[burritos east]

Topic: Around Town

From Overheard in New York:

Fuck that shit, man. I still love New York better. Every single time people from Frisco compare cities with New York, you fools bring up your stupid burritos! Well I got news for you: our burritos are catching up.

The man’s got a point. When I first moved from Marin County, California to New York City, in 1993, burritos were hard to come by, and too often they were made by Chinese people — who have every right to make and sell burritos, but whose efforts generally failed to comport with my San Francisco-based idea of what a burrito is all about. I still shudder at the memory of the burrito joint that had a carton of duck sauce and soy sauce packets on the table.

Back then, I had the unfortunate habit of telling everyone I met how much better the San Francisco Bay Area was than anywhere else, and if burritos were not Exhibit A in the case for NorCal — that would’ve been the weather — they were certainly one piece of evidence. Later, in 1997, when I had graduated from college and run off to India to avoid getting a life, I knew I had become a New Yorker because the food I craved was not burritos, but bagels.

In recent years, though, Mexicans have been quietly increasing their culinary presence in La Manzana Grande. When I moved to Queens in 1999, I was delighted to discover the highly authentic taco stands of Jackson Heights. And when we lived at Butler and Bond, in Brooklyn, we like to walk over to Cafe Mexicano, a tiny Mexican sandwich shop on Union Street just past Fourth Avenue toward Park Slope.

A 2003 Teacher’s College article discusses the demographic trend in detail. Between 1990 and 2000, Mexicans more than tripled their NYC numbers, from 61,772 in 1990 to 186,872 in 2000, according to official census data, and there are estimates that this undercounts Mexicans substantially, and that the real number may be as high as 300,000. They remain one of the poorest groups in the city, with a 1999 mean household income per capita of $10,231, against a citywide $22,402.

By contrast, the Asian American Federation of New York estimates that there are 90,896 Koreans in New York City, with the vast majority living in Queens. To me, at least, Koreans seem much more visible than the larger population of Mexicans, in part because they have become such a presence in delis and laundromats, where I interact with them regularly, and in part because I may not recognize Mexicans as Mexicans rather than Latinos of some other national origin.

But they are here, their numbers are growing, and New York’s burritos are getting better at last.