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The Tortilla Steps Up to the Plate, Filling the Hole Left by the Bagel

MILLBURN, N.J. — Surveying his colorful, recently opened restaurant, David Fishman points to the smoky, saucy and decidedly untough meat being devoured by a reporter. “That’s not your bubbe’s brisket,” he said, raising an eyebrow and smiling.

Indeed. While the word “brisket” conjures images of Passover Seders and home-cooked meals, Fishman’s version of the Jewish classic — served up with rice and beans and wrapped in a flour tortilla — is a specialty of his restaurant, Tinga Taqueria, and is about as far away from grandma’s suburban New Jersey house as, oh, say, Mexico.

But no matter. Today, thanks to our increasingly multicultural society, “Jewish entrepreneurs have gotten into the burrito business in a big way,” said Fishman’s mentor, Ken Sofer, owner of the Benny’s Burritos and Blockheads Burritos chains in Manhattan.

In case you haven’t noticed that soon-to-open taqueria in your neighborhood, burritos are big — as in business, not just portion size. Tortillas, the edible packaging that makes the hearty inside of a burrito possible, have grown in this country from a $300 million industry in 1990 to $5.2 billion in 2002. It’s the second most popular bread on the market, after white bread, according to the Tortilla Industry Association. Major fast-food chains are snapping up Cal-

ifornia-style taquerias; in 1998, McDonald’s took a minority stake in the Denver-based chain Chipotle Mexican Grill — and grabbed the rest in 2000 — and Wendy’s acquired Baja Fresh Mexican Grill in June 2002. In short, burritos have become about as popular — and American — as hamburgers, hot dogs and, well, bagels.

Remember the bagel boom? The roll with a hole hit the big time in the early 1990s, going national with next-big-thing chains such as Noah’s Bagels and Bruegger’s Bagels. Long a staple of the Jewish community — debates over which bagel shop is best are often livelier than those over Torah commentary — new bagel inventions (and, some say, abominations) by non-Jewish entrepreneurs, such as sun-dried tomato and chocolate chip flavors, practically rendered the Sunday brunch staple unrecognizable.

Just as bagels proliferated across the country, “Jews, too, spread across the country and were transformed,” said Mimi Sheraton, food critic and author of “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World” (Broadway Books, 2002). “They spread across the world and transformed. But they keep a certain inner core that still makes them Jewish — just like the bagel is still round with a hole in the center.”

Nonetheless, while the bagel has entered the pantheon of American food — along with formerly “ethnic” contenders such as pizza and croissant sandwiches — bagel chains never quite became the moneymakers they were expected to be. Back in the 1990s, “There were a lot of bagel chains opening,” said Bret Thorn, the associate food editor at Nation’s Restaurant News. “But Bruegger’s and Einstein’s have not taken off the way the burrito chains have.” From 2000 to 2001, Chipotle grew to 177 from 104 restaurants and Baja Fresh to 151 from 99.

By contrast, during that same time period, Bruegger’s shrank from 275 restaurants to 258 and Einstein’s was down one location to 370. When the Manhattan Bagel chain was saved from bankruptcy in 1999 by New World Coffee Inc., the restaurant started serving sandwiches on — you guessed it — tortillas. All signs are indicating that the bagel’s yeast has fallen. Might this indicate the dawn of the burrito era?

Irwin Steinberg, the Jewish, New York-born executive director of the Dallas-based Tortilla Industry Association, seems to think so. “The reason tortillas have surpassed bagels is that bagels are principally a breakfast food,” he said. “Tortillas can be used three meals a day. It’s a good piece of bread; easy to use, relatively inexpensive and good for you.”

In 1996, Cleveland resident Michael Greenberg opened Que Tal Fresh Mexican Grill in the formerly Jewish enclave of Coventry — at the former site of a bagel shop, no less. “People said, ‘Why don’t you open up a corned-beef sandwich shop, because you’re Jewish?’” Greenberg said. “That’s silly. We’re all moving a lot faster than that these days — everybody does anything. I never felt like I should stick to my roots when it came to concepting restaurants.”

Still, despite his success — Greenberg now has three Que Tal taquerias, as well as a full-service Mexican restaurant — he admits to some discomfort at co-opting a culture that is not his own. Greenberg said he learned some tricks of the trade from a traditional cook from Chihuahua. “At his house, I found a five-gallon bucket of lard,” he recalled. “I made a lot of changes that were unfamiliar to him.”

Such “changes” have been adopted by nearly all of the country’s “fresh Mex” restaurants. They include banning the use of lard and upping the usage of “healthy” or natural ingredients such as tofu, cheeses and homemade guacamole.

Pointing to the furor in the Jewish community caused by goyish inventions like blueberry bagels, Fishman said, “The Mexicans must feel the same — we take their traditional food and do this to it.” After all, sour cream is not found atop a traditional burrito.

Ellen and Miguel Libfeld, founders of Wrapole kosher tortillas — who live in Boca Raton, Fla., with their poodle, Bagels — took the idea even further. In addition to providing common flavored tortillas such as spinach and whole wheat, Wrapole offers a selection of Jewish-type flavors such as rye and zatar, as well as the bizarrely named “challah aloha,” an egg-and-pineapple-flavored tortilla.

“I would not be surprised to see lox and cream cheese inside a burrito,” Sheraton said. “The merchandizing ingenuity of the American people is staggering. The idea is to ride a trend, to make newer and newer things.”

With that never-ending quest in mind, in 2002 Alan Miguel Kaplan opened Salon Mexico in New York City — an upscale restaurant that combines Mexican cuisine with hints of Japanese, French and Jewish flavors. Kaplan is the proud originator of what may be the world’s most expensive burrito; at $45, his Burrito Elegante is stuffed with luxe fillings such as filet mignon strips and black truffles.

Though it may seem shocking to some, “It’s really, in a way, the story of American food,” said Sheraton. “People always say, when are we finally going to have American cuisine? I say, never! It’s always evolving, new, different. That’s what makes it interesting. It’s not without its problems, but variety certainly has been our strength overall.”

As for the proliferation of Jewish-owned burrito joints, Sofer draws some unique comparisons. “This kind of happened in the [19]70s, when all of a sudden bluegrass music was all over the place, and somebody figured out that all the people playing the fiddle and the banjo were Jews,” he said. “A similar thing happened with burritos. Here’s this good, healthy food. But to work in New York, it had to be specifically geared toward a New York palate. Well, who’s gonna know New York palates better than Jews?”

When Sofer, along with his partners, opened his first Benny’s Burritos in Greenwich Village in 1988, “people didn’t know what a burrito was,” he said.

And yet, Sofer — like all the restaurateurs interviewed — makes no claim on delivering an “authentic” Mexican experience. “The idea was to use fresh, wholesome ingredients that our mother would be happy to put on the table for us,” he said. “That was the idea of Benny’s. My partner’s father’s name was Benny. That resonated with us. We’re not Mexicans, we’re Jewish guys.”

It works the other way around, as well. Helmer Toro, the Puerto Rican-born owner of H & H Bagels — now world-famous, thanks, in part, to a recurring guest spot on “Seinfeld” — opened up his bagel shop with his brother-in-law in 1972. Since then he has seen the bagel business grow more diverse, he said. “It’s a Jewish food, but people have really gotten accustomed to it,” he said. “It’s like Chinese food. I’m not Chinese, but I eat Chinese food, and I like it.”

“The burrito is no longer a Mexican thing,” Fishman said. “It’s clearly been Americanized.”

And the buzz shows no sign of abating. Said Thorn: “Why eat a jalapeno bagel when you can have a burrito?”

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