By Daniel Spielberger
You will write about that fucking burrito. You will write about the holy matrimony of Korean and Syrian cuisine; kimchi drenched in tahini, wrapped in a rice flour tortilla — Bon Appétit. You will write about a burrito with two homosexual fathers: one a Korean law school dropout who decided to pursue a career as a chef, the other a Syrian refugee who came out when he arrived in the United States of America. You will write about a burrito that was birthed from a surrogate mother comforted by a gang of doulas singing along to a Joni Mitchell record. You will write about a burrito lying like a beached whale, posing on the cover of Teen Vogue — Can This Burrito Destroy Trump’s America?
ED, YOU WILL WRITE ABOUT THAT FUCKING BURRITO!
My email inbox is cluttered with pitches from publicists packaging their clients’ food with the latest buzzwords: Quiznos Sandwiches That Are Actually, Subversively Queer; Frozen Yogurt That Cures Inherited Trauma; Pecan Pie That Promotes Polyamory. I say no to most of them and go about my day. Write about whichever farm-to-table restaurant has recently sprung up like a cyst. But this burrito PR pitch, well, these motherfuckers, they CC’d my Editor in Chief — Lucy Feinstein, one of those Jewesses who is basically a Gestapo officer with UGGs. She lives off a steady diet of Adderall and Moon Juice. Last week, one of our interns was late to a lunch meeting. The poor guy was greeted by Lucy throwing a binder at his face. She’s how I got hired at this flashy food vertical. She was a few grades lower than me at Hebrew School. Fast-forward twenty-five years later and Lucy is a food journalism power-player: crisscrossing between LA and New York, spotlighting the hippest chefs in the nation. She reached out to me after I got laid off at the Los Angeles Times and saw my sad, miserable Tweet looking for work. Hey Ed, your piece about the dumpster divers was pretty neat; long time, no see. Want to grab coffee? Very nice gesture. This morning, she was on a couple extra milligrams of Adderall. And when that happens, you sure as hell don’t want to question her authority.
She quickly shot me back an email regarding the burrito pitch:
THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT WE NEED. AND LACMA TOO? THAT SHIT IS A BONER AWAY FROM OUR OFFICE! LISTEN, FUCKER. YOU WILL GO THERE ON FRIDAY AND INTERVIEW THESE SUPERSTARS. I WANT THIS BURRITO TO BE SEASONED WITH TEAR DROPS BABY. SALTY, SALTY TEAR DROPS. I WANT ANGELINA JOLIE’S PUSSY TO GET WET WHEN SHE READS ABOUT THIS HUMANITARIAN CRISIS BURRITO. ED, YOU WILL WRITE ABOUT THAT FUCKING BURRITO!
I replied: “Okay.”
I arrive at 11:30 AM, an hour before the food trucks would get crowded with tourists, museum employees, and construction workers from around the area. Parked in the middle of a row of trucks was Damascene S(e)oul. It was turquoise and dotted with whimsical illustrations of mosques, Ancient Roman landmarks that had been blown up by ISIS, and skyscrapers overlooking the Seoul skyline. In front of it was a tiny lawn, separating the sidewalk from a slab of the Berlin Wall LACMA had bought five years prior. The slab was covered in graffiti, and at the center was a mural painting of John F. Kennedy — piercing blue eyes and that timeless stoicism.
“Ed? Are you Ed? Ed, right?”
I turn around and saw the couple I had read so much about: Omar, the Syrian refugee turned chef, and Jung-Ho, the second-generation Korean golden child who said fuck it and emptied his grad school trust to launch a career in fusion cuisine.
“Ed. Edward. Eddy. I don’t care. Call me whatever.”
They both cackled and took out their hands to shake. I diligently complied.
Jung-Ho was tatted up, wearing denim cutoffs and a floral-patterned button down; Omar was dressed in an all-white outfit peppered with food-stains, looking like a cult member that had just escaped a compound.
Omar pointed to their truck. “Do you want a burrito first? Or do you want to do the interview?”
“The burrito. Your signature burrito. That famous burrito.”
They exchanged a flirty look and hopped into the food truck. I could hear Jung-Ho bark orders to his cooks in Spanglish.
I patiently wait. My iPhone buzzes. A Bumble message; A Tinder message; a Hinge message; a hopeless follow-up email from some girl I met at Temple Beth Am’s speed-dating soiree. It was nice getting to know you. I totally want to check out that deli you talked about, the one with the amazing pastrami. Super curious about it – Rebecca. She has lived in LA for fifteen years and still hasn’t tried Langer’s? Jesus Christ, son of the Virgin Mary, please give me a fucking break. The first story Lucy assigned me was to go undercover in a dozen Catholic churches around the city and review their communion wafers and wine. I rated them in a scale from 1, going to hell, to 10, going straight to heaven. I gave a few 5’s and 6’s, I called it purgatory; the blood of Christ tasted fantastic, his body was lackluster and stale. Think about it, low and behold, some Jew is amongst them — eating their crackers! It was a change of tone from my work at the Times. Got tons of clicks. And from then on, I was more selective about what I wrote. Until now, I guess.
People start trickling in and lining up at the food trucks. Bougie panini, bougie taco, bougie ice-cream sandwich, bougie burger, bougie tiramisu. Everyone is laughing; for some inexplicable reason, they’re super giddy to drop $18 on glorified grease. A couple years back, I went on a walk around Laurel Canyon with some girl that I was dating at the time; she was depressed, I was somewhere between fine and unhappy. The streets were empty and it was the middle of the day. We saw an idyllic home on a hill overlooking the San Fernando Valley; white brick exterior with some ivy delicately creeping up to the roof. A window with the curtains pulled down, and a family; a dad, a mom, a son, and a daughter — all gathered around a Grand Piano, singing and taking turns playing. They covered The Beatles. They covered Elton John. They covered all of those stupid hits. Don’t they look so happy? My girlfriend told me that I was officially on her level; you know you’re depressed when you project narratives onto complete strangers, thinking that they embody a fantasy that no matter what, will be unattainable to you.
“Congrats! Your burrito is ready!”
Omar and Jung-Ho stumble out of the truck. A brawny cook follows them, clutching the large burrito wrapped in rainbow aluminum foil.
Omar asks. “Shall we sit?”
The three of us take a seat in front of the repurposed slab of Berlin Wall. The noon sun is unapologetic and harsh; John F. Kennedy casts a nice shadow.
I take out a recorder and notepad from my backpack. “So basically, this whole piece is about the burrito, but it’s actually about the two of you. This love you share. This tender, radical energy… We want to highlight the story of how you met, the world you guys came from, and how that love has manifested in this, um, burrito.”
Omar hunches over and whispers something in his lover’s ear; Jung-Ho shakes his head as he repeats. “I just don’t want to talk about it… I just don’t want to talk about it…”
As Omar turns to me, Jung-Ho shoots him a glare packed with disdain. A façade is slipping. But I don’t want to pick away at it. I need them to put on a show.
I ask. “Are we ready to begin?”
They both nod.
“For fact checking purposes — you arrived here in 2013, right? Came through Istanbul?”
Omar mutters, “Sure.”
“And are you sure you don’t want to tell me about your time there? Nothing? Not even some charming tale of playing soccer with a guy with one leg?”
Jung-Ho says, “Honey, you don’t even have to go that into detail. Just you know, share a story or two…”
Omar stares down at the ground, ignoring his husband’s pleas for sanity. He must be fucking kidding me. Has he ever been to Taco Bell? Well, at Taco Bell, everything is comprised of the same six ingredients: beans, cheese, low-grade beef, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream. You got your Crunch Wrap Supreme; you got your Cheesy Gordita Crunch; you got your Mexican Pizza; you got your Chalupa. We walk through life as little Taco Bells, churning out the same old flavors in different packaging. My ingredients are my Zayde’s Auschwitz trauma, sexual frustration, a decent knowledge of Napa Valley wine, and impeccable taste buds. Just accept your ingredients, Omar, and slap me with a fucking Chalupa.
Jung-Ho asks, “Ed, do you want to try the burrito?”
I unwrap it and take a tiny bite. The kimchi pairs nicely with the al Pastor, the tahini tops it all off and balances out the flavor profile. Not too shabby at all.
“So, can I press record?”
Omar says, “Sure.”
“How does this burrito represent your love?”
Jung-Ho looks out into Wilshire Boulevard, clears his throat, and then proceeds to recite a monologue. “Some people say love is supposed to be easy. My sister tells me that when you’re truly in love, you’re on the same team so you never experience anything alone. Your partner’s hurdle is your hurdle. And you have to jump together. That isn’t really the case with Omar and me. Our love was never easy. We come from two radically different worlds. And at one point our relationship was at a crossroads; we were struggling to communicate our lives to one another. There are things he has dealt with that I will never relate to. But that’s okay. It turns out, there’s no problem that can’t be solved with a burrito! We first conceived of this idea for a hybridized burrito at Leo’s Taco Truck, on the intersection of La Brea and Venice Boulevard. See this burrito isn’t supposed to make sense. How are we going to combine a Korean rendering of al Pastor with Syrian tahini? And add kimchi? Woah there, buddy! And let me tell you Ed, believe it or not, the first few iterations of this product were absolutely disgusting. We tested some in select niche markets around the city that were determined by a proprietary algorithm — and the feedback, well, was very, very rough. But we kept on chiseling away at this concept. Omar spent days slaving away in the kitchen, trying to remember the recipe to the specific tahini from his childhood. We threw out the algorithms. I knew the burrito was going to be ready when it was going to be ready. We went back to our roots. And eventually, this burrito came about. Omar and I learn about each other all the time. New tidbits of intimate data. It’s like he’s a beautiful mosaic. Hopefully this burrito can be a paradigm. We want queer folks to growth-hack their cultural differences and create exciting, innovative products. Like, just accept your differences and throw them in a rice flour tortilla. People will either find it delicious or they won’t. Because no matter what, your love conquers all!”
I squeeze in a fart.
“That was so coherent. That makes a lot of sense. That was so beautiful.”
Omar chimes in: “Think of this burrito as a … handshake.”
“What are your goals with this burrito?”
Jung-Ho smiles. “We want to start a fusion food collective of urban queer chefs. We want to empower queer folks to overcome oppression by hybridizing cuisines and accumulating cryptocurrency. I have a proprietary SEO-driven algorithm determining the location of various chefs from all across North America. I am already investing in this guy in Montreal who is starting a Poké-Poutine restaurant!”
“Sounds delicious and sophisticated.”
“Yes, I have tried it myself. Spoiler alert: you need a lot of napkins!”
I take another bite; some tahini rolls down my chin. “So, Omar, can you talk more about the tahini? What’s your childhood village like now?”
“It’s not a village, it’s a small city. And as I said, I would rather not talk about it.”
I glare. “I actually did some research, and your small city was one of the spots hit with chemical weapons back in 2017 — how do you feel about that? Do you know anyone who is still there?”
Omar closes his eyes. “I said I didn’t want to talk about it.”
Jung-Ho raises his voice, grabbing a handful of grass from the lawn. “Omar, come on. It’s a really good story. It would really punch things up. Raise the stakes.”
Omar barks, “No! I can’t believe you are tag-teaming him like this? What’s wrong with you?”
I jump in. “Are you sure? See, completely off the record here: this burrito is good but it’s not amazing. And I can write that, post it online, and the next time there’s an army of pretentious LACMA curators and sheeple grabbing lunch, they will go to some other food truck that is certified amazing. Unless, this burrito isn’t just some burrito. Unless, gorging on this burrito becomes their one good deed of the day. So, please, give me something to work with. I win, you win a lot more. Everyone leaves happy.”
Omar hisses, “No.”
“Your publicist’s email literally had the word ‘refugee’ in bold.”
Omar says, “That was a miscommunication. I think we’ve had enough for today. Enjoy the rest of your burrito.”
Jung-Ho scoffs. “Fine, Omar. Really great work! I am so sorry, Ed. There was a misunderstanding, I guess.”
They both thanked me for my time and walk back to their truck.
I call Lucy.
She picks up after a few rings. “Yes Ed?”
“So, Omar didn’t want to spill the beans about the refugee camp. Not even one little dollop of trauma. Just some shit about a gay algorithm that’s going to save the world.”
“Fuck that! So, what the angle? What can we work with?”
“Well, they mentioned Leo’s as the space of inspiration — what if I just go there tonight and do a side-by-side piece? You know, the past and the future of LA burritos.”
Lucy sighs. “Go ahead, whatever. This is your fuck up.”
I stand up and toss the rest of the burrito in a trash can. A pack of skaters take my spot and then dig into their truffle burgers.
Numero 20! Numero 20! Twenty years ago, I gave what my rabbi would later describe as the worst Bar Mitzvah speech of all time. Moments before I went up to the Beema, I ripped up my speech and then proceeded to go off script. Some half-baked standup bit about the absurdity of Exodus. Why did the Jews take so long to get to Israel? Well it was the land of milk and honey after all… so I guess half of them were lactose intolerant! Maybe what we really need is a Museum of Lactose Tolerance! Am I right? Yeah, am I right? It was a flop. A disaster. My dad ended up donating one extra tree to Israel in my honor to ensure that our family wouldn’t burn a bridge with Temple Beth Am. I am not that clever. I have never been clever. And maybe until two years ago, I passed as handsome enough.
I wait with everyone else at Leo’s for a late-night burrito. I watch the same spectacle of men in headsets slicing away at a big rotating spit of al Pastor. I too, am impressed with how all these drunk people hover over a handful of fold-out tables at a dirty gas station parking lot. Numero 21! Numero 21!
The problem with my speech, my mom would tell me, and years later my college psychoanalyst would confirm, is that I lack empathy. I thought all those Hebrews were fucking stupid because they couldn’t do the obvious and just go to Israel. But actually, I didn’t see those neurotic Jews meandering around the Sinai as foolish; I thought they were a bunch of pawns waiting for someone else to make a move.
Numero 22! Omar and Jung-Ho. Over the years, I have developed a sixth sense for which couples will last five more months and which couples will be together forever.
Numero 23! I think Omar and Jung-Ho will be together forever.
Numero 24! I think when Laurel Canyon combusts into flames and the fire spreads down to the Westside and smoke engulfs the Valley and Santa Monica and Malibu become a charred shadow of yesteryear, Omar and Jung-Ho will drive off in their truck and disappear into the desert landscape with enough Kimchi, al Pastor, and tahini to last them until the end of days.
Numero 25! When I started off as an intern at the Times, I learned a lot about empathy. Writing objectively. Not projecting anything onto a story.
Numero 26! Dumpster divers, for example. Approach those smelly fuckers with no judgement or agenda and you will get the right quote and from there, you, your editor, and reader come to a place of empathy.
Numero 27! But Omar and Jung-Ho. I guess I dropped the ball on that one. Or it was Lucy. Or it was us just being pawns for our greedy audience. Or it was their fault.
Numero 28! At one of Temple Beth Am’s mixers, I met some girl and we started seeing one another and then her Bubbe died a couple weeks later. She invited me to the shiva.
Numero 29! I liked being there. I didn’t know anyone. But I felt like I was worthy enough to momentarily replace whoever she was missing.
Numero 30! And my Bar Mitzvah rabbi just so happened to be there, leading the family in prayer. After the service, he asked everyone to recite a little memory about Bubbe.
Numero 31! And just as everyone was in the throes of recanting their sorrow, an InstaCart delivery man showed up with five boxes of La Croix.
Numero 32! That girl I was seeing turned to me and asked if I could take care of it.
Numero 33! While the family members praised their late Bubbe’s work ethic, kindness, and charisma, I unpacked the boxes of La Croix cans with the InstaCart guy in the kitchen. I even arranged them by flavor. Pineapple. Mango. Passionfruit. Lemon. Pamplemousse. Happiest I have been in a while. NUMERO 34! NUMERO 34!
I rush over and grab my al Pastor burrito from the truck window. Nibble on it. It’s warm. It’s good. With just a little dash of lime it would be amazing. I walk past the dozens of people devouring their tacos and burritos. La Brea Boulevard is empty. I walk past some drunk men passing around a Gatorade bottle. I take another bite of the burrito. Hop over the gutter. Step into the middle lane. Throw the burrito in the air and just wait for it to come. It can be a convertible with a couple cruising around the city on their first date. A mom in a minivan, trying to get home after her second shift. A drunk driver flying out of a club in his Hummer. Or just some truck speeding down the boulevard for the hell of it. Burrito lands on the ground. Splatters on the asphalt. Don’t worry, I don’t have to wait very long.
Daniel Spielberger is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently getting an MFA in Creative Writing at CalArts. His writing has appeared in Vice, Business Insider, The Face, Interview Magazine, and other outlets.