Caliente Mexican seems to be in a perfect position to capitalize on a trend in the taco-eating, burrito-hugging, millennial generation, of which I am a part. We have taken a liking to fast-casual restaurants, especially chains or local offerings, like Chipotle Mexican Grill, that serves absurdly large burritos at college student-friendly prices.
This is Caliente’s niche. Their front façade is emblazoned with the slogan “Dope Burritos” next to a fire logo, which is, I assume, how the kids talk.
Otherwise, it’s a tiny building with windows on three sides and a large sign on the top. Inside is a small seating area in a very narrow floor space with two long tables that seat about eight each uncomfortably, and a small counter with room for three, with plastic bar stools surrounding them. The front of the ordering and serving counter is a white vinyl with a finished wood countertop, in front of the small line, prep area, and flat top.
The menu, in a handwritten-chalk style, seemed focused on the wide array of specialty burritos on offer like the “Mexi-Cali” and the “Hurricane” alongside standard “build-your-own” Mexican style fare with burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and chips and salsa or guacamole.
The location, the small, packed size of the seating area, and the quick-service slant make Caliente pretty much exclusively a quick stop-in for lunch or a take-out dinner spot. As I think is intended, the emphasis is on satisfying a burrito craving to the expense of all else. This lack includes any kind of friendly or helpful service, which I, and the people who joined me, certainly did not receive from the girl at the counter.
Thankfully, the burrito I had, the “Kingston Fire” — supposedly named for the Kingston Fire Department, was, in fact, delicious. Packed into the large tortilla were steak, beef, refried beans, rice, cheese, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, corn salsa, and a hot pepper relish. The flavors were contrasting, more complex than I expected and were the highlight of my meal at Caliente.
The steak seemed cooked well, and wasn’t chewy like cheap steak often is. The sweet corn and savory barbecue sauce had a distinct contrast with the spicy relish. No flavors were overpowering, but nothing disappeared in the chaos either. Thanks to the abundance of sauces and salsa meant that the burrito wasn’t dry and bland like some are, but the tortilla successfully stayed together and the meat, beans and rice had absurd enough portions that I didn’t end up with a mouthful of ranch. At just $7.50 before tax, Caliente’s burritos seem like a great deal.
Unfortunately for the rest of my meal, it was all downhill after the first bite of the burrito.
The chips may have been homemade, but they were small, not seasoned well, and were mostly crushed in the small wax bag I received them in. Not much better were the sour cream and guacamole. To my surprise, the sour cream was still in its pre-packaged container, and was exactly the quality I expected, which was unimpressive. The guacamole, given the benefit of the doubt, could have been homemade, but was bland and unseasoned, and could only be described as “cheap.”
I also tried the loaded quesadilla, which was very similar to those I’ve had at Taco Bell, and although I hesitate to say it, Caliente’s attempt was far weaker, entirely bland, and without seasoning.
This isn’t, however, to downplay what Caliente does well. As the sign says, it is smart to come here expecting a “dope burrito” and absolutely nothing else. The “Kingston Fire” was honestly one of the best burritos I’ve ever eaten. If this is what you’re after, then you should give Caliente a shot. But, critically, if you’re looking for a comfortable atmosphere, options other than pre-built burritos, or friendly service, it may be wise to look elsewhere.