sign. 

Furthermore, there are rarely such things as popular chain Mexican restaurants in California. Remember the motto, “chains are lame, names are game.” And by that I mean, if the Mexican joint’s name is literally a name, chances are it’s legit. Some of the best places in San Diego are Roberto’s Taco Shop, Nico’s Mexican Food, Rico’s Taco Shop, Lolita’s Mexican Food — see the pattern? Southern California is crawling with small, family-owned Mexican joints with the most delicious food, something the East Coast can’t quite replicate.

Our proximity to Mexico does help, but that’s just part of my argument. San Diego literally sits on the Mexican border, and the climate for growing key ingredients like avocados, limes and cilantro is pristine. West Coast Mexican food is better because it’s fresher, as the East Coast must have these ingredients shipped to them over time. When you bite into your juicy burrito with perfectly seasoned carne asada, homemade guacamole, fresh sour cream, warm rice and beans, zesty lime and cilantro and house hot sauce, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

My friends at the University became so tired of me complaining about fake Mexican food time after time, failed attempt after failed attempt to take me somewhere authentic, that eventually some came and visited me. My happiest moment came when my Chipotle-obsessed roommate stated that the food was the best Mexican she had eaten in her life — something clicked within each of them, and it was beautiful to witness. 

In my opinion, the debate is shut-down. But for those of you who don’t understand what I’m talking about or won’t make it out to California to taste and see, I write with a message of hope. I have discovered one place in Charlottesville — with the help of my roommate who came back from her visit with a newfound definition of Mexican food — that mimics the genre best. Non-coincidentally, it is a hole-in-the-wall joint on the outskirts of the Downtown Mall, and its name is a name. It is called Barbie’s Burrito Barn, and it is run by Barbie Brannock, who grew up in California and saw a need for authentic Mexican food on the East Coast — its slogan reads, “Cali Mex, Cville Style.” I invite you to try Barbie’s food, as it is affordable, delicious and what I think is the best you can find in Virginia. And who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself there once, possibly even twice a week. I do. 

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