It takes a village to make a burrito. At least it did for Gord and Eleanor Delano, owners of Burrito Jax. Their menu has landed where it is after seven years of experimentation, customer input and good advice. Now a staple in downtown Halifax for both lunch and late night crowds, Burrito Jax and its concept caught on slowly, and has proven to be something people were looking for: hearty, healthy, customizable Mexican-inspired food that’s quick and easy to eat.
“We listened to people,” says Eleanor of the menu evolution following their opening on July 8, 2009. Their very first group of customers was primarily people who worked in the restaurant industry downtown close to the Blowers Street location. They had opinions and were curious to see what had improved from one visit to the next. “We had Frank’s Red Hot on the line,” laughs Gord. After a regular customer — one with culinary expertise — pointed out, “You can’t put Red Hot on Mexican food,” they started to reconsider a few things. Then, after buying a commercial grade food processor, the possibility of making salsas onsite opened up, and they went for it.
“Our medium salsa is [Eleanor’s] recipe,” says Gord. “The Bucking Hot Sauce was mine.” The couple describes having a lot of kitchen parties and input from friends during the recipe development phase. Eleanor honed the pulled pork, which is slow-cooked for 12 hours and then marinated for another 24. The best-selling Jax chicken was a mistake: “I spilt some chipotle sauce in the chicken and we just kind of went with it,” says Gord. Their VP of franchise development, Jeff Clarke, happens to also be a Red Seal chef, and his guidance and expertise has helped shape many of the techniques and recipes here.
The slow-cooked pulled beef is inspired by the Delanos’ travels to Mexico, capturing similar flavours to an authentic barbacoa and using brisket. Also on the menu is North Atlantic cod, which is fried to order, and peppercorn steak. During our chat I tried a few items, including the seasonal Baja-style fish tacos (they were only available for the summer) and a burrito bowl, which is essentially all the ingredients from your favourite burrito, in a bowl. Mine had all the crunchy vegetables, beans and rice, plus pulled beef, burrito sauce (a sour-cream-based house sauce) and Bucking Hot Sauce. “You’re meant to mix everything together,” says Gord of the bowls, which are growing rapidly in popularity. Of everything I’ve tasted from Burrito Jax (and I’ve eaten my fair share of burritos), my favourite filling is the pulled beef; the depth of flavour from the slow cooking and the background of heat offers a complexity to whatever you choose to go with it.
“You’re telling us how to make your food — we’re just assembling it,” says Gord. Ordering at Burrito Jax involves walking the line and choosing the contents of your own burrito, bowl or quesadilla. All of the fresh vegetables are chopped and prepped onsite, including peeling, boiling and mashing sweet potatoes daily. Burrito Jax creations always start with the offer: “Smashed beans and rice?” Customers then choose from mashed sweet potato, black beans, guacamole and cheese, followed by fresh vegetables. There are four house-made salsas, three hot sauces, and both sour cream and the house burrito sauce. Burritos or quesadillas are then thrown on the grill. After a few visits, customers undoubtedly become pretty loyal to their creations. “When you have your go-to burrito, you’re not really willing to change anything,” says Gord.
“We knew from the get-go that we wanted to be a healthy option,” says Gord. “So that was always a guiding light for everything that we did.” Sticking to the promise to deliver fresh, heathy food, the slogan for Burrito Jax has always been: “Relax . . . it’s good for you.” Getting the public to see fast-casual Mexican-inspired fare as healthy was a challenge, though. After opening, Gord says the growth was slow and steady. “It was really hard to get rid of the greasy, drippy imagery of the fast food type of burritos.”
The community’s perception of burritos has certainly changed with the growing reputation of Burrito Jax. Their flagship shop is booming, and the Delanos have opened a second location, office and training centre in the Burnside Industrial Park. They have sold 14 franchise locations, with eight already open throughout the Atlantic provinces.
“The one thing we can always smile about is that it doesn’t matter who we’re feeding, we always feel good that they’re eating our food,” says Gord. “The cheapest thrill that we have is that people are willing to give us their hard-earned money for the food that we make. They recognize the care, the time that goes into it.”