It feels grimy, but clean. Comfortable.
I take a step up off the Magazine Street concrete to walk through Juan’s Flying Burrito red front door. I immediately see my friends sitting underneath the alcohol bottle chandelier with which I will later find myself entranced. The walls are an unnoticeably dark beige, vague red vine plants painted around circular windows. I wait to show my vaccine card to the host before joining my friends, who already have chips and queso and margaritas in front of them.
The waitress appears to take our orders, but none of us have scanned the QR code to look at the menu. She says she can come back, but we tell her no, it’s fine. We have the menu memorized.
Veggie Punk Burrito. Mardi Gras Indian Tacos. Veggie Punk, Wet.
Juan’s Flying Burrito has four locations: Uptown, Mid-City, the Lower Garden District, and the Central Business District. I have been to both the Mid-City and LGD locations on rare occasions, but, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I feasted at the Uptown location twice a week, often after a shift three blocks away at PJs Coffee.
I find myself constantly returning to Juan’s on nights where cooking seems impossible, when I meet someone new and they want to go have lunch somewhere, after work when my feet and back ache from incessantly running behind the counter. Usually I am accompanied by my friends, David and Izzy, who I am eating with tonight.
New Orleans is stuffed full of restaurants serving equally enticing meals; yet, I return to the corner of Magazine and Joseph. In a study on restaurants satisfying customers’ needs, Andersson and Mossberg relate the restaurant experience to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, focusing on the physiological, social, and intellectual needs. Most restaurants, even fast food chains, will satisfy the physiological need and relieve hunger, but meeting social and intellectual needs are what distinguish restaurants from each other. Humans have a fundamental need to belong, and Andersson and Mossberg argue that restaurants meet this through the very social aspect of sharing a meal. The need to belong is met when I eat with David and Izzy, but I have gone to Juan’s alone on multiple occasions. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I ate at Juan’s so frequently I gained regular status. I knew most of the waitstaff by name, and we traded discounts at our places of business: 10% off their iced lattes and 10% off my tacos. During lockdown, Juan’s closed, but allowed for take-out at their Mid-City location. Most of the waitstaff I’d grown to know left around this time. I said goodbye to a beloved waitress as she voyaged to Baton Rouge to pursue a Master’s in Architecture.
Jordan Troisi and Shira Gabriel analyzed comfort food as a social surrogate. They proved that “comfort food” actually does provide comfort, as it can reduce feelings of loneliness because of its association with loved ones. My go-to is the Mardi Gras Indian Tacos, pinto beans, squash, corn, and a layer of Juan’s slaw all shoved together on a corn tortilla. It is hot enough, but not so hot that it burns my fingers or taste buds. I have grown up with spicy food, with Tony Chachere used as salt, and Juan’s more than satisfies my preference for spice. Juan’s consistently builds these tacos so that each time, I feel the same level of comfort, if I consume them in the bustling casual restaurant or while I lounge on my sofa watching Netflix.
Izzy and David’s Veggie Punk Burritos are similarly spicy—filled with rice, pinto beans, home fry potatoes, jalapenos, cheddar jack cheese, lettuce, and salsa. David always makes his wet, the cooks slathering his burrito in red chile sauce, cheddar jack cheese, sour cream, and pickled jalapenos.
Sitting indoors, I stare up at the chandelier above me made out of empty tequila bottles. It has always mesmerized me—the way Juan’s has cultivated an atmosphere that feels so colorful yet so dark. The bar and barstools are black, the tables and chairs rotating between brown, black, and blue, the floors a dark brown with heavy reds. Their signs on the walls—one listing the various Margarita options, one that says “Y’all got Queso?”—are black, but written in bright colors with exaggerated handwriting. The windows have Mardi Gras beads hanging in them. And the chandelier utilizes glass and color to emphasize this theme, of intertwining darkness and brightness, opaque clarity. They have a Krewe of Thoth flag hanging, a signal that it is a neighborhood restaurant. Their interior plays upon the casual comfort of their food, the laid-back attitude bleeding into everything they make. It stimulates the human intellectual need, artwork and design seeming so natural it is almost unnoticeable, yet intriguing you to keep looking.
Juan’s has also gained my avid support because of how I’ve seen them treat their workers and the community over the years since I’ve been a patron. They close for days like Labor Day, which has become a holiday reserved for those with salaried office jobs or government employment, instead of a day for the working class. They donate to various charities around the city, like Covenant House and Team Fox NOLA. Even while most restaurants re-opened following coronavirus lockdown, Juan’s remained a take-out only restaurant to protect their staff, until they felt it was once again safe enough to allow patrons to dine in, and even then they had outdoor-only seating. Now, they allow indoor seating, but only with proof of vaccination.
The Veggie Punk burritos have now settled into my friends’ stomachs, but I continue to slowly work on my tacos. Izzy and David have finished their margaritas, but my cup trails behind with two inches left. Our waitress splits our checks, each of us tipping well above twenty percent. We leave through the same door we entered, walking along Joseph Street, bouncing between paved concrete and gravel, towards my car. The Daylight Savings Time sun has long since disappeared, and we drive along in the quiet darkness towards home.