Fair or not, any casual burrito joint in Northeast Ohio is going to be compared to Chipotle. The national chain has at least 19 locations here and has done an admirable job reclaiming the concept of Mexican fast food from Taco Belch. But it is still a chain, and so a small indie burrito purveyor ought to be able to find some way to compete. Look at the pizza business — it's not like Domino's and Papa John's have done the Walmart stomp on neighborhood pizza parlors.
Speaking of Walmart: The site of the only one in Cleveland proper, the Steelyard Commons shopping center, is also the home of the city's only Chipotle; the rest are scattered around the 'burbs. That leaves an opening for people like Ray and Michelle Pizzuli, the brother and sister owners of Ohio City Burrito on West 25th Street. Most of Scene's editorial staff stopped there for lunch last week. After hearing good things since the place opened last year, we wanted to love it, but for now all we can commit to is being very much in like.
The small space is painted a cheerful rusty orange, with some Dia de los Muertos-inspired art on the walls and tables. We've heard that the lines can get long, but on our visit, we were able to walk right up to the counter. Several of us ordered some version of the top menu item, the Brother's Burrito ($6.15), which comes with a choice of chicken, beef barbacoa or pulled pork carnitas; sweet, mild, medium or hot (habenaro) salsa; and the usual choices of guacamole, rice, beans and vegetables.
The consensus was that the meat scored, but after that it was a mixed bag.
Here's Ron Kretsch's take: "The chicken was surprisingly tender, well seasoned, very, very nice. It's a shame it got kind of lost in the indistinct morass of flavors of the burrito — it would make a nice dish on its own. I got the medium salsa and thought it was perfect. Just the kick of flavor and heat I was hoping for without overwhelming my tongue or being insultingly contrived to the bland wants of whitey dullards."
Vince Grzegorek: "The carnitas meat was tangy, rich, moist and flavorful. But the guac was bland, the pico de gallo unspectacular, the rice not very cilantro-y. To separate a burrito from the rest — from one mush of delicious Mexiblend from the other — things have to pop, individual ingredients have to stand out, and that really didn't happen. Maybe the habanero salsa is fantastic, but there wasn't enough on the burrito to make a difference. Didn't taste the heat."
The best part of my Brother with beef was the salsa, which was indeed "fiery," as promised. Problem was, nothing else could rise above it. The beef was definitely not dry or chewy, but unfortunately, that's the most I could say about it; the flavor was overwhelmed by the salsa. My burrito was made with more guacamole than sour cream, as I'd requested, but I know that only because I watched as the ingredients were spooned on, and tightly and lovingly wrapped. The guac did not shine through.
Michael Gallucci's experience with the Veggie Burrito ($5.85) was similar: "Nothing inside of it really distinguished itself. The refried beans were bland, and the rice had no overwhelming taste. The mild salsa had a small kick and provided occasional flavor. And the tortilla shell was fresh and chewy."
"Burrito and rice were soft and airy, and had a smooth, pleasant taste," said Anastasia Pantsios of her Veggie Burrito. But that's where the flavor stopped. "I'm not sure what caused the overall blandness — too few vegetables or that I should have gone for a hotter salsa."
Michael Gill, who tried the beef version, summed up: "In a food category that thrives on personality, it was undistinguished."
"On the other hand," noted Ron, "at six bucks a pop, it's at least full day's worth of food (or calories, anyway)."
Damian Guevara opted for the Taco Salad ($6.15) with pork, habanero salsa and refried pinto beans, served on a bed of shredded lettuce and corn tortilla chips. "The meat was moist, and the salsa offered some nice heat," he says. "However, the plate seemed to lack the magic that makes any dish worthy of a revisit. As I picked away at it, I couldn't help but think that I was eating a glorified plate of nachos
"And I was dismayed to learn that they don't make their own refried beans; the server says they buy smashed frijoles and then add their own spices to them. As a Chicano from Texas, I'm sick of the disrespect the pinto bean gets in this part of the world."
"They do get props for their Jarritos Mexican sodas," adds Mike Gill, "which come in interesting flavors (I had pineapple) and are made not with high fructose corn syrup, but good old-fashioned cane sugar." Anastasia also raved about the lemon-lime. I loved the Horchata ($2), a refreshing rice milk and cinnamon concoction that I'd buy in gallon jugs if they sold it that way.
So, to review: Quantity and value, check. Meats, check. Salsa, double check. Overall flavor ... room for improvement. And it won't take much — some cilantro here, some lime there, some fresh beans, and Ohio City Burrito will do more than just rival the popular chain.