As anybody who has ever made tacos at home can tell you, one of the most important steps is heating the shells. Hard taco shells straight out of the box taste little better than the box itself. It is only after a brief, intense heat that the bland, rubbery shells emerge crisp, corny, and muy delicioso.
So imagine my surprise — horror, really — when the staffer at Ohio City Burrito began building my taco with a shell plucked straight out of an industrial-size bag. The result had all the panache of a high school cafeteria lunch — a cold, brittle shell filled with warm shredded beef, capped off with the usual triumvirate of cheese, iceberg, and salsa. Well, at least it was cheap.
It's been almost two years since Ohio City Burrito opened its doors near the intersection of West 25th and Bridge. Despite my experiences, which always have been middling, OCB has scratched out a pretty loyal following — as well they should. While restaurants in the neighborhood continue to improve in quality and increase in price, there is a niche and need for joints like OCB.
Clearly, there is a demand for fast, affordable food. And better that demand be met by well-meaning owner-operators like Jeff and Michelle Pizzuli, Ohio City residents, than by some faceless national chain. The brother-sister team runs the sort of cute and quirky shop that fits Ohio City to a T. Maize-colored walls, funky Day of the Dead artwork, and hand-painted tables imbue the small space with bona fide indie flair.
Similar in style and spirit to Chipotle Mexican Grill, OCB prepares burritos, tacos, and nachos to order for dining in or out. Orders are taken, dishes are assembled, and meals are paid for in a cafeteria-style line. And like at Chipotle, that line can swell come lunchtime. Choices are limited to a handful of dishes that can be assembled from the same few ingredients. Tacos, burritos, and salads are filled with shredded chicken, braised beef, or roast pork. Beans are either black or refried. Dishes are rounded out with rice, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and a choice of salsas.
I can't say that our most recent meal improved drastically following The Taco Incident. To craft the house nachos, an employee fills a plastic bowl with store-bought chips, showers them with a fistful of packaged shredded cheese, and pops them in the microwave. After the "ding," the chips get bombarded with beans, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa. The microwave, I can assure you, is no friend to melted cheese. Substitute the microwave for shredded lettuce and you end up with the taco salad.
About the size and weight of a newborn child, OCB's burritos are indeed a handful. Stuffed to the breaking point, the large flour tortilla is swaddled in foil and laid to rest in a plastic basket. The meat fillings, pulled from a steam table, are mildly spiced and barely perceptible when combined with the half-dozen or so other ingredients. Because such a small percentage of the fillings are heated — and, in the case of the rice, beans, and meat, barely so — the burritos never arrive hot. It may be an unavoidable consequence of pairing a small scoop of hot food with a tidal wave of cold condiments like lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo, but it is unpleasant nonetheless.
Otherwise, the burritos are tasty and satisfying, a familiar marriage of meat, beans, and rice. Having tried each of the three meat fillings, I have to admit it's tough to distinguish one from another. My solution — here, and at as many places as possible — is to liberally administer hot sauce. OCB's fiery habanero-based salsa does wonders for everything it touches.
Seats at OCB are limited to five tables and two high-tops indoors, and a small but tidy patio out front on West 25th. The best drink in the place is the tangerine-flavored Jarritos Mexican soda ($2). Like Ohio City Burrito itself, it's a refreshing alternative to the big national brands.