I was invited to spend a bit of time in the kitchen with Steve Gill, founder of Quesada Burritos & Tacos. I’ll admit that I had to look the restaurant chain up… I had never been to them before, nor had I really noticed them much. I remember driving past the one location on 8th Street at 5th Ave SW, and I recently noticed they opened a new location in the plus 15 at 5th Avenue Place, but otherwise I knew nothing about the restaurant chain.
It turns out, Quesada is a Canadian chain, which I think is refreshing in and of itself. Steve spawned the idea for a burrito restaurant when he lived in Denver – the home of 667 Mexican restaurants! I can understand why he fell in love with the burrito – I mean, who doesn’t love Mexican!? Quesada will be 13 years old in May 2017, and they are opening more restaurants in Calgary and area soon. The first location opened in Airdrie in 2013 and they’ve been expanding across the region since then.
Quesada is always working on new ideas for the menu, and Steve introduced me to a number of items currently being developed for the summer and fall. I learned plenty of new things about Mexican spices and flavours, and came home inspired to try more Latin recipes.
We first mixed up a batch of Aguas Frescas – Spanish for ‘cool water’. Typically made of fresh fruits, cereals, flowers or seeds blended with sugar and water, this is a very refreshing summer drink that is easy to make with a high powered blender. Last year’s flavours at the restaurant were mint lime and strawberry cucumber, with the mint lime being the most popular. This year Steve will be adding a pineapple ginger aguas frescas to the menu. The challenge with using fresh fruit for something like this is that the taste will vary with every piece of fruit, depending on how sweet it is naturally. Mother nature doesn’t put the same amount of sugar in each piece of fruit, so this drink is never going to be as consistent as pop from a can. But, light and crisp, the drink was a nice change from sweet, highly processed juice from a bottle. I can see how aguas frescas is popular in hot countries.
Inspired by cochinita pibil – a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus juice, seasoned with annatto seed and roasted in banana leaf – Steve is developing a slow-roasted chicken with the same flavours (and, I suppose it’s easier for us non-Latin speaking folk to say ‘pollo pibil’ rather than ‘cochinita pibil’ anyways, LOL!). Obviously, there’s no fire pit in the restaurant to roast the chicken in, so it won’t have all the traditional taste of open flame, but it will still be tasty! I got to try the seasoned chicken in a taco made for me by Steve himself, and it definitely has a unique flavour, with the orange, lime, vinegar, achiote paste (made up of annatto seeds, oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, pepper, allspice, garlic and salt) and garlic.
It was at this point that Steve pointed out they make all their sauces and marinades, salsas and guacamole in house. There were four huge tubs filled with dried peppers on the shelf – ancho, pasilla, del arbol, and morrita peppers are all used in the recipes at Quesada. For a ‘fast food’ chain I was impressed that so many of the ingredients are fresh, prepped in house, and made in house.
Lastly, we roasted some corn on the grill, stuck it on a stick and smothered it in goodness. Inspired by street food, this corn was tasty! Chipotle mayo, a sour cream sauce with lime and cilantro, cheese, and a sprinkling of more chipotle chilli powder made the corn something special. I’m typically not a corn-on-the-cob kind of gal because I can’t stand the feeling of stuff stuck in my teeth, but the flavours in this corn made it worth the risk 🙂
This visit with Steve inspired me to check out their regular menu for lunch, since the new location is just across the street from my office. I ordered the regular Ancho Pork burrito for $6.99, at approximately 550 calories – not bad for a fast food lunch filled with fibre and veggies. I loaded my whole wheat burrito up with black beans, brown rice, pinto beans, ancho pork, guacamole (an extra 75 cents), medium salsa (the green stuff), tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, pickled onions, cilantro and I think I chose a chipotle mayo (can’t remember exactly). I think 3 people worked my burrito across the line and 1 other rang me up, ensuring quick service during the rush hour lunch. They toast the outside of the burrito and wrap it up tight so it doesn’t make a mess when you bite into it. It was about 8 minutes by the time I got back to my cubicle to eat the thing, but it didn’t get soggy and it was still warm inside, which was nice. I got the Ancho Pork because Steve said it has the most flavour, even though he said the spicy chicken is the most popular. The ancho pepper definitely has a unique flavour – something I can’t really explain, but it was spicy and had a smoky flavour that made my nose run a bit but didn’t make my eyes water – the perfect level of heat. I think most of us are used to jalapeño peppers, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and maybe habanero peppers, but these ancho peppers are something different. I would recommend trying the Ancho Pork burrito, and of course you can construct it to your liking. For the price, I was full and happy with a mouth full of new flavours. Check out a Quesada Burritos and Tacos near you!
Note: Although my first visit to Quesada was as a guest of Steve, all thoughts are my own in this review.