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A taste of permanence

Burrito-cart purveyor Fuego takes off the wheels and settles in on Division Street

Driving along on Southeast Division Street, you can't miss the fiery red wall that in big, blocky letters announces Fuego, a casual new Mexican joint.

On the opposite side of the building, an inviting patio fans out from the restaurant, positioned to escape the brunt of exhaust fumes from buses hauling up and down this artery.

These physical attributes, not the food, are two of Fuego's most arresting facets.

Fuego is the first restaurant to grow out of a chain of burrito carts that do brisk lunch business in several high-traffic areas around town. The carts, which go by the same name as the restaurant as well as Zona Rosa and Full Moon, have staked their claim as the healthy choice in the burrito-cart wars.

The cart burritos boast brown rice, black beans and a choice between white- and wheat-flour tortillas and sour cream or nonfat yogurt. The restaurant offers similarly healthful variations that are vegetarian-friendly and as big as a pair of Birkenstocks (making them impossible to eat with your hands).

Fuego is firmly rooted in the hippie-burrito genre of 'Mexican' eateries. And while it doesn't rival the real thing, the fare is not without merit. For vegetarians who like the flavors of Mexican food but not the lengua or carnitas fillings, Fuego is a boon. The menu includes burritos, tacos and fajitas, all with a choice of grilled chicken or steak, or well-seasoned sautŽed tofu with vegetables. It would be nice to see some pork, fish or shellfish options as well, but for now Fuego seems steadfast in its simplicity.

By design, customers have full control over assembly of their meals. Orders are placed at the counter, using a Sharpie to check off desired salsas and sides on a laminated ticket. Burritos, for example, come with verde or mole sauce, coconut-lime or brown rice, pinto or black beans and a choice among five salsas Ñ including mild corn or spicy chipotle.

Fajitas and burritos are more appealing than the tacos, whose dry corn tortillas rapidly disintegrate, unable to contain the chopped cilantro and onion topping, let alone chicken or tofu. The bouncy coconut-lime rice is an unusual alternative and works particularly well with the sweet and peppery pineapple salsa. One of the tastiest dishes here is a side of buttery guacamole, chunky with slivers of fresh avocado.

With its cheerful persimmon and mango interior, friendly service, ice chest of cold Pacifico and Dos Equis beer, Fuego is a pleasant-enough place for a quick meal. The music filtering through the airy space Ñ Ryan Adams, Elliott Smith, Miles Davis Ñ reflects the good taste of the young staff, a too rare feature that can significantly enhance your dinner.

All in all, Fuego is a serviceable neighborhood spot that would be worth driving across town for if the menu were more ambitious Ñ as at an authentic taqueria.