Upper Street Burrito Battles: Tortilla

Posted by Krista on November 13, 2007

When I learned that Tortilla opened a few days ago–just a few doors down from Mucho Mas–the first people I told were Stacey and Canadia Boy. Being the international jet setters that they are, they went straight there on their way back from the aiport. They crack me up. So I suggested Canadia Boy "guest blog" and give us all the low down. Here' he is, in his own words…

13 Islington High Street
N1 9LQ
0207 833 3103

It's amazing what can happen when you have faith.  After nearly three  years of hoping against hope for decent Mexican in my part of town*Mucho Mas opened for business right down the street and has been going  strong ever since.  Someone must have thought this was a good idea because, lo and behold, no more than 1,056 feet south** lies a new entrant into what shall henceforth be known as the "Upper Street Burrito Battles***," the ingrediently-named "Tortilla."

So, without further ado, here's how the skirmish went down (in true Londonelicious style — it is Krista's blog, after all):

Name:  I've got to award creativity points to Mucho Mas — plus, it's  simply more descriptive of the goods and services provided.  "Tortilla" could be anything from a chip (crisp, whatever) to a wrap or a Spanish (or South American) omelet.  My guess, given the proximity of Spain to London over Mexico, the general population will assume the Spanish meaning as opposed to the Mexican.  Plus, what do you think is going to happen when you Google "Tortilla" vs. "Mucho Mas?"  Yep, you guessed it — the former comes up with entries that no brand of black-hat Search Engine Optimization will be able to replace (specifically, the erstwhile Wikipedia page on the subject), while the second link**** (and first paid link) for the latter takes you where  you need to go.  You need a good Google name in this day and age.
Mucho Mas 1, Tortilla 0.

Location:  Mucho Mas, hands down.  While from a birds-eye or online map view Tortilla is well placed (being just south of and opposite Angel Station), it is a huge pain in the ass to get to from the tube exit because the barricades prevent you from crossing until you are at the corner of Pentonville, which means you have to backtrack a half block to get there.  Although it's true that you could cross just to the right of Angel station, then turn left, Tortilla will miss out on a lot of traffic walking down the south side of the street because as we all know people are generally lazy and won't be bothered to cross the street, regardless of deliciousness. 

Mucho Mas, by contrast, is  located on a heavy-traffic section of Upper Street, and has enough space out front for several al fresco dining opportunities.  While this might not be too useful in coming months, if Al Gore doesn't get  his way this could be a prime piece of year-round real estate in no 
time at all. 
Mucho Mas 1, Tortilla 0.

Atmosphere:  Well, I have got to hand it to the Tortilla guys, who clearly know a good thing when they see it.  Not only is the seating and serving concept similar, it's EXACTLY the same as Mucho Mas. Maybe there's an official burrito-joint playbook which dictates wooden bench-style seating to maximize the chance of success, but c'mon guys, couldn't you have at least gone for a different type of wood?  Anyway, seating style aside, I'm going to award the atmosphere points to Mucho Mas.  The high ceilings and windowed front doors create a much more open and friendly environment compared to the somewhat cramped and dark nature of Tortilla's establishment.  While both have relatively hip, if somewhat generic, music typically on offer, and the staff (at least on this first visit) seemed relatively enthusiastic, Mucho Mas is just a nicer place to eat.  Plus, Tortilla is confined by their current location, with only approximately 15 or so***** possible simultaneous seating opportunities.  Mucho Mas has yet to open the upstairs, but it will come eventually. 
Again, Mucho Mas 1, Tortilla 0.

Food:  Well, this is what we've all been waiting for, right?  Given the fact that a good burrito is made up of several vital, yet individually delicious components, I've broken each out below so we can really get down to some serious business.  Read on, dear reader.

Tortilla:  Quality-wise, I'll have to give both tortillas an A (although I would expect the namesake of the newer entrant to stand up for itself here).  HOWEVER (and please note that this might be a matter of personal preference), Tortilla goes the right way with their tortilla and steams it.  Now, those of you less experienced in the burrito arts might not know that there is more than one way to soften your wrap; there are, in fact, a number of different options available to the aspiring burritopreneur.  My favorite, as just mentioned, is when the tortilla is put into a machine which, when a lever is pulled 
(not too many times, mind you), gently caresses the floured sheath with waves of steam, thereby preparing it with perfect suppleness for the duties ahead******.  Tortilla has chosen this route wisely.  This is not to say that Mucho Mas' way is bad; I have known many a burrito eater to prefer the gentle direct heat treatment over the steam bath.  Alas, this is my blog post, and therefore my points to give, and I awardeth them to Tortilla. 
Mucho Mas 0, Tortilla 1.

Rice:  People, let's get this clear:  rice in a burrito is nothing more than a filler.  I'm not even going to score this category.  Just for reference, Mucho Mas offers one kind of rice ("coriander-lime") and Tortilla offers two ("lime-cilantro" and "spanish").  I do find it interesting that Tortilla chose the correct (sorry, couldn't resist) way of phrasing the flavorful herb, but that's neither here nor there– and rice shouldn't be either. 
Mucho Mas 0, Tortilla 0.

Meat:  This is a bit of an unfair comparison for two reasons:  1)Tortilla is in it's 11th day of operations, while Mucho Mas has had  plenty of time to perfect their craft, and 2) on this first visit, I was only able to sample two of three kinds of meat — the pollo (chicken) and carnitas (pork).  But, since LIFE IS UNFAIR, let's have at it.  The chicken was tender, juicy, and had a nice charred flavor(the latter not quite as strong in the Mucho Mas variety), but the carnitas left a bit to be desired.  It was simply too bland and didn't stand up to the other strong flavors in the burrito as it should–there was none of the smoky-sweetness that a really good carnitas should have.  So, given that I didn't try the carne asada (steak), I'm only going to award one point for each meat, where deserved:
Mucho  Mas 2, Tortilla 1
(I am calling the chicken a draw).  Note that Mucho Mas offers not just carne asada but shredded beef as well (which, if you're curious, is delicious).

BeansMy favorite taqueria in San Francisco, appropriately known as La Taqueria, charges 50 cents******* extra if you request no beans in your burrito.  As they should, given the importance of this oft-maligned legume in the overall burrito composition.  I will hand Tortilla the crown here for two reasons — first, they offer not just black beans but pinto beans as well, and second, the black beans trounce the Mucho Mas black beans in head-to-head competition due to their tenderness and robust flavor.  Mucho guys, you've got mas ground to make up here. 
Mucho Mas 0, Tortilla 1.

Salsas:  No question here, the crown goes to Mucho Mas.  First, four types of salsa are on offer, not just three (the extra is a tasty if somewhat non-traditional roasted corn salsa).  Second, Tortilla's hot sauce (salsa roja) is just simply not hot (and way too tomato-y and thick, if you ask me).  Third, Tortilla's green salsa (salsa verde) doesn't hold a tomatillo to Mucho Mas' entrant — a good salsa verde should be piquant, a bit spicy, and give a bit of a limey kick at the end.  I didn't get what I was looking for from the Tortilla variety.  Fourth, Tortilla's guacamole, while respectable, doesn't stand up or  and add enough buttery avocado goodness to the overall concoction. I'm giving Mucho Mas two points here because of the utter destruction  of the Tortilla entrants and the recognition that a good salsa (especially in this country) is hard to find. 
Mucho Mas 2, Tortilla 0.

Aftertaste:  This might be a bit much for the squeamish reader, but it has to be said:  a good burrito leaves a good aftertaste.  After eating a Mucho Mas burrito I can honestly say that I usually want another.  After the Tortilla burrito, I was done.  I think it had to do with the salsas, although more scientific investigation is needed.   
Mucho Mas 1, Tortilla 0.

Other:  Mucho Mas gets a half-point for bottles of hot sauce on the tables (although, a la La Taqueria, I have been wishing for squeeze bottles of the salsa verde instead…this would be worth a whole  point), while Tortilla's tables were naked.  Tortilla gets a point for offering two different sizes of tortilla, but loses a half point for only having one in stock.  Tortilla gets fantasy points for telling me at some point in the future they will be selling soups and churros, but fantasy points, like stories of soups and churros, don't get you anything in the real world (and by the way, if you're going to offer soup, how about a damn good pozole?  This is the best hangover cure known to man, and, if my time in San Francisco is any indication, is  easily done in the taqueria environment). 
Mucho Mas 0.5, Tortilla 0.5.

Conclusion:  So, what does it all mean?  Well, to be honest, if you've never had a good burrito before, you're going to like both.  And without some serious time at the taqueria table, you might have a hard time telling the burritos apart.  But if you trust me (and why wouldn't you?), for pure enjoyment of experience, as well as better marks for food, the final score tells the story: 
Mucho Mas 8.5,  Tortilla 3.5.

NOTES:
* Desperados on Upper Street could conceivably count as Mexican, but can any of you reasonably tell me that it's good?  Doritos are not made to be nachos, people.  And salsa doesn't use ketchup as a base.

** Give or take.

*** N.B. While it is true that Tortilla is on Islington High Street, not Upper Street, a) the street looks, feels, and continues pretty much the same, and b) any other name would have simply been too long. I thought about "Wrap Wars," assuming a long-lasting campaign with hard fought victories and defeats on both sides, but then we would have needed to include fine establishments like the Olive Grill, and 
that would have gotten way too complicated.  Maybe I'll tackle the "Burrito vs. Wrapped Kebab" comparison on another guest blog entry.

**** Who would believe it, but the number one Google hit for "mucho mas" is a Norwegian Mucho Mas!  I'll be damned.  Interestingly, much of the menu translates well from the mexiwegian (norwican?), and the taste buds are tingling.  Never having been to Norway, I can't vouch for any authenticity here, but I'm beginning to see the outlines of yet another guest blogging experience in my future.  "Mucho Mas 
Melees," here I come.

***** This is a rough guess based on my memory, which has been failing me lately.  I would estimate this number +- 6.

****** I seem to have a bit of a newly-discovered steamed tortilla fantasy.  Who knew?

******* 0.240066p and dropping fast.  But that is an entirely  different rant for a different time.

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4 Responses to “Upper Street Burrito Battles: Tortilla”

  1. Dave
    Nov 26, 2007

    You are mad! Tortilla has better food, atmosphere and a more authentic concept – hands down. If you have been to any of the top California – Mexican restaurants in the US you would know better. I guess you think pink, pastel yellow and baby blue are Spanish or Mexican? I agree it is a it small inside, but good things come in small packages. My favourite kebab shop is just off Edgeware road and it is tiny, but always has a queue of happy, well fed customers. I do not fault them for having suh a great product that it is crowded all the time.

    FYI, the Tortilla is from Mexico…not Spain. Look it up.


  2. from San Diego
    Nov 27, 2007

    Haven’t tried Tortilla. Tried the Mucho Mas shredded beef burrito with guac for lunch Saturday and it’s the only Mexican I’ve had in UK so far. Based on this experience, I’m a little worried about taco shop eats in London. Here’s why…

    Mucho Mas copies the Chipotle idea (brought to you by McDonalds). The only thing missing is the Tabasco chipotle sauce on the tables. Flavor from the shredded beef is off. Steamed tortillas are for dentured grams’. Initial bites into their burritos are a stick to the roof-of-my-mouth to soggy texture not to my liking.

    Maybe I’ll check out Tortilla one day but the way I see it, Mas es menos!


  3. Canadia boy
    Nov 28, 2007

    @ from San Diego,

    Try the carnitas. I had it again two days ago, and damn. It’s good. I haven’t had the beef in a while but my erstwhile companion did and was swearing by it two hours later…perhaps you were there on an off day for the beef? Regarding the tortilla itself — as I was mentioning, the steamed vs. pressed debate has been going on for a while and is really a personal preference thing. Note that Mucho Mas does *not* steam their tortillas, so if you found those too chewy either it wasn’t pressed enough or you will really hate the Tortilla variety.

    @Dave,

    First, I feel compelled to correct your correction. The Spanish tortilla referenced in the above post most certainly originates in Spain, with the first known reference from the Navarra region, in a document directed to the Spanish Parliament in 1817. I did, in fact, look this up — might I suggest you do the same? For ease of reference, I point you here.

    Second, I’m not sure exactly what you take to be authentic, but in terms of CaliMex burrito shops I reference the eponymous La Taqueria. Might I be so bold as to ask you to click here? Take note of the wall colors in the second photo. For reference, I lived in San Francisco for eight years and have eaten in almost every burrito-serving establishment up and down the west coast (in addition to five years in Chicago, which is well known for their CaliMex burrito joints). I assure you, sir, I know from a CaliMex burrito.

    Third, in terms of the food…well, let’s just say I’ve reinforced my decision with several additional visits to both establishments and I stand by every comment posted above, with the exception of the fact that Mucho Mas now has más excelente pinto beans, which will duly increase the score noted above. I have plans to prove this in a later blog post through various means, so please check back frequently.

    Fourth, I welcome an in-person taste-test and comparison, if you feel so compelled. The author of this wonderful blog knows how to find me. I wait in extreme hunger.


  4. Nona
    Apr 30, 2008

    YES tortillas are MEXICAN…salsa’s are supposed to be spicy! AND it’ hard to find Authentic Mexican food in London. I’ve been here 3 weeks (am Mexican American) and in desperate need or REAL Mexican (not Tex Mex) so if you have any ideas/suggestions send them my way at shy.crazy at yahoo THANKS



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