Joel Harris met his college sweetheart while attending UMass-Amherst as a journalism major. When he got his first job after college, writing for Foster’s Daily Democrat in Portsmouth, late nights at the office hindered his relationship. He soon realized he needed to put his pen down and dedicate his time to bringing his love to the seaside city. And what was a city without a place to get a good burrito after work?
Harris is now one amigo of Dos Amigos Burritos, a homegrown franchise he started with Portsmouth restaurateur Jay McSharry in 2003. The pair opened their fifth restaurant in Manchester on Sept. 30.
“We were so successful right off the bat in Portsmouth, we had the idea that New Hampshire was hungry for something like this,” Harris said.
When gearing up to bring their burritos to the Queen City, Harris and McSharry took extra time and spent extra money to make their newest location a flagship store for the franchise.
“We always thought of Manchester as a goal for us,” Harris said. The new eatery, formerly a dollar store and T-shirt shop, was completely gutted, the ceiling raised, the brick walls exposed and wooden beams added, as a reflection of the city’s mill district. The restaurant seats an estimated 40 guests, including seven seats lining a counter against the front window, giving diners a street-level view of Elm Street.
“We opened our first store when I was 23,” Harris said. “The store kind of matured with me.”
“I definitely feel this is our best one yet,” he added.
As McSharry, whom Harris met through his work at Foster’s, owned two other eateries in Portsmouth, he asked Harris to earn some restaurant credentials by working at burrito restaurants before agreeing to go forth with the venture eight years ago.
“He worked his way up through restaurants and felt the experience was critical to owning a restaurant,” Harris said.
Harris went on the man the counter at the eatery that started it all — Bueno Y Sano in Amherst, Mass. — and also worked at burrito businesses in Portland, Maine, and Boston, Mass.
“I applied like everyone else,” he said. “I didn’t steal any recipes. It wasn’t corporate espionage.”
Harris did, however, pick up a few ideas from the three restaurants and created his own “greatest hits” menu. Along the way chefs and consultants worked with the pair to expand the eatery’s offerings. The chef at the Manchester location is a Le Cordon Bleu culinary school graduate.
Of the menu’s 15 burrito varieties, Harris said the barbecue chicken burrito and the fish burrito (made with farm-raised catfish) are his favorites.
“I love the fact that burritos are a meal in one tortilla, wrapped up and ready to go,” Harris said. “I think they’re a perfect food for the speedy lifestyle of today.”
Each burrito at Dos Amigos weighs in at 18 to 22 ounces, Harris said.
“We don’t want anyone to leave hungry, that’s for sure,” he said. Dos Amigos also does not leave anyone out as the menu features more vegetable options than meat to cater to vegans and vegetarians, and a gluten-free menu is available by request (gluten-free corn tortillas are used for all eight tacos and Harris said he is looking to bring in gluten-free burrito wraps). All-natural, hormone-free chicken and steak are used regularly at all five locations, as is fresh local produce when available. “We’re constantly trying to reinvent ourselves and look at bringing in more organic and local items,” Harris said.
All burritos are layered with rice, black beans, lettuce, salsa fresca and Monterey Jack cheese and are served on the diner’s choice of a white or whole wheat tortilla (diners may opt to skip the tortilla and order a burrito bowl) with sour cream or yogurt and mild, medium, hot or XXX sauce, which Harris said he has seen grown men cry after trying.
“It’s made with two pounds of habañeros and has flavor as well — a lot of hot sauces just burn you,” he said. The restaurant is now also offering a carrot habañero sauce, an employee creation made with honey, ginger, grilled carrots and habañero peppers. “As you eat more and more it builds in heat,” Harris said, noting that the special sauce falls between the hot and XXX sauces on the spiciness scale.
The black beans in every burrito at Dos Amigos are sorted by hand and cooked on the premises (the only ingredients not made from scratch at the restaurant are the tortillas and the barbecue sauce).
“We take great pride in our ingredients,” he added. “I think they’re the key to a good product.”
In addition to the four regularly offered nacho platters, Dos Amigos offers a “Nacho of the Week.” Most recently it was “Spooky Nachos,” an employee creation topped with sweet potatoes, black beans, corn salsa and guacamole. “We want our employees to come up with recipe ideas,” Harris said. “It’s important for them to feel as they though they are part of something.”
Another popular menu item at Dos Amigos is the award-winning Loco Chili, made with steak, ground beef, pork tenderloin and spicy sausage. The Vegan Chili is made with 16 different beans, carrots, corn, tomatoes and onions.
With all menu items made to order, Harris said it has been a little difficult to keep up with the lunch rush in the Queen City.
“It’s like someone fires a gun at noon, everyone races in here, then they fire another at 1 p.m. and everyone is gone,” Harris said. To speed up the ordering process, Harris plans to add a second register to be used solely for call-ahead orders.
“We always have to tweak things; different locations bring different challenges,” Harris said.
Harris said he and McSharry take pride not only in their food but also in the areas they serve. The restaurant has sponsored a handful of arts and cultural programs. Wednesday nights at Dos Amigos are Community Nights, evenings for local non-profits to share their mission at the restaurant, which donates $1 for every burrito sold that night and 50 cents for every taco to the organization.
“It’s important for us to be part of the community, that’s why all of our locations are downtown … we think it’s important to support local farms and communities,” Harris said.