Takeaway review: Tortilla

When it comes to deliveries, all dishes may be equal but some dishes are more equal than others. I got to thinking about this after last week’s disappointing meal at Dhaulagiri Kitchen, when somebody replied on Twitter and said “I guess moving to takeaway has been tough for them”. I thought that was a curious take, because all of the problems with that meal had been in the kitchen, not on the journey from the kitchen to my house: everything was packed just fine, and arrived hot enough, it just didn’t taste that special. 

It is true, though, that some dishes and cuisines lend themselves better to delivery than others. You’re on a hiding to nothing with pizza from the minute it leaves the oven, for example. And the more components you have to dish up separately, the more likely you’ll have a lukewarm plate at the end of it. With dishes where everything comes in one pot, you have a better chance that the whole thing will stay hot. This is why Kokoro is always such a good bet for delivery, and why restaurants like Zizzi and Pizza Express have set up separate brands on Deliveroo selling macaroni cheese or other pasta dishes in a tub. 

It also explains the relative popularity of sandwiches – burgers, wraps and burritos – on delivery apps, and that in turn explains why I decided to give Tortilla a try this week. Burrito restaurant Tortilla is one of those smaller chains where the blurb on the website makes it sound like a small indie business (“we’re not part of a multi-franchise nor some big soulless restaurant group”) but my cursory research suggested a slightly different picture. 

They had nearly forty branches, and had benefited from financial backing from the private equity group that controlled Yo! Sushi and from Santander – because if there’s one thing big business still seems to love, it’s the casual dining sector. Tortilla’s chairman used to run Pizza Express and had a proud track record of joining or founding hospitality businesses and then selling them off for pots of cash – more John Sykes than Jamie Oliver. So Tortilla maybe wasn’t a Taco Bell, but it certainly wasn’t a Mission Burrito either.

Tortilla was first announced as coming to Reading last February, although for obvious reasons it took a fair old while to open, not throwing its doors open until the end of October. It made the news last year, because it had to overcome objections from a neighbouring business, the dentist Reading Smiles, who were concerned about them having an alcohol licence, and about the risk of smells drifting into the dental practice. Tortilla’s response was that there was no risk of that, as almost no cooking actually took place on the premises – their beef and pork are “braised off-site”, which also enables them to open in smaller premises, like the Reading branch, without the need for extraction. 

It’s funny: this sort of thing, cooking dishes in a central kitchen, goes on throughout chain restaurants and I’m sure we’ve all eaten those kinds of meals without necessarily being aware of it. But I had to work hard not to let this prejudice me against Tortilla. After all, I had a fantastic meal when I ordered a kilo of pre-cooked rib meat from The Rib Man and heated it up on my hob at home: potentially, surely this was no different? 

And Tortilla seemed to be doing a tidy trade – every time I’d walked past the restaurant since lockdown relaxed in April the tables outside had people at them, taking part in our new national sport of gamely pretending the weather wasn’t shite. I couldn’t quite make up their mind about them on paper, so it was time to place an order with them and try to make up my mind about them in reality.

Tortilla is on all three delivery apps, although in typical fashion I only realised that once I had placed my order with Deliveroo. The menu is identical across all of them, and it largely revolves around burritos, naked burritos – that’s the contents of a burrito in a bowl, in case you have a thing against tortillas – and a few taco options. They don’t sell quesadillas or nachos for delivery, although they will sell you a DIY kit if you want to make them at home: I can’t imagine these are that popular, but life is full of surprises.

The process for ordering a burrito is remarkably like going down the line in Mission Burrito, so you have various tick boxes to pick which rice, beans, salsa and so on you want. We ordered on a Sunday evening, and they had run out of their coriander and lime rice and their guacamole, which slightly limited the options. Guacamole, incidentally, is one of the only things Tortilla makes on the premises, so it’s a particular shame they had run out. (Is it as bad as a pub running out of chips? Answers on a postcard.)

Tortilla offers the traditional fillings – carnitas, barbacoa beef and grilled chicken – along with grilled vegetables. The latter costs the same as a chicken burrito, which feels cheeky. They also serve a“vegan chilli no carne” – which has tempeh in it, although you have to go to Tortilla’s website to find that out. We ordered a couple of burritos and some tacos to share – I might have tried the tortilla chips too if they’d had any guacamole to go with them – and our meal came to just shy of thirty pounds, not including the rider tip. Tortilla’s burritos come in medium and large, with the large costing about the same as the one size offered by Mission Burrito.

Deliveries from the town centre always seem quicker and more reliable, and often come on a bike rather than in a car. This was no exception, and everything was pretty brisk: we ordered at twenty past seven, the rider was en route twenty minutes later and he took four minutes to reach our front door. When he did, he cheerfully told us that he was carrying two orders from Tortilla and so we’d have to give him our order number – that struck me as a little strange, but it hardly held things up. I wonder, if I’d been his second delivery, if I’d have been quite as happy.

Anyway, everything was hot and it was all present and correct. A number had been scrawled on one of the foil-packed burritos with a Sharpie, nothing on the other. It’s only after the meal, looking at the ticket in the bag, that I realised he had written numbers against each burrito so we could work out which was which. P for pork and B for beef might have been simpler.

This is where I also have to make a sad confession. Partly to work out which burrito was which and partly to make this review more photographically interesting, I cut my burrito in half, artfully arranged it on a plate so you could see the filling, placed it under a spotlight in the kitchen and took a picture of it. Or at least I thought I did, but looking at my camera roll it simply isn’t there. This puts a greater emphasis on my descriptive powers than any of us would like, and makes this review even less visually interesting than normal: I can only apologise. I asked for advice on Twitter, but it ranged from the impractical (courtroom style drawing please) to the sadistic (another thousand words, presumably?). I’ll spare you either option.

On to the burrito then. Mine was pulled beef with black beans, tomato rice and all the trimmings – cheese, sour cream, salsa verde, jalapeños and pickled red onions. Looking at all that, you’d have thought the biggest risk would be the flavours clashing, or being too much, but in reality the struggle was to get it to taste of anything. Really, it was almost symphonically bland. It was well packed – almost as if done by a machine, the meat firmly in the centre, so different to the haphazard arrangement of a Mission burrito – but nothing tasted of very much. 

The beef had the texture but couldn’t back it up with the taste. The red onions were still crunchy and felt like they’d had only a passing acquaintance with vinegar. If there were any jalapeños in it, they’d been picked for their inoffensiveness. The list goes on: the tomato rice had a real feeling of Bachelor’s about it, and if the salsa verde, cheese and sour cream were even in there (and having eaten it, I’m not sure they were) they added even less to proceedings than Dido Harding. Or Dido herself, for that matter. When the best case scenario is that your meal is boring because they got your order wrong, and the worst case scenario is that it’s plain boring, matters are problematic.

The carnitas burrito was a subtly different shade of meh, but meh nonetheless. I actually liked the pork more – it was saltier and just more interesting – but it had its work cut out shining in a sea of mediocrity. When I have a burrito from Mission it’s a glorious mess – it drips, it’s tricky to tackle, it’s always a challenge, but it tastes of something. You get the highs and the lows. This, by contrast, was tidy and dull, a burrito on Prozac, all the edges neatly knocked off until you barely felt anything. Maybe that was the intention, and maybe the aim is to take customers away from Taco Bell: Tortilla is better than Taco Bell, but so’s eating corrugated cardboard topped with spam.

Only the tacos showed a hint of something better. Tortilla’s chicken is grilled rather than pulled, in little pieces – I actually quite enjoyed this, although it wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea. But the real winner here was the salsa roja – hot and punchy and adding a dimension of flavour that had been lacking everywhere else. But even the tacos, though they were better than the burritos, weren’t better than their peers. 

The portion size was still a little underwhelming, especially when you compare it to the Lyndhurst’s outstanding chicken tinga tacos: there, you get four tacos for nine pounds, all so piled high with chicken that you can’t physically close them, and there is always plenty of guacamole. At Tortilla you get three barely-filled tacos for seven pounds fifty – I got the odd one, but mostly because Zoë had no interest in fighting me for it.

When I look at Tortilla’s footprint, I can see that it might do well in many of the locations where they’ve opened up. If it didn’t exist, it might be necessary to invent it. But this, I’m very proud to say, is Reading, and we do things differently here. We’re not like some of the identikit malls Tortilla has opened in, or the likes of Guildford; if they’d done their homework, they might have realised that Reading, of all places, doesn’t need a Tortilla. 

And although there were a couple of things at Tortilla I didn’t mind – the grilled chicken, the salsa roja, the fact that it isn’t Taco Bell – the fact remains that it will never be close to the best option for Reading residents. A few weeks ago I went to Blue Collar and tried pork and charred pineapple tacos from their new vendor El Contador, and they were miles better than anything I had from Tortilla. 

Likewise, if tacos are your thing, be they carnitas or jackfruit, you really do need to make a beeline for the Lyndhurst when they reopen. If you’re a burrito fan I think that Mission, in terms of quality, value and integrity, is streets ahead of Tortilla; writing this review has quite made me crave a Mission Burrito to remember how it’s done. And if you’re at home, and you want to order something delicious that will stay hot, cost around a tenner and make its way to your door in next to no time, a little bucket of Kokoro’s sweet chilli chicken hits the spot every time. 

I do feel a little sad for Tortilla: it’s not exactly as if they’ve done anything wrong, but they’re not quite good enough. It’s not them, you see. It’s us.

Tortilla
4-6 Broad Street, Reading, RG1 2BH
https://www.tortilla.co.uk/locations/reading/

Order via: JustEat, Deliveroo or Uber Eats

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