Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fresh Mex Sweet Pork Burritos

The Preface
Several years ago a new craze hit Utah. It started in St. George with a restaurant called Cafe Rio that served Mexican food made with fresh ingredients that wasn't very spicy and wasn't very greasy. Especially popular were their Sweet Pork Burritos and Sweet Pork Salad. They soon expanded and opened new restaurants and along with that came competition. New companies wanted to join in on this new style of Mexican food, dubbed "Fresh Mex", and soon new franchises started popping up all over Utah. Today, there are four Fresh Mex establishments within one mile of our house. Three of these offer Sweet Pork Burritos (Rubio's being the only one that doesn't), making it imperative to find out: 


(from left to right) Bajio, Costa Vida, Cafe Rio
The Competitors

The Participants

The Methodology
We got one burrito from each restaurant, each with sweet rice and black beans (at Bajio you can choose between Sweet or Mexican rice and between Black, Pinto or Refried beans. The other two only allow you to choose which beans you want, Black or Pinto). We cut each burrito into three pieces and ate them one at a time. As we ate, we discussed and graded each on its pork, tortilla, toppings/sauce, and overall. 

The Results
Cafe Rio - Pork: 7.76; Tortilla: 7.33; Toppings/Sauce: 5.33; Overall: 7.33; Cost: $6.95 + $.95 for smothered (they call it "enchilada style").

As mentioned, it's Cafe Rio's sweet pork that made them famous. It was quite tasty, and very sweet, but one thing that we noticed is that it tastes more like "sweet" than it does "pork". The sweetness just overwhelmed any actual pork taste. Kris said he could even specifically taste the coke that they marinate the pork in. 

This was everyone's favorite tortilla. The sauce was quite overwhelming and detracted from the rest of the burrito, but it did help to mellow out the sweetness of the pork, which was good. The lettuce seemed a bit dry, and the pico didn't add any flavor at all. The beans were also dry and tasted very "beany", like they hadn't been cooked enough, or something. But overall, this was a good burrito. 

Bajio - Pork: 4.33; Tortilla: 5; Toppings/Sauce: 6; Overall: 5.67; Cost: $6.50 

Bajio's burrito comes with a sad story. They used to be great, even being voted "Best Mexican Restaurant in Utah Valley" in 2009. They had the biggest variety of dishes, the best ingredients, and a deep fryer that made the tastiest Chimichangas you've ever had. In late 2009, however, the owners were bought out, and everything went downhill. They jacked up their prices, dropped several of their dishes, went skimpy on the ingredients and took away their loyalty card. This taste test just helped accentuate their fall even further.

The pork seemed ok.... if you actually got any. There was almost no pork in the burrito at all, making it difficult to even grade it. Instead of pork, they packed it full of rice and beans, which were actually very, very good. In fact, their rice and beans were the best out of the three, but we ordered a Sweet PORK Burrito, and don't feel we actually got that. 

The tortilla was good, though a tad chewy. This may have been because it was the first burrito we ordered, and therefore had time to absorb the sauce that was added. Speaking of the sauce, it was good, but perhaps a bit too much, as its flavor overpowered some of the others. They have really great sour cream, but no lettuce and the pico was just so-so (but better than Cafe Rio's). One positive is that this was basically smothered with the extra sauce and cheese, but they didn't charge extra for it! So this ended up being the cheapest of the three. They could probably afford this as they didn't include much meat, and they normally also offer rice and beans on the side and charge extra for that (but most people don't know that you don't have to get the rice and beans and it makes it cheaper). 

In the end, the lack of pork doomed the burrito, because despite having great beans and rice and pretty good toppings, we just couldn't give it a very good overall score.

Costa Vida - Pork: 8; Tortilla: 5; Toppings/Sauce:8.33; Overall: 7; Cost: $6.79 + $.99 for smothered.

The Costa Vida burrito was very, very good. It had a lot of pork, which was very sweet and very juicy, and unlike the Cafe Rio, still maintained a nice pork flavor to it. It had the best overall pork score, with Jen even giving it a 9.

The tortilla was a bit too thick and a bit chewy. Also, the rice was not good. The kernels were very big, and not tasty. 

What sets Costa Vida apart, though, is how well they do the smothered style. Unlike both Bajio and Cafe Rio, their sauce didn't have an overwhelming flavor, but just made the burrito better. It also had the most, and tastiest cheese of the three. After adding the sauce and cheese, they send it through a little conveyor belt heater thingy to melt the cheese. This also seemed to help the sauce (which was very runny at first) to thicken up a bit, ensuring that it wasn't too watery. The pico was also very good and tasted very fresh and it didn't get lost in the rest of the flavors, but enhanced them instead. 

So, the winner is:

It was a close race, but with the best tortilla and good pork, Cafe Rio just edges out Costa Vida. In fact, if Costa had better rice they could have taken it, as the average overall scores were only a third of a point apart. 

With only 12 cents separating the cost of the Costa Vida and the Cafe Rio, one deciding factor may be crowds. The Cafe Rio in Provo is near BYU campus is almost always packed and it can take quite a while to get through a line and get your food. It's also noisy and hard to find a seat in the restaurant, and can be annoying when you look around and realize 90% of the people in there are kids on dates. If you really want their food I recommend ordering online ahead of time and then just going in to pick it up (you can do the same at Costa Vida, but their lines aren't normally as bad and it's usually not as big a deal). 

Regardless of where you go, you'll leave happy. Despite knowing what we now know, I think Jen and I will keep doing what we've been doing for years: When we want a burrito, we'll go to Costa Vida. When we want a salad, we'll go to Cafe Rio, and when we want a Chimichanga or Mexican Pizza, we'll go to Bajio (nobody else has a deep fryer, giving them a unique advantage and different menu options that the other two joints can't match).