Nothing gives me greater pleasure, as a California native, than to discover a new burrito shop. I’m not talking about the kind of burritos served on a plate in a restaurant. Those are fairly common in Tokyo, and anyway they are confusing to me (do you eat them with a knife and fork?). I’m talking about the kind of huge burrito that comes wrapped in tinfoil so you can eat it with your hands, alone or with friends, at the counter or as takeout, and without any of the fuss of having to choose appetizers or spring for headache-inducing frozen cocktails.
Rainbow Burritos (2-12-11 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; (090) 9834-4842), which opened last November, serves that kind of burrito. It’s a tiny takeaway counter on a tiny street in the heart of Shinjuku 2-chome, run by a Japanese woman nicknamed Chubabe. Chubabe has plenty of experience cooking for crowds: She ran lesbian bar Chestnut & Squirrel for eight years. But what about her burrito-making credentials? Her Los Angeles-born Mexican-American girlfriend’s grandmother supplied the recipes.
There are three kinds of burrito on the menu: carne asada (beef), pollo rojo (chicken) and veggie. My favorite was the pollo rojo, stuffed with shredded chicken that had spent three days in a slow-cooker with earthy chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeño pepper). The veggie one, which is purely vegetarian, is a little Japanese-inflected, with age-dōfu (fried tofu) along with avocado, rice and black beans — but definitely satisfying nonetheless.
Chubabe doesn’t make her own tortillas, but instead sources them — surprisingly — from the halal shops in Shin-Okubo. For beans and chipotle, she pillages Mundo Latino (Ochiai Bldg. 3F, 1-12-12 Higashi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6408-0748), which also has an online shop that can deliver frozen empanadas and the like to your doorstep.
Still too cold to stand outside and eat burritos? You can take them across the street to Café Lavandería and eat them inside there, while reading political treatises and sipping coffee farmed by Zapatistas — how California is that?
Burrito counters were all but nonexistent in Tokyo until a couple of years ago. In 2009 we got Frijoles in Akasaka, Roppongi and Azabu-Juban, which many a blogger has pointed out is a dead ringer for the American chain Chipotle. So much so that a visit not only cured my craving for carnitas (braised pork) but also a secret, subconscious homesickness for cheerful American fast-food service.
Still, Frijoles is hit or miss for me: Sometimes it’s spot on, but other times the burrito is cold or falls apart, or the hot sauce — which, to Frijoles’ credit, is actually quite hot — puddles in a corner.
Better is Libre Burrito (1-5-8 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6277-3122), which falls somewhere between the fluorescent-lit efficiency of Frijoles and the DIY aesthetic of Rainbow Burritos. Libre Burrito opened about a year ago, following a successful run out of a freight container in Aoyama (it now also runs concessions in Tamagawa and Kamiyacho). The flavors blend nicely; the tortilla is thick and warm — and if you’re really missing California-style burritos, you can opt for the “super” size.
Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.