When you earn a living talking about sketchy, bottom-shelf frozen burritos on the internet, you come to realize a few unique truths that make discussing this segment of the food industry different than any other.
I started to identify a few of these issues waaaaaaay back in 2011, the first time I made an effort to catalog the high and low points of discount microwave burrito eating. At that time, Tina’s “Red Hot” beef burritos were the gold standard of late-night alcohol-absorbing emergency eating; they were ridiculously cheap, costing as little as 33 cents a piece if you timed your shopping right, easy to prepare, and contained that sort of indiscriminate burrito goo that is 100% satisfying, if 90% unidentifiable.
In that testing of more than a dozen frozen burritos of varying quality, I learned something important: When what you crave is a spicy frozen burrito, what you’re not necessarily after is the experience of eating a burrito from a quality Mexican restaurant at home. The burritos that tried the hardest to use organic, identifiable ingredients typically scored the lowest in our testing. The more clearly you could see individual grains of rice, whole beans, or (God forbid) vegetables (I’m looking at you, Red’s), the less satisfying the burrito ultimately was.
Frozen burritos needs to accomplish something else. In this day and age, we almost all want to be eating food we can recognize, made with quality ingredients. But frozen burritos need to somehow have a certain amount of mystery, need to be filled with multiple textures and flavors, but also need to scratch that nostalgic burrito-microwaving itch in the way that only a vaguely spicy mash of refried beans and textured vegetable protein can.
Until recently, frozen burritos have fallen into one of two camps. They’re either complete garbage food, suitable only for the very drunk or the very recently drunk, with tortillas that get dried out and crackly on the ends before exploding a boiling hot paste of who-knows-what onto your lap, or they’re trying too hard to emulate real food. I tend to stick to the former; at least I know what I’m getting, without tripping into the uncanny valley of whatever the latest Non-GMO Organic Black Bean with Quinoa and Artisanal Goat Cheese monstrosity is being peddled out of the section of the supermarket that smells like patchouli and which nobody shops in.
Finally, companies like the Green Chile Food Company (and small-batch burrito producer Johnny Ringo’s in Las Vegas) are forcing us to reevaluate what a frozen burrito can be. The Green Chile Food Company has managed to design a line of frozen burritos that finally manages to be all things to all people. Made with high-quality, flavorful, inventive ingredients that speak to the corporate chef’s background in Mexican flavors, these burritos also don’t try too hard to be show-offy with their composition; you still get the satisfying, stuffed ooze of a freezer burrito, but with tortillas that cook absolutely flawlessly (more on this later) and a depth of flavor that you simply don’t often find in the frozen appetizer section.
We tried one, and liked it so much, that we almost immediately got our hands on every other flavor we could find. Here are the tasting notes for each of the eight varieties of the Green Chile Food Company’s frozen burritos, presented in order from the ones we liked the least, to the ones we liked the most:
Chicken Fajita with Cheddar Cheese Burrito: Translating what’s awesome about fajitas into frozen burrito form almost never works out the way you want it to, and this burrito doesn’t prove much of an exception to the rule. We did like the veritable ribbon of melty Monterey Jack cheese throughout, and the burrito got big hits of flavor from the grassy poblano, that was incorporated randomly throughout. The chunks of chicken were a little rubbery, and didn’t offer much beyond a difference in texture.
Right off the bat, though, we need to talk about what these guys are doing with their tortillas. These burritos can be cooked either frozen, straight from the freezer, either in a microwave or conventional oven, or from a thawed state, which require a little less time at 350 degrees. The instructions also dictate that you leave the burrito in its paper wrapper (yes, even in the oven) which may sound like a great way to burn your entire house down but is actually the SECRET TO GREEN CHILE’S TORTILLA WIZARDRY.
Cooked in the oven in their wrappers, here’s what happens: The flour tortillas get ever so slightly crisp on the very outside, while their double layer remains super soft, pillowy, and moist. Unlike inferior burritos, which tend to split open lasciviously in the microwave, these tortillas stay pliable, fluffy and intact; in fact, in our testing, only one variety of burrito (the otherwise awesome “Shredded Steak” version) had any leakage whatsoever. I can’t overstate what a watershed moment this is in frozen burrito manufacturing, and we were consistently impressed with this element of every burrito we tried.
Bean and Cheddar Burrito: Who cares about a vegetarian burrito? Still nobody. We have to give this flavor points for textural contrast, however; the Bean and Cheddar burrito uses both whole black means and a pinto bean mash for a base. We liked the bursty bits of corn and chunks of red bell pepper, but didn’t find the cheddar cheese added much to the equation.
Egg, Sausage, and Cheddar Cheese Burrito: You’re either a breakfast burrito guy, or you’re not. I’m not. Look, they’re fine, but scrambled eggs and little sausage nuggets are never going to fill the space in my heart currently reserved for pork carnitas, refried beans, and acres of spicy nacho cheese. Frozen breakfast burritos are usually the worst, with a slurry of grey mush that tastes the way the inside of a McDonald’s smells. The Green Chile Food Company, however, uses big curds of real scrambled egg, a mash of hash browns to add body and heft, and diced green chile for big punches of flavor. Even better, they wash the whole situation with a hot river of molten cheddar cheese that blesses everything it touches, which may be enough to make you forget that you’re eating a breakfast burrito.
We liked the first three burritos, but we weren’t head-over-heels, call your mom and announce your engagement IN LOVE with them. This, though, is where the tide started to turn.
Beef and Potato Burrito: This was the burrito that let us know we were dealing with a new major player in the frozen burrito game. Against expectations, the potatoes in this burrito weren’t in big, mouth-destroyingly hot chunks, but shredded throughout, with big pockets of loose ground beef, and tons of flavor and spice from the ample green chiles.
Pork Carnitas with Monterey Jack Cheese Burrito: The mildest of any of the burritos we tasted, the decreased spice level lets you taste more of the shredded pork and black beans within. The pork has layers of chile flavor, and overall is perfectly balanced in terms of both texture and flavor.
Chipotle Chicken with Monterey Jack Cheese Burrito: Featuring tons of real chipotle flavor, and not just a chemical soup of capsaicin, this is one spicy chicken burrito. The chicken is more of a mince, and we couldn’t identify any of the cherry tomato salsa touted on the package, but the smooth blend of ingredients combined with the creamy river of melted Monterey Jack cheese set all of my senses on fire.
Beef and Bean with Green Chile and Cheddar Cheese Burrito: Promising the highest heat levels of any of the burritos we tried, this varietal must be the Green Chile Food Company’s clap back at the legendary Tina’s “Red Hot Beef” burrito. And believe me, it delivers on the full potential of that product. Unlike the mash of whatever being used in inferior burritos, the “Beef and Bean” burrito from the Green Chile Food Company uses (wait for it) actual ground beef and actual whole pinto beans, bound together by miles and miles of cheddar cheese that lends tons of satisfying ooze and melt. One of our tasters described the inside as “spicy liquified cheeseburger,” which you have to know her to understand was meant as nothing but the highest praise.
Shredded Steak with Monterey Jack Cheese Burrito: I’m going to come right out and say it: This may taste more like actual Mexican food than any frozen burrito I’ve ever tasted. Though it reads lower on the “spiciness” scale, I could have sworn that this one was spicier than the last, thanks to heaping helping of poblano and jalapeño peppers. But the real star here is the tender pockets of shredded steak, which stay impossibly moist and pick up tons of flavor from the laundry list of identifiable spices (cumin! lime juice! rosemary!?!) on the ingredient panel. This was our favorite of the eight burritos we tasted, by a close margin.
Overall, we were very, very happy with almost every single one of the frozen burritos offered by the Green Chile Food Company. Their chefs seem to understand the delicate balance between “real food” and “satisfying trash” that must be struck to satisfy a frozen burrito lover, while elevating certain elements (particularly the tortillas) to heights previously unheard of in this segment of the market. Every single variety delivered a wholly unique flavor experience that we can’t wait to try again. Bravo, Green Chile Food Company.