The day I moved to New Orleans, a local took me to Juan's Flying Burrito, where I ordered a Veggie Punk. (This burrito may well have been assembled by a veggie punk -- such is the peculiarity of Juan's.) At the time it seemed perverse to be eating something bigger than my forearm while the temperature outside inched into the triple digits; then again, I didn't realize then that the neighborhood's other popular options included foot-long po-boys and all-you-can-eat catfish. Add to that the perplexity that my inaugural meal consisted of pinto beans and Metallica rather than the red beans and Kermit Ruffins I had envisioned. I've since come to terms with many things about eating in New Orleans: Juan's is one of them.
There's something mystifying about Juan's ability to draw the affections of diners across every spectrum. While we don't have many monster burrito purveyors to choose from, exclusivity doesn't guarantee a loyal following. Men with cufflinks tolerate tympanum-cleaving music of varieties they won't let their own kids play in the house. Take-out orders can be disastrous, and while the food is good, it doesn't always surpass things you've rolled into tortillas yourself after a night on the town. Like at the nearby "big" Rue de la Course, the service is wounding at times -- not rude but offhandedly dismissive; employees at both places appear to enlist in a lifestyle as well as a job, and customers of all kinds respond well to this level of devotion. Thanks to this staff, if dinner at Juan's isn't always an event it's always eventful, and so I found myself rooting for Juan's second location when it opened recently in Mid-City.
Burritos at the new restaurant, shaped more like hulking fists than forearms, are the same beasts; they make men feel like men while their ladies save half for tomorrow's lunch. Perhaps in deference to nostalgia, the Veggie Punk is still my favorite; made with cumin-seasoned pinto beans, roasted potatoes and pickled jalapenos, it's like a breakfast burrito without the eggs. Western burritos are filled with meat and fajita-style vegetables (no beans or rice), and you can "super" any burrito to add guacamole and sour cream. Try the Jamaican jerk chicken burrito with black beans if you like cinnamon and thyme, but don't expect it to be spicy. The all-vegetable Super Green contradicts almost everything a burrito stands for; the rich dignity of avocado and caramelized onions, however, ties it together, and even this one is best followed by a nap.
No, Juan's is not Mexican. It's derivative of Mexico -- there are thin, salty corn chips, housemade tomatillo and tomato-based hot sauces, and throat-scratching margaritas -- but it wouldn't blend easily into Austin's Tex-Mex scene or the assembly of taquerias in San Francisco's Mission District. Advertisements in this publication bill Juan's as a "Creole-Mex Taqueria"; as in many cases, "Creole" here refers simply to a style of cooking that the people of New Orleans embrace.
The unique Juanian angle on tortilla-swathed foods is consistent, except maybe for the Juaha Roll. This cold roll-up of mayonnaise-based chicken salad, cream cheese and Monterey Jack cheese sprinkled with Parmesan cheese is disconcerting in its cheesiness and better left in the 1990s with the wrap craze. There's something similarly off-base with cooking romaine lettuce into a shrimp quesadilla, and with a taco whose shredded pork smacks of soy sauce.
Most of Juan's food is riddled with raw garlic and onions, as in the smooth, lime-touched guacamole. The chewable house salsa La Fonda made with cilantro, red onion and garlic might be the single-best salsa in the city providing you take your heartburn medication; ground beef tacos made with this salsa and grilled corn tortillas are second in quality to burritos in the big-ticket category, which still means that you'll spend less than $7.
Chocolate has a way of muscling through the aftermath of raw onions and garlic, which may be why it's the favored ingredient in Juan's housemade desserts. Try dark, white chocolate chunk brownies that are as moist as a box cake, or a slice of chocolate-iced chocolate layer cake that's as heavy as most brownies.
Given the brand-new building, the unscuffed wooden furniture, the shiny kitchen appliances and the new Mid-City clientele, it's remarkable that majority partners Warren Chapoton and Travis Palermo were able to transport so much of the original Juan's personality to Carrollton Avenue. The food and the red plastic drink-cup lamps help, but attitude is key. I made a game of trying to solicit eye contact from any employee during all my visits. It did happen once, but I attribute the success in part to my companion's vintage Guayabera shirt. On another afternoon Johnny Cash played from the kitchen stereo until the shift change when, mid-"Ring of Fire," all heavy metal hell erupted. At night the ambience arises from lights that are all but turned off and from employees on smoke breaks behind the wrap-around bar.
With the luxury of retrospect, I can say that my first meal at Juan's was just like my every meal at Juan's: perplexing but totally appropriate.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The building may be new, the wooden furniture unscuffed, but the JUAN'S FLYING BURRITO Mid-City location has brought over some of the same funk from Magazine Street.