When I was completing my university degree I had a hard enough time working three shifts a week at Angus Reid and still finding time for study and family.
I couldn’t believe that Vinay Iyer wanted to open and run his own restaurant while pursuing a computer science degree (his second) at the University of Winnipeg. But that’s when Sarpino’s Pizza vacated some prime real estate directly across from the U of W.
The 23 year-old student wasted no time approaching building owner Hart Mallin about opening a taqueria in the space. Mallin couldn’t believe it either. And neither did the banks that Iyer approached, refusing to finance him and business partner and friend Samuel Engelking.
And it’s not suprising. The pair knew practically nothing about restaurants beyond the dozens of websites (largely food and hospitality) they’d developed while living in Toronto.
But it was from that background, and a hog-town tex-mex hangout called Burrito Boyz, that they’d become inspired and convinced that a taqueria would fly in Winnipeg. Their commitment and vision was their only asset.
It was enough to win the support (both moral and financial) of Iyer’s family back in India. Unbelievably, it also won Mallin who turned down a sound offer from a Pizza Pizza franchisee in favour of the boys.
That was May 2008. Casa Burrito opened that October and has since developed a small, but fiercely loyal clientele.
There’s about ten customers who come in here every day, says Iyer. And one or two from the neighbourhood eat lunch and dinner here daily.
When you taste these burritos, you’ll see why.
If a base of black bean rice, frijoles (beans), tomato, red and green pepper, red onion, tex-mex cheese and sour cream doesn’t already sound delicious, you also get to choose one of five burrito fillings.
By far my favourite is the Smoky Flank Steak. Generous cubes of beef melt in your mouth thanks to a 21 spice marinade with chili, cumin and chipotle in adobo to name a few.
A 15 spice Mexican Braised Chicken with caramelized onions is another fiesta of flavour, and I’m overjoyed to see Chorizo (traditionally a type of pork and wine sausage) with baked pinto beans as another option.
My only nitpick here is I’d like to see a more assertive Chorizo sausage used…something with a courser texture and some firey chili peppers in the mix.
All fillings are marinated for hours and cooked daily, and Iyer insists on using fresh, locally sourced ingredients where he can.
There are, of course, vegetarian options including a Spiced Soy (seasoned ground round baked with onions, crushed tomato and spice) and Bean and Cheese.
And what would it all be without salsa…great salsa including Chipotle, Spicy Green Chili, Mango or Mild Tomato.
Once all the fillings are in place, it’s off to the convection oven. It’s a seemingly small step and the couple of minutes you have to wait will seem interminable (especially after you’ve tasted these things). But it’s time well-spent. The baking not only warms the burrito through, it gives these little pockets a satisfying crunch and added textural level that plays against the gooey goodness inside.
The boys also serve up Tacos, Quesadillas, Nachos and a couple of uniquely Mexican themed salads, but I doubt you’ll ever get beyond the burritos.
The quintessential tex-mex chaser, Casa Burrito’s fridge is thoughtfully stocked with a handful of Jarritos, Mexico’s only official soda.
Iyer and Engelking are doing everything they can to ensure the restaurant’s success. They routinely work weekends, even operating a taco stand at downtown watering hole Whiskey Dix. It’s earned them some buzz (no pun intended) and much apprciated recognition, Iyer says, who’s gotten used to hearing Hey, you’re the burrito guy.
But the 18 hour days this new enterprise demands means Casa Burrito has literally become a home away from home for Winnipeg’s burrito boys.
Maybe that’s something Englelking anticipated. A graphic artist by trade, not only did he design the logo, menus, business cards and website, but also the interior. Here he’s opted for a soothing but joyful colour scheme with plenty of simple and gentle lines.
A small banquette offers seating for up to 8, and modern bar stools at a window counter provide an idyllic perch for panoramic views of Portage Avenue.
If I could tear my attention away from the food, I’d spend hours people watching or admiring the architecture of U of W’s iconic Wesley Hall.
Of course the burrito boys would be just as thrilled if I, and other patrons, took advantage of the restaurant’s delivery service, available until 3am (see…I wasn’t kidding about those 18 hour days). They’ve also just launched a catering service.
520 Portage Avenue