CHOICE OF TOPPINGS: At Blue Coast.
When you get right down to it, good ol’ American food is — like most good ol’ Americans — pretty much straightforward, with nothing to hide. The menu at your average greasy spoon is a testament to that ideal. Note the humble chilidog: gooey perfection, with all the ingredients spread out before you on a bun. The cheeseburger: a masterpiece in the round, open from all sides, with a flip top to boot. The french fry: nothing to see here, pal — just sliced up ’taters, deep-fried.
By contrast, Mexican food — like many of those countries down there on the other side of Texas — is inherently mysterious. Witness the enchilada: secretive, tightly wrapped, smothered in cheese. The taco: folded, concealing its wonders like an illicit love letter. The tamale: its spicy goodness hidden inside both a wrapper and a halo of cornmeal.
Then, of course, there is the most mysterious of foods: the burrito.
Really now: Until you bite into it, do you know what secrets your average burrito holds? You can’t very well unwrap it, because you end up with a soggy tortilla and a mound of prop goop from “The Exorcist.” So, in the end, eating a burrito is all about trust. You have to simply put your faith in the Lord (and the minimum wage refried bean-slinger in another room) and dig in.
As paranoid as we are about what we’re eating, we still can’t help but adore the burrito. So streamlined, so compact, so tasty. Can God make a burrito so big He can’t finish it in one screening of “Kung Fu Theater?” Let the philosophers argue that one out, my friend.
Given all that, you can understand how excited we were when, on our latest foray to the East McCain Wal-Mart Supercenter in North Little Rock, we saw the signs going up across the street for Blue Coast Burrito. Part of a mini-chain with a sister outpost in Memphis, and owned by Ryan Hamra (good franchising could be genetic; his father was Gerry Hamra of local Wendy’s fame) Blue Coast is sort of gaudy temple to the burrito — one that takes the mystery out of this most mysterious of foods by assembling it right before your sneeze-guard-protected eyes.
Even better, it turns out to be a lot better than we expected. Though we were disappointed some months back with the similarly menu’ed Moe’s, Blue Coast gets it right with fresh ingredients, several new twists on fast-food Tex-Mex, some genuinely tasty grub, and a Baja surf-themed decor (which, thankfully, doesn’t include any creepy paintings of dead musicians, as we found at Moe’s on our last visit). While its rival could just as well be pushing barbecue or hotdogs, Blue Coast has the atmosphere of moving Lower California surfside Mex.
Elbowing our way through the crowd on a recent weekday lunch hour, it took awhile to scan the long list of burritos, tacos, salads and sides. Finally, one of my companions and I settled on the regular chicken burrito ($5.25) on a flour tortilla (as with many things that go into your dish, you get a choice on tortillas: flour, wheat, spinach, or chipotle), and then had them stuff it with the works: black beans, cheese, pico de gallo, lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro onions, sour cream, black olives, green onion, and cucumbers.
Our other friend, meanwhile, tried the taco salad with chicken and the chipotle honey mustard ($6 for chicken, $6.25 for steak). For the table, we rather reluctantly ordered a basket of what we had been told was the house specialty: fish tacos ($5.75 for three).
The funny thing was, while the burritos and salad were fine (the taco salad is served on chips rather than one of those deep-dish tostado creations, and guacamole is an extra 65 cents but worth it) — meaty, full of good stuff, with everyone at the table commenting on the size and freshness, the real star of the meal was the one we had hem-hawed the most over.
The fish tacos were absolutely great — even with our noon-grumbles sated with our main entrees — crispy little nuggets of whitefish on a soft flour tortilla, covered with cilantro, onion, roasted tomato salsa and a fine, tartar-flavored white sauce, all topped with lime. They sounded a bit funky on paper, but they really hit the spot, and will be at the top of our list on our next visit.
So what have we learned? Fish is your friend. Mexican food doesn’t have to be Tijuana-scary. And, first and foremost (in the words of the immortal Sam Spade) solving mysteries may be fun, but be a pal and warn your spouse about the two-pound burrito you had for lunch before you head off to bed. Her nose will thank you.
Blue Coast Burrito
4613 E. McCain Blvd.
North Little Rock
menu at www.bluecoastburrito.com
Though the fish tacos turned out to be the star of our meal, the best supporting actor had to be Blue Coast’s Baja Fruit Tea. Not really tasting like a tea at all — something more like a mango/pineapple/grapefruit punch — it was tasty enough to warrant several returns to the drink bar during our meal, and especially cooling on a recent 95-degree day.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Inexpensive. Credit cards accepted. Beer available.