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Robert Appelbaum
Sweden Goes Mexican, Kind Of . . .

(page 1 of 2)

The story of the burrito has many beginnings, going back to pre-Columbian times.  The staple of
Aztecs and other ethnic groups in ancient Mexico was maize, usually cooked in the form of a
tortilla; and many of those tortillas ended up being rolled and stuffed with a variety of vegetables
and seasonings. But the modern burrito is something different, and its origin can be pinpointed
to the 1960s in the Mission District of San Francisco, California. It was made with a large soft
wheat (not) corn tortilla, steamed and stretched and filled with beans and rice and a choice of
additional ingredients like grilled or stewed meat, salsas of various sorts, avocado, salad, cilantro,
onions, sour cream, cheese and sliced fresh or pickled jalapeños. They began being served in
restaurants run by Mexican-Americans called taquerias, taco shops, although some restaurants
stopped serving tacos once the burritos became their main attraction.
I used to live down the road from where the first burrito taquerias were located, including what
may be the oldest, La Cumbre, on Valencia Street. (The history is disputed by another old
establishment called El Faro.) You walked into a long room dominated by an open kitchen with
steam tables and grills, you ordered the burrito of your preference, and were assigned a
taquerista (almost always a shy young woman of Central American origin, whose English was
dodgy) who assembled your burrito before your eyes, walking down the long row of the steam
table in front of you, and at the end of the process you got a plastic basket filled with a fat nine-
inch-long hot cylinder, enclosed in wax paper and aluminium foil, and a helping of warm, freshly
fried tortilla chips. You were encouraged then to dawdle at a condiment bar providing a variety of
salsa crudas and additional jalapeño slices, which you picked out with a ladle and clumsily spilled
into a tiny paper ramekin or two. Then you sat down and ate, if you were smart with a Mexican
beer to wash it down, opening the cylinder of foil little by little to keep the burrito, oozing with
sauces, from falling apart, adding a little bit of salsa or jalapeño with every bite. It was like eating
a wet chunky holiday in the sun.
The San Francisco burrito eventually caught on, leading to the creation  of several large chain
restaurants in America, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Freebirds World
Burrito, and Taco del Mar and Moes’s Southwest Grill (and by the way, there is no ‘Moe’, the
restaurant being the invention of a corporation in Atlanta, Georgia) as well as any number of
independent shops and hybrid shops like World Wrapps, which was started in San Francisco in
1997. Chipotle Mexican Grill, perhaps the first chain offering San Francisco burritos, and at one
time owned by McDonald’s (before being sold back to the chain’s original owners), was at the
forefront of the fashion for what Americans call ‘fast casual restaurants’, in other words self-
service restaurants with an upscale décor, offering fast food which is not actually disgusting or
dangerous to one’s health, made with mainly fresh ingredients. There are thousands of them
now, all across the United States.  Few of them having anything to do, so far as the ownership and
management, with people of Mexican origin, and some have even given up using the word
That apparently is where the story of Serrano begins. Serrano was started in Iceland, by Einar
Örn Einarsson, in 2003. Einarsson had lived in Mexico when young, and went to university at
Northwestern University, just north of Chicago, Illinois, where, he informed me by personal
correspondence, he fell in love all over again with Mexican food. (Although it is not generally
known, Chicago has been home to a large Mexican community for nearly  a century.) In 2009
Einarasson began opening restaurants in Sweden, modelled after the American burrito palace.
In 2012 Serrano opened an outlet at the new Svava Galleria in the city centre, close to the railway
station. I am the kind of person who does not generally eat in restaurants found in enclosed
malls, even small ones, like Svava, which was formed by uniting a block of old five-story buildings
with an indoor atrium.  But the idea of Mexican food got the better of me; it even got the better of
my belief, founded on experience, that it is not possible to get palatable Mexican food in Europe.
So I went in, ordered a burrito and a beer, and found myself eating the first genuine-tasting San
Francisco burrito I had had since leaving San Francisco, fourteen years ago.
It wasn’t perfect. There weren’t enough beans and rice, and some of the ingredients seemed
unnecessary, like kernels of sweet corn. But the meat, a braised carnitas, had the true flavour;
the tortilla was steamy and elastic; the beans were tasty and cooked just through, leaving them
with a little bit of a bite; the salsa had a bright chili and tomato flavour and was adequately spicy.
At the table were choices of bottled Tobasco-style salsas imported from Mexico, including a fiery
red and an equally fiery green, which could be added bite by bite to make the burrito come alive
and burn the shit out of your lips.
I have made several repeat visits. A lot of my fellow patrons – the only language I heard around me
was Swedish – were busy eating plates of something one would not have been able to order at La
Cumbre, but that would have been available at a chain like Chipotle: composed salads, made with
lettuce, salsa and/dressing, beans, cheese, different kinds of meat or ‘veggie  strips’, whatever
they are.  There is even a ‘beef feta cheese salad’, just in case one’s idea of Mexican food has
something to do with a Greek restaurant in Ohio. But I went for the more traditional fare:
burritos, tacos and quesadillas.
On one of my last visits, my companion and I ordered the Mission Burrito and the tacos barbacoa.
The later come in a medley of three, on soft tacos. Barbacoa is a traditional Mexican stew made of
goat or mutton, but here ‘oxfilé’, which in Swedish stands for any of several cuts of beef that come
without sinews or bones, was used. This barbacoa was a tender, deeply seasoned, and ruby dark.
But what was most remarkable about the taco was the festival of vegetables and condiments that
topped the meat.

This is thoughtful, attractive cooking, equal to what might be served in high-end Mexican
restaurants in America (though not in Mexico, where high-end restaurants do not serve tacos).
There were downsides, however: the taco as a whole did not taste quite as good as it looked, the
balance of flavours and textures not being quite right; and at the bottom of the taco (one of the
things throwing off the balance) was a smear of American-style cream cheese.
Meanwhile, my Mission burrito was a juicy wrap about the same circumference but half the
length of a San Francisco burrito, with an excellent carnitas starring amidst the other usual
ingredients. I would have liked more beans and rice and a spicier, sharper salsa, but this was fine.
In fact, I was certain it would fine again.  At long last I have found a place in Uppsala where I can
go for lunch.

Even so, I have my doubts about the restaurant (which by the way, will soon be re-christened as
Zocolo, so as not to confuse anybody about whether a Mexican pepper or a Spanish ham is what
the establishment is named after). It is, after all, a fast food restaurant. So I can go back, I can
enjoy what I order, but I can never really become a ‘regular’ – the place is too impersonal, too
institutional for that. It is also ethnically challenging. Ethnic restaurants, since the beginning of
restaurants that could be placed in that category, which probably means the first Chinese
restaurants in San Francisco (in the gold rush days), or maybe the first Italian restaurants in
London and Paris, have always been culturally hybrid formations. Managed by hyphenated
citizens (e.g. ‘Chinese-Americans’), and always offering a compromise between what would seem
to have been authentic food back home and the requirements of the new location, including the
taste buds of the unhyphenated or otherwise hyphenated natives, ethnic restaurants have
invented styles of their own. The San Francisco burrito restaurant is a perfect example: for though
it was invented by Mexican-Americans, it was served to both Mexican-Americans and Americans of
other ethnic groups and national origins; and it was unlike anything that had actually been
served in Mexico before. The same thing could be said of inventions like Chicago-style pizza
restaurants, or Italian-American restaurants generally.
But Serrano has no familial roots in Mexico at all. It is technically a simulation. As it develops,
adjusting its menus, it seems rather to be fashioning a kind Mexican-Nordic cuisine, except that
there is little input from actual Mexicans. Is there anything wrong with that? No, I suppose not.
But one does wonder how quality can be maintained in the face of so abrupt a cultural shift, from
Mexican-American to Nordic.   

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