218 E. Appleway, Coeur d'Alene
After extensive and truly difficult research, self-styled "burrito expert" Cameron Coates has ultimately come to the conclusion that San Diego style burritos are the best burritos in the entire nation. In a 2007 Interview with the San Diego Tribute, Coates was asked, "What defines the San Diego burrito?" His reply was somewhat vague but basically understandable:
I have no idea. I can't figure it out. I think it's that they keep it really simple. They use two or three ingredients and really fresh tortillas -- grilled tortillas, not steamed. But why only here and not in L.A.? In San Francisco and a lot of other towns, they put beans and rice and everything in a burrito and it becomes a mess. It's the restraint, the clarity of their vision.There seemed to be a lot of ballyhoo in the air surrounding the opening of the new Atilano's Mexican Food in the former KFC building on Appleway in Coeur d'Alene, with foodie know-it-alls suddenly acting like nobody in town had never had a damn good burrito unless they'd had an authentic San Diego style burrito. In fact, during my first chaotic experience at the eatery, on their second full day of business, a couple of strangers ahead of me in line were going on about how their families had relocated to North Idaho at some point and just never managed to find Mexican cuisine quite like what they'd gotten used to back in "America's Finest City".
The gushing comments that occupy the Facebook page originally set up for Atilano's downtown Spokane location (opened last year) is even full of hints that the buzz was something to pay attention to. Sadly, after two meals there myself and witness reports from a handful of others who've braved the throngs of people who've been crowding in to check out the new place, I have to say that I'm a bit baffled by the hype and that ultimately, Atilano's isn't quite the casa de la deliciosa cocina that we were quite expecting.
I've never been to an authentic San Diego burrito mecca, so I can't say with complete certainty how Atilano's compares to one, specifically the physical atmosphere. It's hard to tell if the owners just decided to leave things unfinished for the time being, or if they were consciously trying to emulate a place you might actually find in an especially broke-down, dozed-off section of the barrio.
The exterior is nice enough, with a splashy new yellow and red paint job screaming "we're authentic!", but open the door and walk inside and certain thoughts occur. Who broke into this poor old KFC, stole all the decor, then spray-painted over all the logos with a can of red spray paint? Was it a mad electrician with a fetish for exposed wires? (There are literally open outlet boxes with wires sticking out of the walls in several spots.) Can I still get a "famous" fried chicken, corn and mashed potato bowl and a side biscuit and coleslaw? Other than the employees, the only hint of old Mexico was the tejano music floating through lightly the air, and frankly, the place could use some serious sprucework and love on several levels.
Which leads one toward the hope that they were so concentrated on making fabulous food, that fancying up the raw state of the interior was low on their list of things to do. Both times I showed up, it was clear Atilano's staff was working their nalgas off to crank out the fruits of their massive, all-encompassing menu for the curious, hungry folks standing at least six people deep waiting to order. A dozen or so cooks were working the line behind the counter, and their high-speed frenzy of Spanish shouts and commands helped lend a vibe of excitement and authenticity to an already bananas affair.
Evidently, there wasn't even one moment available for someone to pause for a bit of cleanup time, as the kitchen floor was visibly littered with dirty, stepped-on chunks of meat, rice, and vegetables, which I can't say was the most inviting sight to see. When I made it to the front of the line, the cashier was friendly, but flustered and distracted and I had to repeat my relatively simple order three times as she kept wandering away from the counter as I was ordering (mid-sentence, actually) to tend to some other thing going on.
Perhaps it was just the high level of business giving Atilano's the opening week jitters or something, and I really did want to be awestruck by my lunch, but I came away pretty much unimpressed.
Atilano's menu is basically like this: if it's fast Mexican food, they have it. In fact, it's initially a daunting task to even decide what to get what with several dozen combo meals, around 15 burrito options, a pinata full of side options, and anything one could ever make by randomly combining tortillas, cheese, beans, rice, sauces, lettuce, tomatoes, and you know the rest. It's nice to have some selection, but there is certainly something to be said for simplicity ( I'm looking at you, Taco Loco) when you've got a dozen customers waiting at the counter looking up at the menu board indecisively, holding up the show.
In addition to being open 24 hours a day for those post-tequila-marathon munchie sessions, another noticable perk at Atilano's are the reasonable price points, with most of the burritos in the $3-$5 range and the combo plates all around $7. Curiously, the "salsa bar" consisted of a bowlful of pre-made cups of salsa verde, a bowl of red hot sauce and a scoop but no cups to scoop it into, and some spicy pickled carrots. That's it. Both sauces tasted fine, but in my book, three items does not a salsa bar make.
As I was leaving, I looked again at the Atilano's sign and realized that I might have missed the whole point. "San Diego's Best Burritos" I read, reminding me of what the whole fuss was supposedly about in the first place. I returned a few days later to see if maybe this might be the key to the mystery of the eatery's appeal, this time avoiding the madness of the dining room for a twenty minute long trip through the drive through.
Indeed, their Adobada (Spanish for "marinated") pork burrito was a giant and much tastier affair. Still, it did vary from the expert's description at the beginning of this review by utilizing a steamed, not grilled burrito, which didn't really hold up well and made for a sloppy mess as I dripped its contents all over my desk, floor, and self when I got it home. It wasn't at all rather bland, in fact the flavorful, rich pork, beans, potato chunks, and pico de gallo came together in a pretty okay, "maybe this place isn't so terrible" kind of way.
It's hard to besmirch the good name of tater tots, and they didn't, but when they are sold under the guise of "mexi-fries", one expects a few sprinkles of seasoning instead of just Plain Jaunita specimens. Still, after all was said and done, the highlight of both meals was the large cup of delicious horchata, a staple Mexican sweet beverage that's irritatingly hard to track down in this area.
About 5/8 way through my Adobada burrito, I felt a sudden attack of an "oh God, I'm uncomfortably full", not-so-fresh feeling that sent me straight to the couch, where I felt the need to recover for the rest of the evening until crawling into bed with a case of the ughs still lingering. I woke up the next morning with a tummy that was still quite iffy and wanted to print up a souvenir tee-shirt which read, "I survived the the Great Atilano's Bloat of 2011".