Flesh Mex

Californians are passionate about their burritos. One Watsonville man I know, desperate to escape his heritage, told me he was going to stick a burrito on the dash of his car and keep driving until someone asked him what it was. Then, he said, he’d be far enough away. Certainly, it’s easy to find burritos in even the smallest towns, but all too often, the only choices come from chains not worthy of the term Mexican food. I’m sorry, but if your idea of a good burrito comes from Del Taco or even Chipotle, you need to get out more.

There are entire Web sites devoted to what some might argue is the ultimate convenience food, with messages flying back and forth as to the best burrito joints in the world, and bitter arguments erupting over whether burritos should have beans in them or not. One such site lists both Caballo Blanco and El Michoacano as top local burrito joints; I trust this because the site also listed Taqueria Cancun in the Mission District in San Francisco, surely the place for one of the best burritos in the universe.

Two years ago, I went from working in a town boasting a 70-percent Hispanic population to living in the Sierra foothills, where people actually will turn around and look if someone walks by speaking Spanish. It’s pretty white up here, folks, with nary a Mexican pastry store in sight. So, it was with a sense of homecoming that I stood in line at El Michoacano recently, the only Anglo in the restaurant.

I know an exclusively Hispanic clientele is no guarantee of quality; heck, one of the most popular places in Watsonville is Del Taco. But, quite often, it can be a good sign; if nothing else, it means your food is probably pretty authentic. And the food at El Michoacano is definitely authentic. You won’t find flavored tortillas here—or even grilled chicken. In fact, unless you ask for them, you won’t get beans in your burrito. What you will find is a menu of tacos, burritos, tostadas and tortas (sandwiches) filled with a variety of meats.

The offerings range from the familiar, like carne asada, longaniza sausage and carnitas, to more exotic fillings, such as nopales (cactus), tripe, tongue, chicharron (pig skin) and buche de puerco (pork goiter). Burritos range in price from $2.69 to $3.19, with tortas big enough for two at $5.12. Unlike at some taquerias, the burritos at El Michoacano are on the small side. So, if you’re hungry, order two. And make sure you bring cash; the restaurant does not take ATM cards.

The restaurant, tucked into a strip mall just down from the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Fruitridge Avenue (across from the Caballo Blanco restaurant), is short on ambience but scrupulously clean. It is somewhat oddly laid out, with the kitchen situated smack-dab in the middle of the building. As you enter, you veer to the left to order at the counter. There is a narrow seating area on the right side, with a larger area and a salsa bar to the left. Murals on the walls depict the history of the business, from its beginning as a taco trailer to its present digs.

We tried the carnitas and azada burritos, which arrived quickly and were incredibly hot. In fact, a burrito ordered to go was still hot 45 minutes later, and it was wrapped in only a single layer of aluminum foil. Though I will order my burritos with beans on my next visit, El Michoacano’s version offers some interest with the addition of sautéed onions and peppers, along with a little bit of chopped lettuce. The carne asada was quite good; it was sliced thin and tender. The meat was plenty flavorful on its own, but it made the transition to great with the addition of some salsa from the well-stocked salsa bar. The selection of sauces included freshly chopped salsas as well as cooked green and red salsas; the red was hot without being blistering, and it had a good flavor.

I usually avoid carnitas because, too often, the shredded pork meat is overcooked and dry yet paradoxically greasy. That’s not the case at El Michoacano. The carnitas here were just right: tender but with enough crunchy bits to add great flavor. The dish was extremely salty, however, noticeable even to a salt addict like me.

El Michoacano is not quite at the level of a destination restaurant, nor does it aspire to be. But for a quick meal of honest, better-than-average Mexican food, this is a great place to try. It’s easy to find, and it’s fast, good and cheap. And some days, that’s all you can ask for.