The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull, an astute observer of modern life who writes about everything from pandemic-related restaurant guidelines to the difference between feeling safe and being safe, tweeted the following bit of gastronomic romanticism in late January: “Waited a little over an hour outside in line in a wind chill of like 30 this morning to get a very trendy breakfast burrito and somehow the burrito did end up being so good that I am not even mad about it.” The venue in question, burrito connoisseurs will instantly know, was Ursula, chef Eric See’s takeout spot famous for flour tortillas rolled around fluffy eggs, crispy hash browns, and enough Hatch chiles to make you feel like you accidentally swallowed a hand warmer.
I thought about Mull’s tweet because New York isn’t as culturally burrito-centric, as, say, California or See’s native New Mexico. I also thought about the tweet because I waited 24 minutes for my own vegan burrito as the heavens dumped snow all over me on Thursday morning.
“I think most people wait in line around 20 minutes or so, and probably another 20 for their order,” See told me via DM. “Some days it’s almost an hour in total,” he added. Burritos sales end at noon, and there isn’t a separate queue for, say, rose-hibiscus oat milk lattes, lime-mezcal doughnuts, puffy sopapillas, or medium-rare cheeseburgers dripping with verdant green chiles. So regardless of whether you’re here for a burrito or not, if you’re coming to this Crown Heights destination before 12 p.m., you’re coming to wait.
And wait you should.
“Breakfast burritos are the bagel of New Mexico — or the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich,” See said during a phone interview. He recounted a story about being unhappy about the quality of the hefty foodstuff in the five boroughs. “I had one burrito here in New York and I never had one again,” he said. And then, upon the request of New Mexican customers at his now-closed Awkward Scone in Bushwick, he took matters into his own hands. He started selling burritos, whose recipes he carried over to Ursula, a tiny Sterling Street space that was originally supposed to be a wine bar from Hunky Dory’s Claire Sprouse.
Hash browns are a key inclusion in all of See’s burritos, and while they’re not an unusual element in the staple, he attributes his tuber inspiration to a venue called Golden Pride in Albuquerque. There, “hash browns sit on the flat top all day,” he told me. “They’re crispy and greasy.”
See’s vegan burrito is a good place to encounter that particular sensation. The chef uses pinto beans instead of eggs, and deploys both red and green chiles for notes of piquancy and warming heat. A bit of dairy-free cheese seeps out of the burrito shell while it’s being griddled, giving parts of the exterior the same frico-like texture one might encounter with Detroit-style pizza. But the hash browns are the star here, imparting most bites with the sort of salty, round, meaty crunch one might expect from browned beef.
The chorizo burrito is no less exquisite. Pillowy eggs serve as a soft foil to the crunch of the hash browns. And then the sausage sets things apart in an incendiary way. See takes a local variety of chorizo and laces it with a puree of red Hatch chiles. The result is almost unnoticeable at first, but then the smoke turns into a gentle fire. On a 20 degree day, when I ate the whole burrito in 10 minutes outside, the meat turned my esophagus into a temporary furnace.
Still, one can’t contemplate the excellence of Ursula without reckoning with the line. Modern queues often feel manufactured, part of the contemporary branding, ’gramming, and purchasing experience. One thinks of well-funded dessert emporiums that can manage the complexities of national shipping but mysteriously can’t get walk-ins a scoop of ice cream in less than 45 minutes. That ice cream shop wants that line to be there.
It’s tempting to ascribe the line at Ursula to such cynicism, given the hip fare, the one-of-a-kind pastries (there’s a homemade guava pop tart with sprinkles), and the lack of normal conveniences like, well, call-ahead ordering.
Rest assured, though, that the wait is simply a product of the venue’s size. It’s a lilliputian space — only one person is allowed inside at a time to order — with a giant following. Indeed, in a world where pop-up Instagram food sales seem to sell out almost immediately, with apocryphal digital wait lists carrying over from one week to the next, there’s something comforting about the reliably analogue experience of knowing that the folks in front of you will get their food first, and the people behind you will get their food later.
And everyone who gets in line before noon gets a burrito; See tells me he generally doesn’t sell out.
Part of Ursula’s draw is that it’s a rare New York purveyor of New Mexican fare, a unique genus of American cooking imbued with Mexican, Spanish, and Indigenous influences.
The venue’s sopapillas, a hallmark of Southwestern cooking, are particularly excellent. See crams fistfuls of slow-roasted pork into shells of fried dough and paints the tops with a brick-colored layer of red Hatch chiles. The effect is like eating a meat pie in doughnut form, with the pastry packing a yeasty tang and the peppery glaze imparting a warming, bitter astringency. The cheeseburger, in turn, shows off the distinct nuances of the green Hatch chile. He anoints the grass-fed patty with a verdant stew of the peppers; their vegetal pungency acts as a nice counterpoint to the gently gamy, grass-fed beef. Combined with a fat slab of lettuce, it is a wonderfully spicy salad of a burger.
While waiting for these creations, a good idea would be to pass the time with an oat-milk tea latte, which often comes out in under 10 minutes. For a particularly intoxicating option, See mixes rose with cinnamon and palo santo; it’s his ode to the ceremonial incense he grew up with going to Catholic school. The frothy beverage is smooth and full bodied, with a hint of sweetness and a powerful perfume. It’s a fine pairing for the chef’s brioche doughnut, currently slathered in an intensely aromatic lime glaze (before, he used passionfruit). The bright acidity of the confection puts it on par with the fine doughnut offerings at Wildair; it easily ranks as one of the city’s most technically astute and innovative pastries.
So, you know where this is going. I’m rating everything at Ursula a BUY, even when the waits are long. Though really, consider showing up later in the day to sample See’s other fare for a quicker experience. And check out Ursula’s Instagram, where the chef announces the details of the regular kitchen takeovers he hosts for visiting queer chefs.
Also keep in mind that Lani Halliday offers her Brutus Bakeshop gluten-free sweets at Ursula. Especially noteworthy is that homemade pop tart. Pastel sprinkles, some of them shaped like stars, decorate the top of the yellow frosted pastry. A thick guava stuffing packs a strawberry-esque aroma and just enough zing to dampen all the sugars. It is a stunner of a dessert, a bit of American nostalgia taken to heightened complexity.