Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Un burrito muy grande

Inside the Tribune Tower, an old journalistic maxim on the wall reads, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

In the front window of La Bamba, a Mexican fast-food restaurant on Halsted St. at Wrightwood Ave., a neon sign says, “BURRITOS AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD.”

I thought I’d check it out.

“¡Hola, amigo! ¿Cómo estás?” says Francisco, a short, thin man wearing a “La Bamba” baseball cap, as I approach the counter.

“Yo no hablo español,” I reply slowly. “Yo hablo francés y inglés.” (“I don’t speak Spanish. I speak French and English.”)

With that established— and after an another attempt by Francisco and his co-worker behind the counter, Juan, to get me to speak more Spanish— I soon come to the point.

“The sign outside says, ‘Burritos as big as your head.’ I want to try one.”

“What kind you want?” asks Francisco. He goes through the list of meats they offer, stopping at chicken. “The chicken is very good,” he encourages me.

“You sold me.”

La Bamba, 2557 N. Halsted St. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

He hands me a Styrofoam cup to fill with water from a nearby dispenser. I do so and take a seat at one of the Formica-topped tables with wooden benches.

I’ve barely been seated a couple of minutes, or so it seems, when Juan walks over with my plate.

“Holy cow!” I exclaim. “Woooooah.”

There, on a piece of wax paper, next to two little plastic cups of salsa, lies a behemoth of a burrito. A pale-grayish/cream-colored tortilla with brown spots has been wrapped around a filling that’s probably three inches in diameter.

As for the length of the burrito… Lacking a ruler, I use my hands to measure the width of my head. Then I compare that to the burrito.

It’s at least a good inch longer than my head is wide.

I can’t believe it.

I start to cut into the thing towards one end. It feels like I’m a doctor struggling to make an incision.

Then I cut lengthwise down the middle, since it would be practically impossible to eat the whole width of the slice at once.

I take a taste.


Tasty. Rich.

There are beans, chicken, tomato, onion, and lettuce. There’s cheese in there somewhere, too, though I can’t taste it yet.

“Everything is prepared in the day,” explains Francisco, who wears something of a bashful smile and speaks good, though halting, English. “Everything is fresh.”

He shows me a package of extra-large, flat, corn tortillas that the restaurant (part of a chain) has used to encase its, errr, flagship product ever since opening 18 years ago.

“Hello,” says a woman who’s just walked in, as I return to try to make more progress against my formidable opponent.

“¡Hola, señorita!” replies Francisco. “How are you?”

“Fine,” she says.

“How can I help you, señorita?”

She orders a beef taco and then takes the table right behind mine.

I turn around. “Had you ever been to this restaurant before?” I ask.

“Yeah, a couple times,” she responds, smiling.

“Have you ever had their burrito?”


“It really is as big as your head,” I assure her.

As I continue eating, the hot salsa I’ve been adding gets to be too much. To counteract the spice, I order a horchata, a sweet rice drink (or so I’ve been told in the past).

“Small, medium, or large?” asks Francisco.

“Small,” I say.

The cup is ten inches tall.

I begin to drink the milky, brownish-white liquid. Delicious! It tastes like liquid rice pudding with cinnamon.

I’ve gotten through about half of the burrito when I ask Francisco to wrap up the rest for me.

The contender. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

“How many people who order a Super Burrito actually finish it?” I ask him. (Super Burrito simply refers to the largest size, the one I’ve ordered; there are also small and medium varieties.)

He thinks for a moment.

“This one guy, he come in every Sunday,” he says. “He order three Super Burritos.”


“He’s big guy,” he adds, gesturing to the side with his hands.

Three Super Burritos in one sitting— now there is someone I should profile.

After saying good-bye to Francisco and Juan, I walk out of the restaurant with tomorrow’s lunch in hand.

As for fact-checking La Bamba’s advertising slogan… the information’s solid.

I checked it out.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Paulina is Next. Bead Store on the Left at Paulina.

Looking for beads?

What kind? Semi-precious, glass, or maybe ceramic? They’ve got those. Rare, African beads? They’ve got them, too. How about a light-green, jellybean-shaped Chrysoprase, or a multi-colored millifiori? Yup.

While you’re at it, do you need accessories or tools? Or would you perhaps rather just buy a pre-made piece of jewelry? They can help with all that.

“I would really consider a million,” estimated Ana Pizzaro of the number of beads they have on hand.

A panoply of colors fills Carvan Beads, in West Lakeview. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The “they” is Caravan Beads, an independent shop in West Lakeview that specializes in retail sale of beads. In 1994, Charlene and Daniel Steele opened the store on Lincoln Ave. just south of Roscoe St. In 1999, when their success outgrew their store, they moved across the street, to their current location. Doing so gave them three times the retail space, as well as private classrooms, where they can help customers who want to assemble their own jewelry.

This afternoon, just after 4 o’clock, Pizzaro and Alex Agudo tended the color-laden store, with necklaces hanging down from bars over long display tables, and walls stocked with tools. Scattered among the wares were instruction sheets for making bracelets with certain kinds of patterns, as well as bead-related magazines and books. Light, instrumental pop music played from speakers.

The store had only a couple of customers, both of whom were browsing. “Our main times are in the mornings. From 11 is normally our rush,” explained Agudo. “As soon as we open, there’s people. And then it dies down from 1 to about 4.” More people, he added, will come in after work.

By Agudo’s estimate, weekdays see an average of 50 customers. On weekends, however, “It’s very chaotic”— especially on Sundays. “Due to our free classes, sometimes we can have up to 100 people,” he said.

The Paulina station on the Brown Line will reopen tomorrow after a year-long closure for renovation. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

But Agudo and Pizzaro are looking forward to tomorrow— and beyond— when they hope business will pick up from what it’s been. That’s because the nearby el station, the Paulina stop on the Brown Line, will reopen tomorrow at 4 a.m. after a yearlong renovation. (This reporter thought of checking out the opening but dismissed the idea in favor of sleep.)

Although the CTA put up ads for local business affected by the station’s closure, Agudo still thinks that having to walk from an adjacent station has inconvenienced customers who come from outside the neighborhood.

“I think it would have been more convenient if the Paulina station would have been open,” he said. He added that the shop attracts customers from out of town, too. “They’re in town for a couple of days. It was easier for them to just do that— to get off there and come across the street.”

To mark the reopening, the store is advertising a 10 percent discount on merchandise during the month of April to customers who show a CTA card. “The train really does dominate a lot in this area,” noted Agudo. “We hope that the fluidity can come even higher with the train opening.”

As customer traffic picked up this afternoon, Allison Weignad came in to look around. A nearby resident, she stops into the store every couple of months to buy beads.

“I just started, when I was bored in the winter, just like making necklaces and stuff,” she said. She had never worked with beads before coming in, but the staff showed her what to buy to make necklaces and earrings.

A display table in Caravan Beads. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

She said she hasn’t yet taken any of the store’s classes, but that she just received a schedule and wants to pursue one at some point.

On Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8, Caravan Beads closes for what it calls “bead therapy,” a time for customers to get free, one-on-one assistance with their bead-making projects. The session also doubles as an opportunity for attendees to socialize.

If Weignad decides to check out the gathering next week, with the newly-opened entrances to the Paulina station funneling people back into the neighborhood, she may have a chance to meet even more fellow bead makers than before.

Not a bad perk of springtime in Chicago.