When I moved to DC, Chinatown/Gallery Place had already transformed to most of what it is today. Sure, there wasn’t a multi-floored Walgreen’s yet, and the Wizards were a long shot from winning a playoff series, but the stories like the one my former boss, a 6’6″ ex-power forward at Catholic University, told me about breaking beer bottles on the ground to have a weapon on your walk home in the 90s were definitely a thing of the past.
In most of my travels, I’ve found the local “Chinatowns” to be pretty dirty. This goes for Boston, SF, Sydney, and NYC… where many of us have stood in between fish heads on ice and ducks in a window while waiting for a shoddy but cheap bus back to whatever city we actually live in. Granted, it’s not as dirty as a literal town in China, but that bar isn’t exactly high. (NSFW)
In our little DC version of Chinatown, we have some big golden Chinese arches to compliment our golden big fat American arches with a variety of Asian cuisine and Chinese letters below store names. But beyond that, I would not say the Irish bar, Hooters, or Legal Seafoods count as Chinese.
And in this Asian-fusion hot pot, there is a small Mexican joint. Oh wait, make that two… no… three! That’s right, in the shadows of the John Wall’s palace there are three chain Mexican places: Chipotle, California Tortilla (aka Cal Tort to the die-hards), and Lime Fresh Mexican Grill – the subject of today’s post. At some point, someone looked at the burrito density of Chinatown and thought, “You know what this area need? Another burrito place!” taking a page from the Starbucks Business School of Strategic Density.
Although I have been to Cal Tort before, and I promise to go back there again with my roommate, WAFC significant other, and frequent commenter under the pseudonym “Cal_tort_4_lyfe” Hustle Russell, but today was not the day for the revisit. And despite the constant long lines at the Chipotle in Columbia Heights, the Lime across the street on 14th wasn’t able to get enough spillover business to stay afloat and abruptly closed at the end of December last year, which meant this was my only shot at some Lime in the mouth.
Looking at the menu, I noticed all the real burritos (sorry, I do not count a bean burrito as a real burrito; vegans and vegetarians… I do not approve of your lifestyle choices) were the same price, $7.25, and I narrowed it down to Queso or Big Cali. I was pretty hungry and the description described it as “An XL burrito” and told me I “Better have a spotter ready.”
The Big Cali came with my choice of “chicken or ground beef, cilantro-lime rice, guacamole, salsa asada, cilantro, black bean corn salsa, tortilla strips, cheese, and our signature sour cream.” I selected chicken then made my way to the salsa bar to fill up my to-go containers. The selection was not as great as District Taco’s, but still hit most of the biggies – salsa verde, pico de gallo, salsa asada. In the emptiness of the mid-afternoon work day, the friendly staff came up to me to double check what I ordered and asked if I had any questions. The exchange went something like this:
I took my burrito to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite museums with a sweet atrium to enjoy this burrito around some culture. Like the Art of Video Games exhibit, the current special American Cool, or some college kids playing arrangements from… video games. I personally love the permanent exhibit on the US Presidents. Although Bill Clinton’s portrait really could go in the American Cool as well.
I sat down and unwrapped my burrito. I was taken by it’s lack of XL-ness. Hell, it was barely even “L.” This thing wasn’t going to stand a chance. I was afraid that I wouldn’t even be able to take notes because I’d get through it so quickly. The pleasant surprise (ie I didn’t read the menu carefully) was that the burrito came with chips! Huzzah! The salsas for the aforementioned chips were all solid, but none blew me away. The cilantro was fresh but hastily chopped with lots of big chunks and stems. Salsa verde was… fine, and salsa asada decent flavor but not hearty enough.
The tortilla was grilled, not steamed, and dry (surprise!). Here’s a lesson for all you young budding burristas out there, you need to do one of two things, either: a) steam your tortilla so it is moist and delicious, or b) grill it with some oil so it is moist and delicious. Straight grilling is a recipe for failure.
When I dug into the burrito itself, the rice immediately jumped out as flavorful. A cilantro-lime rice that actually has flavor? My word! The guacamole on the other hand… not so much. You know how good Whole Foods and Chipotle guacamole is? Well, it was nothing like that. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I think it had too much cumin. There were little hints of cheese here or there, but I guess at Lime if you want real cheese on your burrito you have to order the one with the word in the name. The chicken was plentiful, had above average flavor, and was impressively not dry at all. The salsa asada was nearly undetectable as was the sour cream. The black bean corn salsa provided texture and little else.
After this experience, I can see why people would rather wait 20 minutes for Chipotle than 5 minutes for Lime. A burrito that lacks so much character than repeated trips to the salsa bar is no bueno. And did I mention that despite being billed as “XL”, I felt ready for a few tacos for dessert at the end? Totally could have; too bad it wasn’t Taco Tuesday. If this was a yelp review, it might get 3 stars, but since this is a burritocentric review, they’re getting a big ol’ 2.5 sombreros.