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If It Fits in a Tortilla . . .

by B.A. Nilsson on March 24, 2010

Badass Burrito
  • Cuisine: reimagined Tex-Mex
  • Entrée price range: $2.50 (single taco) to $9.75 (huge nacho supreme plate)
  • Ambiance: We don’t need no stinkin’ ambiance!

Photo by B.A. Nilsson

I would enjoy a job that required me to answer the phone with “Badass!” all day. Even after a year and a half in the business, owner Mike Olekoski still seems to enjoy it. And when chef Howard Yaeger is near the handset, he seems to put a special vigor into the salutation.

But this is the same guy who puts pastrami into a burrito. Smoked pastrami, no less. “Hey, what can I say?” says Yaeger. “I’m from New York.”

That’s what I reckon to be the Badass secret: passion and irreverence. With a love of beer. “We got our liquor license last November,” says Yaeger, “and changed the menu as well—enlarged it a lot, and added things like the Reuben burrito. The way I look at it: I’m not Mexican. I’m not going to pretend anything’s authentic. We just like to see what we can put into a burrito shell.”

Among them: a ham-and-cheese club, with bacon, garlic aioli and tomatoes ($7.50). Grilled chicken breast with salsa in a spinach tortilla ($8). Blackened catfish with rice and refried beans ($7.50). And, of course, that unlikely-sounding Reuben ($8.50), which sports pastrami that Yaeger smokes himself, combined with red cabbage in a crisp lime slaw, refried beans and chipotle mayo.

This I could not resist, and it proved a worthy lunch adversary. It’s sizeable, and I was with a very hungry group with whom I sampled my way through some starters as well.

We visited the main Badass outlet, the one up in Lansingburgh, that’s most easily accessed via Cohoes. But these were actors who’d just finished a Romeo and Juliet morning performance in downtown Troy, so we took the scenic route straight up through the city.

It’s an unprepossessing side-street-located building that could be just another bar save for the quirky mannequin in the window. A handful of tables, some seats at the bar, a row of TV screens with sports events on display. Romeo and Juliet cheered a basketball game in which Romeo was invested.

That alone was enough to bond us with the owners and other patrons. That we also dug the food was icing.

We started with an order of chorizo poppers ($5). Jalapeno poppers are a great bar-food concept, combining heat and cheese and deep-fried crunch; the Badass version takes it to a gourmet level, if there’s such a thing in fast food. The chorizo is homemade, as all sausage should be. It’s rolled into a swath of bacon. It’s dipped into beer batter then dropped into oil. It’s served with chipotle mayo.

“It’s awesome,” Romeo exclaimed, fighting Mercutio for another piece.

It’s caloric. “I’m not going to tell you it’s not,” says Yaeger. “I was running a nutrition program to chart what we’re serving, and I gave up. If you’re worried about calories, don’t eat here.”

He offers an impressive foundation of from-scratch cookery. “We don’t make the tortilla shells, but we make everything else.” And recipes are drawn from a mixture of sources. “I got my taco beef recipe from a woman at Carmine’s in New York. They didn’t serve it in the restaurant, but it was part of the family meal.”

Badass fries ($3) turn out to be thick jicama chips, and you have to try them. Jicama is also called Mexican turnip, and the root slices into pieces a bit too soft for frying, so they get batter-coated first, upping the spiciness and adding some crunch. The chipotle mayo is an addictive dip.

Burritos are also available a la carte, which is to say that you can get them stuffed with blackened or beer-battered fish, pulled pork, grilled tofu, beef or, of course, chicken for $7 apiece. Add a dollar for pastrami, carne asada or chorizo; add a half a buck if you want your burrito grilled. Tacos follow the burrito model and are $2.50 apiece, $3.50 with the more expensive meat, and an additional three bucks for rice and beans. A plate of nachos is $6; a mountain of them, with extra meat, sour cream, olives and more, is $9.75—and that’s the most expensive item on the menu.

Blackened catfish makes an excellent taco filling, we discovered, and the pulled pork filling has the right degree of smokiness. Quesadillas ($5) are a foot in diameter, thick with a molten interior of mixed cheeses and served with cilantro-flavored sour cream.

Yes, there are wings ($7), chicken strips ($4.50/$6.50), traditional fries ($3) and other gringo-friendly fare, but sooner or later you’re going to hit that Reuben burrito. And there’s no going back.