Wrapped Up 

Sunny new burrito joint helps relieve the winter blues

Sunny new burrito joint helps relieve the winter blues

Baja Burrito

722 Thompson Ln. 383-2252

Opens 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat., with evening hours starting soon

Technically, the first day of winter was Dec. 21, but for me, the misery began before dawn on Sunday, Dec. 17, when I got up to catch an early-morning plane to Colorado for a business trip. Noting the inch of snow blanketing the ground, I did the prudent thing and called the airlines. Though my flight was already canceled, I was advised to come to the airport anyway, where I would be rebooked on another plane. I left my home at 7 a.m.; two airlines, three flights, four airports, and 16 hours later, I arrived in Crested Butte.

Meanwhile, back home, the last two days of school before Metro’s exceedingly generous winter break were canceled, and students began what is now—if schools open as scheduled on Jan. 4—a 19-day break. This can be especially problematic for families where both parents work outside the home—or, even worse, where one or both parents work inside the home. If the onset of winter weren’t hard enough with the plummeting temperatures, constant precipitation, and unabated holiday stress, having a house full of kids with cabin fever might just well send you over the edge.

At least, that’s the general impression I’m getting from talking to other mothers across town. Take a walk in any park, through any bowling alley, or anywhere else a child might possibly be entertained for 15 minutes, and you are likely to see a harried woman surrounded by a throng of children with a mixture of boredom, exasperation, and wild abandon reflected in their eyes.

Fortunately, there are many ways to spend this prolonged quality time with your precious treasures. Thanks to the abundant snowfall we’ve enjoyed so far, many children are exploring the exotic sport of sledding. Here’s the drill: spend one hour bundling them up for the sub-freezing temperature and wet conditions; one hour of sledding time before their little fingers and toes start turning blue; and one more hour of undressing them, redressing them in warm clothes, putting wet clothes in the dryer, mopping up the puddles of muddy, melted snow on the floor, and making a pot of hot cocoa.

Besides sledding, other winter-break activities for mothers and their children include crafts-making, baking, reading, board games, and trips to museums, movies, or to Opry Mills. Once all opportunities for recreation have been exhausted, you might consider having your kids actually help around the house. By this point, they may be so bored that they’re actually somewhat excited at the thought of cleaning out closets, basements, attics, and garages.

For those children whose mothers maintain an office full- or part-time at home, many children like to help Mom do her job. This can take the form of screaming, hitting each other, crying arguments over whose turn it is to play backyard soccer, borrowing her office supplies to play school (as opposed to actually going to school), and interrupting her every 15 minutes to complain that they are borrrrrrred.

My children, of course, are completely innocent of such behavior, and all of the above is pure conjecture. Any stress I am currently suffering is totally self-imposed.

In my less overwhelmed and stressed-out moments, I can easily think of several benefits to having my children at home all day. Since I’m a food critic, one of those benefits is carting them along to sample some new restaurants, particularly ones that appeal to families. Without question, the highlights of our recent housebound holiday were the trips we made to Baja Burrito, the sunny little restaurant that opened this past October on Thompson Lane across from 100 Oaks shopping center.

No matter how bad a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder you are suffering, there is no way you can walk out of Baja Burrito without a smile on your face. First, kids of all ages can’t help but be delighted by the charming interior. Painted in a splash of island hues, the walls are decorated with bright prints, handcrafted items, and tacky souvenirs from Mexico and the Baja coast. Big crepe-paper flowers hang from the ceiling; Virgin Mary, Bleeding Heart, Lamb of God, and patron saint candles line the shelves; and the tables are covered with bright tropical prints.

Second, while you will nearly always find a line leading to the order counter, you will also nearly always find someone you know in the line to chat with while waiting your turn, which typically does not extend more than 10 minutes. This also allows you time to read the menu, posted overhead on a large chalkboard, and figure out the methodology behind Baja Burrito’s repast.

Once you do get to the order line, you will probably be greeted by Troy Smith, who with wife Jeanie owns Baja Burrito. Imbued with ingenuous friendliness and eager enthusiasm, Troy could be serving wallboard on shoe leather and you’d buy it, just to return his exuberant goodwill. But he’s not selling wallboard on shoe leather. What he is selling is fresh, healthy, fast, cheap, and delicious food. Who could resist?

Troy and Jeanie are no strangers to this approach. For five years, they owned the 100 Oaks franchise of Calypso Cafe. About a year ago, they began thinking they wanted to try something new and to build a little more equity in a business than a franchise agreement allows. They pondered a few ideas, and then some friends from Texas suggested that what Nashville really needed was a burrito stand like the ones back home. Troy made a few roads trips to Santa Fe, San Diego, the Baja coast, and Houston, working a broad idea into a specific plan.

The couple then gave notice to Calypso that they would not renew their contract; Calypso moved a few hundred yards east on Thompson Lane to a larger store, and Troy and Jeanie reworked the former Calypso Cafe into Baja Burrito. Troy began experimenting with recipes, and on Oct. 5, the eatery opened for lunch six days a week, which has thus far remained their operating schedule.

“I felt like we needed to get into this slowly,” Troy explains. “With Calypso, we had a commissary providing us with all our food. With Baja, I am cooking everything myself from scratch. I wasn’t sure how that would work, and if I screwed something up, I figured I would have from 3 p.m. until the next morning to fix it.”

So far, the Smiths have screwed up very little. At the heart of the Baja menu are burritos, made California mission-style, according to the Smiths. At Baja, that means beginning with a tortilla—corn, flour, or flavored; ladling on some brown rice and a scoop of black or pinto beans (made with no lard); adding grilled and marinated chicken, steak, or veggies, an assortment of free toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro, and jalapeños, and some extras like guacamole, peppers and onions, and garlic mushrooms. They roll it all up tight, wrap it in foil, and hand you a major mojo meal for anywhere from $3.50 to $5.25 (add chips and a drink for $1.50).

Also on the menu are chicken, steak, veggie, bean, or guacamole tacos on soft corn or flour tortillas, and the signature fish tacos. Beer-battered filets of cod are deep-fried, put on a tortilla, and topped with shredded raw cabbage, salsa, and spicy white ranchero sauce. The fish tacos were originally available only on Fridays and Saturdays, but their immediate popularity made for long lines out the door on those two days, so now they’re cooked every day.

Taco salads are just like the burrito, with a pile of green leaf lettuce subbing for the tortilla. “Little Surfer” meals for children 12 and under are $2.95 and include chips and a drink. Besides soft drinks and domestic and imported beers, Baja also makes its own fruit tea and two desserts: California date bars and border brownies, made with dark chocolate, Mexican vanilla, and cinnamon.

For the past couple of months, everywhere I’ve gone, people have raved about Baja Burrito. The only complaint—-and it’s a consistent one—has been the store’s limited operating hours. Starting within the next two weeks, Baja Burrito will be open Mon.-Thurs. 11-a.m. to 8 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Happy New Year.

What's new

Other recent additions to the dining scene:

♦ Michaelangelo's Pizza, at 4100 Hillsboro Circle in Green Hills. Open 7 days a week from 10 a.m.-1 a.m. (385-9200).

♦ The Pizza and Pasta Factory, opened by the folks who own Star Bagel, at 20 Harding Mall Dr., behind Harding Mall. The menu offers pizza, pasta, and an all-you-can-eat salad buffet for $2.99. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., until 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. (781-2662).

♦ Nawroz, a Middle Eastern restaurant, at 3028 Nolensville Rd. Open seven days a week 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (833-0056).

♦ Gumbo YaYa, a casual, southern Louisiana-style restaurant owned by Robert Siegel and Mark Rubin, who also own Belle Meade Brasserie and Finezza. Gumbo YaYa takes over the former Brasserie space, at 101 Page Rd. Belle Meade Brasserie, in turn, has moved into the space formerly occupied by PJ's 106. YaYa is open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., for dinner 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and until 11 p.m. Sat. (352-1642).

♦ Turning up the heat finally is 6 degrees, the highly anticipated new restaurant that opened Dec. 27 on 12th Ave. S. in the Gulch (244-3888).

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