Growing up in Los Angeles, my brother and I used to joke that all Mexican food was just the same ingredients, put into different edible containers. That is a product, really, of Mexican food in the United States, and most specifically, Taco Bell. Sure, we have much more traditional fare available in Los Angeles, but even the most committed and adventurous gastronomes still have a craving for a sloppy wet burrito from time to time, despite the pleas from those around us who think we ought to know better. So why do we love such things? Maybe it has become a local fusion, a comfort food, something appreciated for its place in our childhoods, like egg foo young or spaghetti and meatballs. Today we throw a bone to the true westsiders--those who hail from Santa Monica and who, for the most part, think Fairfax seems like too far to drive for dinner--and tackle the Santa Monica wet burrito with chicken at two longstanding locales, placed just blocks from each other, Gilbert's El Indio and Lares.
The Super Mule Burrito at Gilbert's has become a topic for debate on the Chowhound boards over the years, primarily in regards to whether or not a burrito ought to ever have lettuce in it. Is it an odd guilty pleasure, adding crunch and freshness to an otherwise destructive stomach anchor, or an exercise in absurdity, adding hot, wilted, iceberg salad in lieu of other more flavorful ingredients? Personally, I tend to think we have a lettuce obsession in the U.S. (has the addition of lettuce to a Greek salad ever been a good idea?), but it does have its fervent supporters. This burrito, roughly the size of Popeye's forearm, does come with a disarming amount of lettuce, but still maintains good flavor, a pleasant verde sauce, moist chicken and ultimately, a very satisfying meal for around nine bucks. You can also just ask for it without any lettuce, if that's your preference.
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At Lares (best known, hopefully, for their carnitas), the burrito seems to be more of an afterthought. It is something placed on the menu, tucked secretly at the bottom of the "tostada" section, only because they know that people will order it. There is no lettuce, the chicken is cubed rather than shredded (to my dissatisfaction), and the red sauce is a bit more powerful and herb-heavy, though not really in a positive way. While Lares is not exactly a beacon of true Mexican tradition, it certainly does appear to be more of a goal. Gilbert's, meanwhile, seems proud to be a Mexican-American restaurant, happy to throw lettuce and gobs of cheese into whatever they damn well please. Sometimes, perhaps, it is better to go with the local specialty, and in Santa Monica, that's Mexican-American fusion, and few places seem to embrace that more than Gilbert's El Indio.
Gilbert's El Indio, 2526 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica, (310) 450-8057., Lares, 2909 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica, (310) 829-4550.