Dolores Burrito Berlin: Not so Californian after all

Written on April 9, 2012, 10:27 a.m.

At the risk of sounding cold and detached, there is only one thing that I truly miss while in Tokyo. It's not the people of San Francisco — with things like Skype, it's easy enough to get in and to stay in touch — or the landscape — while not dotted with the hills my beloved hometown (if that's what you can call it) boasts so proudly, Tokyo's downtown cityscape is at times so bustling it's hard to think about anything other than getting from Point A to Point B. When roaming the streets of Tokyo, you quickly learn to snap to attention in a heartbeat, lest you find yourself a victim of pedestrian bowling games that bicyclists play on the sidewalks that line the metropolis's car-filled streets...

No, it's not any of those — it's the food. Tokyo may be home to the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in a concentrated area, but that doesn't mean that it's gastronomically diverse. Walk its narrow streets and along with handfuls of Italian, French and Chinese restaurants, you'll see large clusters of Japanese restaurants — Japanese food is, after all, a Japanese concept. Nestled amongst the bustle, in even smaller alleyways, you're like to find joints that label themselves simple as "ethnic" — referring to the fact that they serve a variety of food from a smattering of cultures, typically those of Southeast Asia and, if you're lucky, Mexican and Spanish food hybrids.

So it goes without saying that whenever I leave Tokyo for any period of time, one of the first things I do is seek out restaurants that offer food that might even be remotely similar to the multicultural cuisines I grew up eating — it wasn't until later on that I realized that most people don't have the privilege of having an authentic Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance of a legit tacqueria.

Berlin was no different. Upon arrival I discovered, much to my joy, that there was a large population of Vietnamese residents who owned tapioca shops and pho houses. That's one down. Walking home from Good Morning Vietnam, which won over our hearts as the best Vietnamese food in Mitte, we passed by Dolores, a somewhat hipster-looking haunt — complete with fixies chained to parking poles — that billed itself as selling California-style burritos. Excited that I might be able to get my Mexican food fill without having to go stateside, I proceeded to look up reviews of the place. So far, so good. Reviews on Mission Mission had pegged it as somewhat authentic and there had been a small crowd waiting for their food — a big plus, because empty restaurants are often the first symptom of a failing establishment.

Until I saw their menu, I was stoked. But as my eyes glanced over the red, white and green boards listing filling choices, I realized that the place had just committed its first faux pas: It didn't seem to offer any type of seafood and horchata was nowhere to be found. To be fair, this wouldn't be a faux pas at most Mexican restaurants, and it wouldn't have even been an issue here if Dolores did not bill itself as a "California Gourmet Burritos" restaurant, if Dolores' walls weren't covered with rasterbated maps of San Francisco circa 2006 (before MUNI went and rerouted a ton of its buses), if it did not proudly display Anchor Steam brews in its glass cases. All that just gave way to heightened expectations. Maybe it would have been better if they had just branded themselves as the German Chipotle and didn't try so hard to "localize" their decor.

Menuwise, Dolores' lack of plain food threw me off — flavor options included lime, mole and chipotle seasonings for chicken and tofu, with carnitas pork thrown in for good measure — there were no steamed options here. (To be fair, I don't eat beef, so I can't speak for the authenticity of their adobo beef.) There was also some kind of smoky peanut salsa — not even sure what that means to this day, but perhaps it was a way to appease the German palette?

Sigh. Disappointing so far. Determined to see this through regardless of the result, I shook my head to the question of whether I wanted to go somewhere else where my money would be better spent, and continued to list out the ingredients I wanted — maybe those would be more promising.

Apparently not. Rice options included "lime" and "Spanish" — not sure what the former means exactly, but I am told it's standard at most Chipotles. Good to know, but irrelevant for a place claiming that they serve actual Mexican food. My remaining option was Spanish rice, then, but seeing it piled in a huge, overly vibrant orange mound behind the customary glass panels did nothing but further disappoint — it was runny and clearly had been made with too much water. I don't know about you, but I like my rice to be a bit more on the dryer side and less intense on the spice spectrum — overpowering the rest of the burrito is not what rice was meant to do.

I had high hopes for this place. I wanted to like it, to maybe even come back. But what I got — a jumbled mess wrapped up in a pasty, soggy tortilla with excessively watery guacamole and heavy sour cream that tasted more sour than savory, and way, way too many beans — was just disheartening. I hadn't been expecting a slightly higher-end Chipotle — we already have those in Tokyo and I can barely stomach them — but that's what I ended up with. At least that chain doesn't market themselves as authentic.

Perhaps it's unfair for me to critique a burrito place so harshly, especially one in a foreign country. I actually do applaud their efforts to bring Mexican food to those who have never tasted it — people should not grow up not knowing what a "burrito" is. But if that's the case, then all I ask is that out-of-state tacquerias not label themselves as "California-style" unless they can live up to it. By slapping that label on, they're opening themselves to a barrage of criticism from those who actually know what it means. Sure, the food itself wasn't inedible, or disgusting, or anything remotely close to that — it was just lacking in the authenticity department, which ultimately made it difficult for me to finish even half of a burrito because it was just too heavy, too overpoweringly spiced. (But then again, I can't stand Chipotle or any of its clones, so maybe that explains why other people were actually able to enjoy their burritos when I couldn't.)

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