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New York Dispatch: “Driving a taxi is an act of faith” (& a burrito quest)

Pascuale Freni started driving a taxi in the 1970s, when the Bronx was burning, when the mafia owned the curbs in the Garment District, when “we were used to body counts” that drove a million people from New York City.

According to Pascuale, hacking was one of the most dangerous jobs in New York in the early 70s. About 20 cabbies lost their lives every year. (Not surprisingly, this was when women stopped driving taxis in the Big Apple).

A lot has changed since Pascuale was in the driver’s seat. For one thing, he doesn’t drive anymore. When he’s not running a livery cab business, he teaches a continuing education course for taxi drivers at La Guardia Community College, which is where I had the pleasure of hearing him speak last weekend.

Between Pascuale’s stories and his cab driver’s wisdom (“Driving a taxi is an act of faith on both sides.”), I chatted with a classmate named Jaider, who lives in Jackson Heights, hails from Minas Gerais in Brazil, has been driving a yellow cab for 15 years and developed a passion for burritos in the meantime.

When he’s hungry and driving downtown, Jaider stops at Paquito’s on 3rd Ave. for a steak burrito (“You’ll like this place,” he said, “They have a bathroom.”).

When he’s working Midtown Manhattan, Burrito Box on 9th Ave and 57th Street is his choice for a steak burrito and “the best salsa in the city.”

After Pascuale dismissed our class (and taught us to limit our horn honking to dangerous situations), I headed straight to Burrito Box. Between a burrito contest on my native coast (if you’re anywhere near San Francisco, you want to get in on Mission Local’s best burrito in the Mission competition) and the closure of Puebla’s Chula in Spanish Harlem, I had burritos on the brain.

When the cook at Burrito Box handed me a pound-plus, foil-wrapped $10 torpedo that I knew I couldn’t eat in a single sitting, I was optimistic. I was ready to taste a burrito that was equal to or greater than the ones I’d savored at Puebla’s Chula.

Things started going downhill when the tortilla ripped. (For me, part of the primal pleasure of a burrito is being able to eat it with your hands. Once I have to pick up a fork, some of the thrill is gone).

Even if I’d been able to eat the thing with my hands, I would’ve discovered a distribution problem. Sure, it’s natural for every bite of a burrito to be a little bit different – when beef, beans, rice, salsa, sour cream, cheese and guacamole are competing for space, there’s no way they can all make it into your mouth at once. But in a great burrito, they almost do (at Puebla’s Chula, they almost did).

The first third of my burrito was drowning in so much sour cream I could hardly taste what else was going on. When I finally got to the steak, I could understand Jaider’s devotion to this particular burrito: the strips of beef were thick, numerous, smoky, and tender. Whoever was at the grill knew what he was doing.

The cabbie was right about the cilantro-heavy salsa, too. How they’d gotten tomatoes to taste so fresh out of season was a mystery to me. (Given the vise grip on my head that I felt afterwards, I think MSG might’ve had something to do with it).

In the end, good salsa and steak couldn’t make up for disappointing rice and guacamole. As a starch fanatic, I don’t mind rice in my burrito, as long as it’s adding another dimension of flavor and mixing up the texture (as in the lime-cilantro rice at Chipotle’s). At Burrito Box, rice looked and tasted as bland as a filler that comes from a box, and guacamole had the sharpness of unripe avocados.

Would I go back to Burrito Box? If I were willing to eat a good but not great (rice-free, easy on the sour cream) burrito, I would. If Puebla’s Chula still existed, I probably wouldn’t.

Do you have a favorite New York burrito? Share your wisdom in the comments section.

Burrito BoxMap it
885 9th Avenue (between 57th & 58th)
New York, NY 10019-1712
Tel. (212) 489-6889
Open: 7 days from 11am-11:30pm
Average price of a burrito with guacamole: $10

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