By Dan Schechner, Photographs by Alex Goldman
As McGill students, we’re lucky that there are countless lunch options around our campus. If you’re in the mood for a particular type of food between classes, anything from a banh mi sandwich to a Neapolitan pizza, you can probably find a place within a reasonable distance from campus that offers it. These eateries recognize that many of their customers are hungry McGill students, and so it is unsurprising that they make an effort to attract more of them. The prevailing dogma seems to be that simply giving student discounts and putting up a “welcome back from the break” sign might be all it takes to attract our valuable dollars. I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Think about the last time you visited a new lunch place for the first time. What brought you there? If you’re like me, it’s very likely that you heard about it from a friend. Maybe they even accompanied you on your first visit, skillfully guiding you through the process, helping you choose a meal that you hopefully remember fondly as “your first time”.
Of course, it’s impossible that everybody hears about a new place from a friend. Some people must have ended up in the restaurant with little to no prior knowledge of how good (or bad) it could be. It could be a split-second impulsive decision – you walk by it, look inside and realize, “hey, this could be good”. Maybe you’re scrolling through Facebook at the library and a Google ad pops up? It’s 2pm and you haven’t had lunch yet – why not give it a shot?
I first visited M4 Burritos one afternoon in November. After a few hours of work in McLennan, I was hungry and desperately in need of a burrito bowl. My normal spot, Quesada, was closed, as it painfully always is on the weekends. I realized that I might have to compromise on my cravings, but I figured I might as well simply search Google Maps for burrito places nearby. My reaction to what I found can be best described in a series of questions.
“Wait, there’s a burrito place just down Peel Street?”
“How have I never heard of M4 Burritos if it’s this close to Bronfman?”
“Should I give it a shot?”
I made up my mind, asked my friend to watch my stuff, and strolled down Peel Street in anticipation. I have been regularly visiting M4 Burritos since.
M4 Burritos is based on the Californian burrito experience. The “M” stands for the Mission District, a neighborhood in San Francisco known for its Mexican and Latin American food offerings. Walking into M4 on a snowy day, the décor completely contrasts the Canadian winter. It has a distinct summerlike feel that emanates California warmth and makes you long for the summer.
I think one reason why students become repeat customers of certain restaurants is the familiarity of the experience. When I go to M4 Burritos, I always get the carnitas bowl – not because it’s the only thing on the menu that sounds good, but because it’s the only thing I’ve ever tried – and for some reason, I can’t bring myself to stray away from it. Frankly, there’s nothing that gives me more joy than when a restaurant remembers my order. I love when the staff asks “carnitas bowl?” before I even mention it, and I know that if I were to ever opt for a barbacoa burrito instead they might stop guessing my order. Obviously this is a little irrational – I’m sure the barbacoa burrito is delicious – but lunchtime is a time for eating, not thinking.
Familiarity isn’t just in the food. I like walking into M4 Burritos because I always see owner Yu Liu wave to me from the back, usually while preparing ingredients or serving another customer. As a recent graduate of Concordia, Liu saw the success of the two existing M4 Burritos locations and knew that the fast-casual style would appeal to McGill students. He opened up the third location on Peel last November in an effort to offer healthy Mexican food at a reasonable price. In his own words, M4 Burritos tries to “serve food quickly without compromising its quality” – and he loves to brag about the freshness of his ingredients. “We don’t have a microwave, we don’t have a freezer – everything is made and prepared in the morning before we open”.
Of course, the food itself is of prime importance. If you’re not enjoying what you’re eating, why return? My favourite thing about M4’s food is that they, as opposed to other Mexican eateries, value the importance of guacamole in the overall experience – a topping that is often treated like a scarce commodity in many lunch spots around McGill. Liu assures me that, “when you ask for guacamole, you get about half an avocado’s worth; We don’t add onions, we don’t add tomatoes – it’s 100% avocado”.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, your lunchtime choice has to be a reasonable distance from the McGill campus. It doesn’t matter if you found the best pho place in the Greater Montreal Area – if it’s far from campus, you’re probably not going to go there very often during the week. Fortunately, M4 Burritos is just down the street from Bronfman and McLennan Library – a building in which many have many classes – and is by all accounts a reasonable distance from most parts of campus. Given what we all know Montreal winter to be, this becomes increasingly important, especially in the few months where students might settle for a lesser lunch option than spend even a minute outside.
Perhaps I just got lucky when I first found out about M4 Burritos. To be fair, I can think of many instances where I did not like a restaurant the first time I tried it. But in this case, maybe I was at the right place at the right time – hungry after some hours in McLennan, on a day where my go-to option for burritos was closed. Now I know that this was a blessing in disguise – a blessing that has since encouraged me not to settle for the huge line up at Quesada. I take great comfort in the fact that next time I visit M4 Burritos, I’ll wave to Yu in the back, chat with the staff, and enjoy a nice healthy lunch.
We’ll see if I give the barbacoa a shot…