April 22, 2009 12:01 PM
JOHNNY’S FINE MEXICAN FOOD
176 N Ventura Avenue
Ventura, CA 93001
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As you know, if the burrito is a religion, I belong to the sect of carne asada. When faced with an unfamiliar town, amid a plethora of taqueria tabernacles at which to worship, offering a diverse array of liturgy and service (interesting, is it not, that “service” is what you receive at both church and restaurant?), carne asada is what I order. But I launched this Quest with no prejudice that when I found The Perfect Burrito, it would necessarily be of that noble variety. And I, Don Miguel de los Angeles de Masiado Cervezas, have just been repaid for my tolerance and open-mindedness with tender chunks of grace; a blessing, a miracle, the first legitimate contender for the prize, the moniker of “The Perfect Burrito.” Finding it here, on a humble street in a humble county seat with the uplifting name of San Buenaventura, gives me hope that we will yet turn this into a Good Venture: that we will fulfill the Quest.
A humble hut—aren’t all the best burritos born of humble huts?—on a nondescript strip of Ventura Avenue, Johnny’s (not Juan’s, or Juanito’s, or even Juanny’s) claims to have been run as a family business since 1962. One stands on the sidewalk to order from a tiny window, bending at the waist to bring one’s eyes to the height of, presumably, the average face-level of mid-twentieth-century Venturans. While waiting for their orders, patrons hover and queue like Catholics awaiting Communion around the service window. Solemn acolytes behind the counter set out, like holy wafers, a blue plastic bowl filled with fresh, hot, flaky, flour tortilla chips. Outside, a single, long picnic table huddles under a small shaded overhang adjacent to the sidewalk; inside, behind a rickety screen door, five or six yellowing Naugahyde booths un-invite you from a dingy interior. Hanging on the wall is a framed cover of the very same Sunset magazine under which mi hija Maria made her first apparition at El Tepeyac: The Ultimate Burrito. It both comforts and intimidates me, to know that others before have trodden Serra’s path in the pursuit of the oblong godhead.
On to the flesh itself. My secret sources had informed me that, while the carne asada at Johnny’s is good-to-excellent, the noteworthy filling here is the chile verde. Chile verde, mind you, is no slouch as a burrito filling, and is worthy of a bit of historical and linguistic discourse.
To wit: while any Texan will claim all manner of “chili” as their own (Texans are fond of claiming things, yet of their worthy exports I can think of…exactly none), my research suggests that chile verde, a thinner stew, is of New Mexican origin (ah, New Mexico! The land of the Pueblo, ancient cliff dwellings, the golden Seven Cities of Cíbola, and Aztlán, the mythical homeland of all things bueno.) Hence, while you will see it variously spelled “chili verde” and “chile verde,” or even, by blasphemers in the United Kingdom (where “tortilla” rhymes with “Godzilla&rdquo, “chilli verde,” I spell it as the Spanish would and do: “chile verde,” and thus liberate it from any Texan taint. In New Mexico it’s known as “green chile,” and is served atop all manner of foods, Mexican and American, from enchiladas and huevos rancheros to hamburgers and cheese fries. It has a cousin, “red chile;” you will be offered both with nearly every meal. “Red or green chile? Or would you like Christmas?” Christmas, in New Mexican waitress parlance, charmingly means a yin/yang dollop of both red and green; a festive and holy ornament indeed.) But whereas New Mexican green chile is merely a sauce, a topping, in California, chile verde nearly universally means a spicy green stew starring that most noble of meats: pork.
The mythical abuela who, in my mind, cooks the archetypal version of every Mexican dish, would make chile verde thus: roast a secret combination of green chiles—Serrano? Anaheim? Jalapeño? New Mexican Hatch?—over an open fire, and add them to a stewing base of blanched and pureed green tomatillos. She would sauté an ample, cubed pork shoulder, add it to the simmering stew, and spice and season lovingly. She would allow it to burble over the fire for hours, until the pork has begun to shred itself into tender strands of spicy deliciousness while the remnants of the original larger cubes cling to gelatinized bits of fat.
Chile verde is to be found in two burritos at Johnny’s. One is eponymously named, but the other rides in the place of honor atop the small menu board: chile relleno burrito with pork. Upon my query, I was told that yes, the pork in question is the selfsame chile verde. While Sancha plowed her way through what looked like a thoroughly credible bean burrito, I quietly communed with what would prove to be tubular manna from above, a Faberge egg-like wonderment that is best described in reverse based on an examination halfway through its consumption. Imagine the burrito version of a cutaway view of a woman with child or of the Great Mother herself. At the nucleus, a soft, pliable, not quite molten fetus of white cheese; that, gently enveloped in the womb of a mild Anaheim chile; that, wrapped softly by a stratum of fluffy, chick-yellow egg; that, floating in the warm, rich, life-giving amnius of the chile verde itself, the pork a miracle of tenderness, the stewed sauce not technically verde at all but rather tinged red (perhaps by the inclusion of a single red chile among the green in its base, or a red tomato among the tomatillos?) and brought to a level of perfect buoyancy by a suffusion of sunset-orange cheese; all that, wrapped in the soft skin of a tortilla; and finally protected by swaddling cloth of paper and a shining mantle of foil, upon which is scrawled in black sharpie, “CR,” which I suppose stands for “Chile Relleno,” but which might just as well signify “Christ Returned.”
This is a large burrito, but not so large that I didn’t consume every bite and order another two to carry on our long journey. It might have left me bloated and dyspeptic, but no. Even after the half hour it has taken me type this upon a borrowed laptop, it has left me, rather, rejuvenated, restored, healed in mind and body.
My faith has been renewed. The burrito is perfectible, and I might well have found it at Johnny’s. Do you hear me, Monty Zooma? Do you hear me, world? I am the king of my domain name, at theperfectburrito.com, but I hereby project global power and plant a flag at Johnny’s. You may not claim it from me, for I have placed it on a virtual hold. And I will return, if not to crown the King of Kings, then, at least, to try the carne asada.
So dear reader, I continue my journey, but I will do so with a lighter heart, feeling no longer every one of my fiftysomething years, but less than half that, all sinew and determination, nearly godlike in the knowledge that although I may yet find a More Perfect Burrito, the charlatan Zooma will never find one better than I have found here.