Bad things happen on Friday the 13th. Drowned children don hockey masks and become seven-foot-tall maniacs hell-bent on murdering promiscuous teenagers. Lunatics escape from asyla and engage in all sorts of bizarre behavior with trees in the surrounding woodlands. People fall down and break their crowns; automobiles drive themselves off of cliffs; demons play the bagpipes. Like any other day, it gets dark when the sun sets -- but on Friday the 13th, one can never be certain that it will rise again in one's lifetime.
And on Friday the 13th in January of 2006, restaurants in the town of Laurel, Maryland, gave away free food.
Given the day's reputation, Friday the 13th seems like an odd day for a grand opening, but that didn't stop California Tortilla from opening its doors and inviting folks to come on down for a free burrito. Similarly, while McDonald's has been open for quite some time, last Friday marked the start of a promotional weekend during which customers were invited to come in to sample the new McChicken strips. And since I rarely leave the house, what better day for me to venture out than one marked by horrific accidents and free food?
Naturally, these weren't all day offers -- while California Tortilla's deal was extended to customers at both lunch and dinner, the free McChicken strips at McDonald's were strictly a 12PM to 2PM deal. Now, I'm generally not even awake at noon (I keep wacky hours) and I'm rarely hungry until around 9PM, so participating in this fantabulous FREE FOOD DAY required an adjustment from which I still haven't quite recovered. I was going to not only have to be awake in time to visit these places, but I was going to have to be hungry -- which meant that I was going to have to work up an appetite. So I slept for three hours, woke up at 5AM, cut my hair, and began a three-mile trek to the opposite edge of the city at 8:45AM. When I returned at 12PM, I had a copy of Disney's Mighty Joe Young in my possession. I had beheld the rather ironic sight of heaps of trash tossed about a grassy area near which a sign stated that people who did not help to keep Maryland beautiful would be fined. I had seen (and smelled) an unfortunate raccoon for whom Friday the 13th had indeed proven to be a most unlucky day. And although that latter experience had almost ruined me for Free Food Day, my journey had left me both exhausted and starving. Therefore, it was time to walk to the other edge of the city to seek my free burrito.
Fifty minutes later, I arrived at California Tortilla's newest location -- although I wasn't exactly certain about the name of the restaurant. Anyone who's ever relied upon me to get anywhere knows that I'm famous for this. I'll tell people to meet me places and not show up because I haven't the slightest idea where the rendezvous points are, I'll give directions filled with conditionals (if you want to get to the place in 15 minutes, you go here; if you're in the mood for sightseeing, go there...), I don't know street names, and heaven forbid you have to walk somewhere with me because you'll see that same fire hydrant ten billion times before we finally reach our destination. Despite having seen the advertisement in the newspaper, I just knew the general area of the place and that FREE BURRITOS would be given and kinda hoped that I'd see a line or something that would let me know that I'd arrived. As you see above, I saw no line. I did, however, see a sign that read, "FREE BURRITOS TODAY!" which was just as good. A closer look alerted me to the fact that this was the back of the establishment and that the line was in the front, which is why you see no line here. And rounding the corner, I spotted a happy taco man that smiled and waved to me -- which, given that I had now walked roughly eight miles and was running on three hours of sleep in the past thirty-six hours, kinda freaked me out a little. I asked if I could take his picture, whereupon the taco man stepped back and posed but gave no audible reply. Taco men are mute, you see.
I imagine that the line had been longer before I arrived, given that the woman standing in front of me left in disgust three minutes after I made the scene (I hope it wasn't because of me :/), but I had acquired my burrito and was back on the streets within fifteen minutes. Moreover, in addition to the crazy taco man, the founders of the chain were on hand, chatting with the folks in line and making recommendations about which burrito to try for free. See, the good people at California Tortilla weren't just offering some generic free burrito here -- they wanted customers to get hooked, so they were allowing people to choose from their entire burrito catalogue. After my tentative choice was approved by one of the founders, I ordered the Crunchy BBQ Ranch burrito, consisting of a tortilla filled with grilled mesquite chicken, Mexican rice, black beans, ranch dressing, BBQ sauce, tortilla chips, fresh salsa, and lettuce, shoved it in my bag, and quickly rushed out in order to make it back up the road to reach McDonald's before 2PM. I had acquired the burrito, but the actual eating of it would have to wait.
Despite the quick turnaround of this initial California Tortilla experience, there was a decent turnout. You'll have to take my word for that, since I didn't take any pictures of the line. Following a number of experiences during which people have shouted at me and security officers have threatened to take my camera, I've gotten very wary about taking pictures when other people will end up in the shot. Hell, even when I took the above photos, people stopped and looked at me as if I were fiddling with my shoelaces on an aircraft and they were ready to beat the shit out of me and compromise cabin pressure to throw me from the plane in order to keep me from completing my radical terrorist mission. You know, I'm not sure why people are so apprehensive about cameras in their midst. I think people secretly have these delusions of grandeur and like to pretend that they're celebs and I'm the paparazzi, making it their duty to abuse me because I'm a sick freak trying to snap their photo and post it in tabloids with a weird caption. Then again, this is a city in which, at 10PM, you can walk half a mile down the street from my house and find people sitting on the hoods of their cars doing lines of coke -- in full view of everyone -- so maybe they're afraid that I'm planning to narc on them with my trusty camera. But seriously, this is a sad town. What's not crumbling and overrun with urban attitude is barren largely barren, and despite the opening of several new stores in recent months, the ones that I cared about are going the way of the dodo. Following the close of Toys 'R' Us, there will be no more toy stores in this town. Depressing.
So more walking through the town, during which I pondered many of the ideas mentioned above (see, there was a point to that digression; you're along for the ride, dear reader), I arrived at McDonald's. Unlike what I had seen at California Tortilla, however, there was no line. There was no person waving to me in a chicken costume, nor was Ronald McDonald chatting with people and threatening to eat small children on this most terrifying of days. There wasn't even a bloody sign advertising the free strips. Had I missed it? No; I'd arrived with a full half hour to spare. What gave? I entered the store, and -- aha! -- there was a banner touting the free McChicken strips. So I approached the counter and exclaimed, "HELLO! I'm here to sample the free chicken strips!"
No sooner had I spoken these words than the scowling cashier turned, reached into a box, and dropped a single chicken strip on a napkin into my hand. She didn't smile. She didn't say, "Here you are, sir!" She didn't even ask me if I wanted fries with it. She just looked at me with those mean eyes as if to say, "You've got your chicken, now get the fuck out." And I was so tired and dumbfounded by the interaction that I stumbled out of the restaurant without quite realizing what had taken place until the cool breeze hit me and I realized that I was holding a warm McChicken strip. All that planning and walking and hurrying to reach McDonald's before 2PM for a single lousy bleeding chicken strip. Somehow it just didn't seem worth it. I shoved the thing into my mouth.
It tasted pretty good, especially given that I was about to keel over at this point, but McDonald's got its ass royally kicked in terms of presentation. California Tortilla had the owners on hand, a waving taco man, and even coupons for free burritos featuring burrito-eating chimpanzee buddies, which is just about one of the coolest Photoshops that I've ever seen. McDonald's had a lone employee drop a single McChicken strip into my hand and then glare at me with malice in her eyes. What would make California Tortilla's victory complete, however, was the burrito itself -- which I didn't actually get around to sampling until hours later, as I wandered the closing Toys 'R' Us (so sad...) and visited a few other stores before finally returning home.
And there the burrito is in all of its huge glory. Before we get into the actual review of its taste, however, I've gotta admit that despite the relatively recent rise of these giant burrito joints, I've never been a big fan of them. Sure, they're filling, but they all pretty much taste like mass quantities of beans and rice stuffed into a huge tortilla -- which is pretty much what they are. There's other stuff inside, sure, but the rice and beans largely overpower it, at least where my tastebuds are concerned. I was hoping that the Crunchy BBQ Ranch burrito would prove me wrong, but I wasn't entirely optimistic. Also, I was kinda afraid to bite into this thing. My front two teeth are actually part plastic, and once they actually broke and had to be repaired. And when they broke, I just happened to be eating a fat-free mayonnaise and corn chip sandwich. Suffice it to say that the promised tortilla chip filling of this hulking meal had me a little worried. A free burrito isn't free when it eating it necessitates $300+ of dental work, especially considering that I don't have a dental plan or any kind of insurance. Argh.
So I guess it was kind of lucky that there were no tortilla chips to be found inside this thing. Or ranch dressing or BBQ sauce, for that matter -- leading me to believe that somehow, despite the ranch sticker, my burrito got swapped with one of the garden variety chicken burritos. I can't complain, seeing as how it was free and my teeth didn't break and all, but I also can't say that I see myself returning to California Tortilla for another taste of their wares anytime soon, given that it tasted like the standard heap of Mexican rice and beans in a flour tortilla with a few other negligible ingredients. I guess that's great if you like hulking heaps of beans and rice that overpower the taste of everything else, but I'd rather have a bun meal. Or maybe I just wanted to plug that article. ;)
Thus ended the food-centric events of last Friday the 13th. And what have we learned? We've learned that taco men can't talk. We've learned that chimpanzees like burritos too. We've learned that McDonald's is fucking stingy when it comes to its free food promotions. Seriously, one fucking chicken strip. They even rang me up at California Tortilla and gave me a receipt -- it was almost like I'd actually bought something! Okay, back to the lessons. We've learned that free burritos are not always what they seem. We've learned that I live in a sad, sad town, and that people do not like to see other people taking pictures. We've learned that Toys 'R' Us is closing here -- again, more cause for weeping. But perhaps most of all we've learned that I need some freaking rest because this article was all over the place. Which again was kinda the point, 'cause if you replace "place" with "town", so was I! And if you replace "place" with "pavement", so was that poor raccoon. :(