HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY? You can do it, for five bucks, right this minute. How? Get in your car and drive to one of the nine Texas-grown eateries that are serving the cheeky modern burritos known as wraps. Buy one, peel off the foil, eat it. If you love the idea of ancho-cinnamon grilled snapper with jasmine rice on a spinach tortilla and vow that you’ll be back for more, you will be spurring the success of America’s hottest food craze. If you hate the notion of teriyaki chicken with grilled vegetables and sprouts on a whole-wheat tortilla and declare that you’d sooner eat a sautéed salamander than another wrap, you’ll help guarantee the failure of America’s most overhyped food fad. In either case, you’ll make history.
From the day they gained popularity in California two and a half years ago and began their inexorable march across the country, wraps have seduced—some say snookered—the media and the public. Independent wrap restaurants like World Wrapps, High Tech Burrito, and Rocket Wraps have been growing faster than you can say “mango salsa,” primarily on the Pacific Coast. (One, an Arizona-based operation called New York Burritos, has already infiltrated Texas with a Dallas-area store.) The fast-food chains (Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and many more) have begun rolling out their own wraps nationwide. And here in the Lone Star State, an indigenous wrap revolution is gathering momentum. Less than a year ago, Texas had four of its own wrap joints; today that number has more than doubled, and the majority of the ventures intend to expand. One, Wraps International Gourmet Burritos in Houston, is talking twenty to forty outlets in three years. This could be the start of something big.
To understand why a goodly portion of the population is lining up for wraps, with some addicts getting a fix three and four times a week, you need a wrap rundown. (If you’re no longer a wrap virgin, skip this paragraph and the next.) Reduced to their basics, wraps are burritos. Indeed, the Internet is home to several Web sites that rail against calling a burrito by any other name (see “Wrap.com,” page 166). But the concept has evolved far beyond the time-honored foodstuff consisting of a large flour tortilla filled with refried pinto beans, cheese, Spanish rice, beef, and other border chow.
First, there’s the wrapper, or wrap, a thin tortilla ten to fourteen inches in diameter flavored with everything from spinach to tomato, cheese, basil, cayenne, or jalapeño. Then there’s the filling, usually a pound or more chosen from a global smorgasbord including jerk- spiced pork, glazed salmon, baby spinach, tomato saffron sauce, black beans, Japanese eggplant, red pepper—corn salsa, and grilled sweet potatoes, as well as the usual burrito fixings. And finally there’s the presentation, a tidy outer casing of foil (or occasionally paper). This finishing touch is crucial because it turns the wrap into a portable silver torpedo that can be easily consumed in the car or at the desk.
All of which raises the question, Does America really need another fast food? The answer: Yes, desperately. With a few exceptions, this country’s fast food is so bad for you that everyone who buys a pizza or a burger should get a coupon for a free angioplasty. And the rap on wraps is that they’re healthful, which helps explain why they’re going strong. They have vegetables, they have assorted starches and complex carbohydrates, and they have protein (but not too much). Of course, if you choose one with sour cream and cheese, you might as well have had a slice of pepperoni pizza.
But there’s more to the wrap craze than the fact that they can be good for you: Wraps are creating a buzz right now because the ones at the cutting edge have class—they’re bringing upscale, fusion cuisine to a midscale audience. (Indeed, a handful of white-tablecloth restaurants like Jay’s Mesteña in San Antonio and benjy’s in Houston are glamorizing wraps with chic ingredients such as pan-seared salmon, portobello mushrooms, and watercress.) Five or so years ago designer pizzas, with their fresh spinach, tofu, and sun-dried tomatoes, were among the first quick foods to mix ethnic culinary traditions. But wraps have gone a step further. Their menus are international with a vengeance (anyone for Spanish rice, Japanese eggplant, and barbecue sauce in a single wrap?), and their lovingly detailed descriptions suggest a gourmet inclination. Traditional Tex-Mex burrito-style wraps have a good market share, but tony pan-global wraps are the ones getting all the press.
Food aside, wrap restaurants are catching on with the public for another reason: They’re cute. At many, the colors are jazzy, the lines have a nineties retro look, with sharp angles and undulating curves, and the decor is free-form and whimsical: Customers at Freebirds in College Station create aluminum-foil figurines and add them to a special display shelf; at Habanero’s Grill in San Antonio, a cartoon cow sails over the moon in a floor-to-ceiling mural. Beyond setting a chipper mood, these decorative touches elevate the stereotypical fast-food environment to what the restaurant industry calls “fast casual,” a setting where people will pay $4.50 to $6 for a wrap and another $2.50 for a smoothie and walk out happy.
The funny thing about wraps is that while they’re new, in fact they’re eons old. The basic idea—a flexible flat bread with some kind of delicious filling—exists the world over in the form of spring rolls, egg rolls, Chinese pancakes filled with mu-shu pork, lamb-stuffed pita bread, chicken crêpes, and cheese blintzes. The immediate antecedents of the current wrap craze come from the wheat-growing region of Sonora, in northern Mexico, where workingmen would wrap meat and beans in huge, paper-thin flour tortillas to make easy-to-carry lunches. But it wasn’t until 1995, when a group of California boomers at San Francisco’s World Wrapps took burritos and gave them their present spin, that wraps caught on big time.