Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Que Pasa: The burritos you've always dreamed of

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

When Ryota Kurokawa graduated from Waseda University in 2014, he had a good idea of the career he didn’t want to pursue: He didn’t want to put on a white shirt and a dark-colored suit and affix himself to corporate life. He was, however, much less sure of what he did want to do.

For a while Kurokawa, 28, managed a wealthy Australian’s property in Niseko, Hokkaido, and worked part-time jobs in Tokyo. “I was having a tough time figuring out what to do,” he admits. It was on his father’s suggestion that he moved to Kyoto to help him run a nascent coriander wholesale business.

His father had started growing coriander from the family home in Tsu, Mie Prefecture as a side project, but it quickly developed into a business as he found a growing number of restaurants in Nagoya and Kyoto who wanted his product. So the younger Kurokawa pitched in, helping with deliveries and orders from their business base, a former cafe near the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

It was while he was in the empty cafe that Kurokawa started to consider more seriously a question that he had been entertaining for the best part of six years: “Where are all the burritos in Japan?”

Granted, this is a not a question most people here would ruminate on, but as Kurokawa says, “I grew up eating them.”

When Kurokawa was 9, his father quit his job as a salaryman in Japan and moved the family across the Pacific, where they lived for the next decade in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tex-Mex cuisine, including burritos, played an outsize influence on the young immigrant. So, when Kurokawa moved back to Japan for university, the dearth of Tex-Mex was a bit of a shock to his system.

Fast forward a few years and Kurokawa was sitting in the empty cafe with its kitchen, and that question, and the dream of finding burritos in Japan, was still with him. Eventually he came up with his answer. “I just decided I would make them,” he says.

As Kurokawa told me on a recent visit to Que Pasa, the burrito bar he opened in 2016, “I knew what I wanted to eat.”

Figuring out how to make the burritos, and make other people want to eat them, too, was a different challenge. So, as millennials often do, he turned to YouTube.

“I watched lots and lots of YouTube,” he says, with a laugh. Up until that point he had never made a burrito himself. Why would he, when he had Taco Bell, Chipotle and food trucks galore on his doorstep in San Francisco?

Well-stuffed: Que Pasa
Well-stuffed: Que Pasa’s king-size burrito is filled with beans, cheddar cheese, American-grown rice and succulent pork. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Before opening Que Pasa, there was a lot of trial and error, and the odd inquisition. Kurokawa recounts the time he put up a sign on the window a few days before opening to advertise the burrito bar.

“Five minutes later, this guy from America knocks on the door and asks, ‘Do you know what burritos are?'” Despite the hostile tone of the question, and after a little explaining, the two became friends, and the American is now one of Kurokawa’s many loyal regulars. He also made the logo for Que Pasa.

Kurokawa recounts that on opening day, 40 people turned up, and that was without any promotional drive, it was purely through word of mouth. Clearly, there’s an appetite for burritos in the city, or at least the right kind of burritos.

At Que Pasa, the menu is limited: Burritos are the stars, but there’s also room for quesadillas and coriander salad. Every Tuesday, Kurokawa puts on “Taco Tuesday,” and occasionally he has a full vegan menu.

Although there are a handful of good burrito joints in the Kansai region — El Zocalo Burrito in Osaka is another favorite — Que Pasa ranks near the top of any list of restaurants serving up good Mexican food. On a recent visit, I had the king-size burrito, filled with beans, cheddar cheese, just the right amount of American-grown rice, salad and strips of succulent pork all stuffed between a soft and pliant tortilla wrap. The “king,” as its name implies, is a massive payload.

Perhaps the best indicator of Kurokawa’s success is that last year he hired his first staff member. Before joining Que Pasa, the new staff member was a salaryman and another of Kurokawa’s regulars. But he gladly jumped ship to start making burritos and in doing so is making a lot of people happy. Presumably himself, too.

Closed Mon. and Thu. lunch; Japanese, English and Spanish spoken