15 Rounds Against a Mission Burrito

24th and Mission. Learn it. Love it.

I love burritos. I don’t know if they’re my favorite food (I haven’t had a fois gras burrito… yet), but I once ate burritos for six meals in a row without realizing it until finishing the sixth one. That should give you an idea. I’ve always been firmly entrenched in the camp that burritos are better in Southern California than anywhere else in the world, and when I saw the FiveThirtyEight burrito bracket last summer, I was shocked to see San Francisco was home to the top-seeded burrito. After all, they are 500 miles from the Mexican border, right? Three months after that article came out, I was living in San Francisco, working at a winery for harvest, and building an appetite after occasional twelve to fifteen hour days. There are three notable taquerías in the Mission District of San Francisco: El Farolito, La Taquería, and Taquería Cancún. I decided I would try each of them in my two months of living in the city, and started with El Farolito, the number one burrito according to FiveThirtyEight’s Value Over Replacement Burrito metric (statisticians are the new rock stars, people). I’ll admit that I went in with a chip on my shoulder, scoffing at the notion that Northern California could do something better than its Southern twin. But a few bites into my carnitas super burrito, I was eating crow and proclaiming it the best of the many, many burritos I’d had. It lived up to and surpassed the immense hype surrounding it.

Over the next few weeks, I tried quite a few other burritos in San Francisco, including the famed ones at La Taquería (which went on to be the overall winner of the burrito bracket) and Taquería Cancún (which upset El Farolito in the first round). Taquería Cancún is a really close second to El Farolito in my opinion and La Taquería fails to live up to its championship reputation for being overpriced and not having rice. It’s not that a burrito can’t exist without rice—I love bean and cheese burritos—it’s the arrogance to call it a “super” burrito without one of the cornerstones of the food. The only thing weirder is an experience I’ve had multiple times in San Diego where I order a “name-of-meat-here burrito” and am served a warm tortilla wrapped around that meat and nothing else. There are givens that go with certain foods; only a child would expect solely meat and cheese on a bun when ordering a cheeseburger—the rest of us understand that it also comes with lettuce, tomato, and some sort of spread, without being expressly told so. Yet, at various taco shops in San Diego and La Taquería in San Francisco, this common sense does not apply.

“You had me at ‘meat tornado.'” – Ron Swanson

Needless to say, upon my return to the City by the Bay last weekend, El Farolito was at the top of my culinary wish list. So after a long day of beer and wine tasting, I was ready to satisfy my craving. But before I left, I snacked casually on H.K. Anderson’s Peanut Butter filled pretzels from Costco. These salty crack-bites are completely delicious and quietly filling. My brother and I drove into the Mission District and magically found parking across the street from El Farolito on a busy Friday. Our luck continued as we entered the small building to a relative lack of a crowd. I was intoxicated by the aromas that swirled in the air: steamy rice, sizzling meat hitting the parilla, and warm, inviting tortillas. I ordered my old friend, the carnitas super burrito and took a seat in anticipation. A trip to the salsa bar and a refill of water later, the burrito landed in front of me. I say landed, but a better verb might be “cratered” because this monster had some serious heft to it. In a recent display of their knack for hard-hitting journalism, BuzzFeed posted this investigative report into the weights of Mission burritos. El Farolito’s offering weighed in at 1.63 pounds by their metric and I doubt mine was even one gram shy of that number.

Peanut Butter filled Hubris

The beauty of this burrito lies in its careful construction. Each bite manages to include all the ingredients that make burritos great. You don’t get a pocket of sour cream in the lower third of your burrito, or a heaping of unmelted cheese right when you bite in. A cross section from any length of the burrito will match up with any other. So I munched away in foodphoria, a word I just invented but I’m sure other portmanteau-loving neologians have discovered before, when a sudden feeling came over me. The creeping specter rose from my stomach into my subconscious, before materializing into a single, formed thought: I might not finish this burrito. It couldn’t be. I’d been craving this for months. It was all I wanted. But hubris has been the downfall of many great men, and in my conceit, I’d eaten too damn many of H.K. Anderson’s Peanut Butter filled pretzels from Costco. Now, I was in the fight of my life.

I’d gone about ten rounds with this burrito with all the swagger of an undefeated prizefighter, not realizing it was waiting for the opportunity to get in a good body blow. And it did. With half a pound of carnitas, beans, cheese, rice, sour cream, guacamole, salsa, and tortilla still left in my hand, the wave of satiety hit me. I didn’t need the rest of this monster, but a fire burned in me to beat this thing, to conquer it. If not just for me, the burrito needed to be vanquished for all mankind, for you, dear reader. The voice of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn came into my head and paraphrased, “A day may come when the hunger of men fails, when we forsake our meals and break all bonds of gastronomy. But it is not this day! This day we fight!”  With my heart swelling with pride and my stomach swelling with Mexican food, I chomped away again until there were only two bites left. I stood up and paced, attempting to will the food down to make more room. I whispered a small invocation to the muses: Adam Richman, Joey Chestnut, and Takeru Kobayashi. I had the burrito against the ropes, but it managed to get in one last jab before I delivered the knockout blow. Note the following facial progression:

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I had won, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Only time will tell whether the groans I made in agony the rest of the evening were worth it. I was too full to stand, too full to enjoy cocktails at the amazing bar Trick Dog down the street, and too full to smile. But inside there was a quiet satisfaction under all that dyspepsia: I’d shown up ill-prepared and still managed to succeed. Sadly, I feel my victory undermined the lesson I should have learned: don’t eat unnatural amounts of food in one sitting, and don’t do it after snacking on H.K. Anderson’s Peanut Butter filled pretzels from Costco.

 


Are there better burritos out there, in the Mission or otherwise? Should I have a limit? Some shame? Let me know!

The Best Fish Tacos I’ve Had (So Far)

I woke up dreaming of fish tacos—or rather, I woke up having just dreamt of fish tacos. Rarely do I spend my sleeping moments eating, although I would probably keep my stomach thinner and my wallet fatter if I did, and in such cases I take it as a sign. Luckily for me, I awoke in San Diego, which happens to be this country’s Mecca for fried fish in a tortilla topped with crema and cabbage. The craving was not completely out of thin air; earlier this month I finished reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must Have Been Something I Ate, a collection of essays from the acclaimed Vogue food writer, and in one of the chapters Steingarten recounts his search for the best fish taco in Baja California. I didn’t feel like crossing the border at Tijuana nor driving out of my way to the much further Tecate Port of Entry, so my fish taco was to be a domestic one.

We are quick to take the advice of others when it comes to food—especially when it comes to food. If someone tells me to check out a new movie or a band, I may remember it or even bother to write it down and hope for the best later, but if I catch wind of a great burger, it better be on a plate in front of me within a few days. As such, we give a lot of credence to food writers and reviewers and trust them to inform our gastronomic habits. So I googled the “best fish taco in San Diego” and looked for the first credible source. While I admittedly often rely on Yelp, this was not the time for crowdsourced reviews plugged into an algorithm that rewards businesses that pay for advertising. This was a time for a culinary guide, and as it turned out, Joe Satran of the Huffington Post would be my Virgil. Satran had fortunately done the hard part for me and visited nearly 20 taquerías and rated them. I chose the one that offered the best blend of quality and proximity and his runner-up taco was the closest to me at a mere five miles away.

The drive to Bahía Don Bravo was a short and pleasant one on this California winter’s day—the kind of 72 degrees and sunny that the Mamas and the Papas sang about. Though a road closure put an extra two minutes between my tacos and me, it was hard to be too broken up about it while driving along the coast. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” was playing on the radio as I found a parking spot. Bahía Don Bravo is an unassuming edifice on the corner of La Jolla Boulevard and Midway Street, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. While trying to be objective (and knowing full well that the idea of reviewing food is inherently subjective), I found myself set up to enjoy my meal based on the setting alone. After all, I’m sure the same fish taco tastes better along the California coast than it does in Duluth in February.

I ordered two classic fish tacos, each clocking in at $1.99, and a Negra Modelo on draft. I couldn’t help but notice that even at this little Mexican joint, with its six beer taps, one of them was reserved for Ballast Point’s Sculpin, the world-class IPA that has gone from specialty beer to near-ubiquity in about three years. While in hindsight, the citrus notes of that beer would have paired nicely with the tacos, at the time I was thinking auténtico and went with Mexico’s second best large-scale offering. For the record, they actually had our southern neighbor’s best mass production beer, Bohemia, but I felt inclined towards draft over bottle in this particular instance.

tacos

A Portrait of Perfection

Barely had that first sip of dark lager passed over my tongue when order number 17 was called and my tacos were ready. They certainly looked the part: yellow corn tortillas enveloping the golden beer-battered cod, the milky white crema, and the subtle verdant shades of shredded cabbage. As a bonus, Bahía Don Bravo adds a small dollop of chunky pico de gallo on top of the edible package. I appreciated the slight rigidity of the tortillas which held the tacos upright without human intervention, yet completely retained their softness. I took a bite. In an instant, the craving of my dream was satisfied. The first impact was the textural interplay between the soft tortilla and the crunchy exterior of the fried fish—itself giving way to tender, juicy cod inside. The flavors were exactly what I was expecting in the best way possible. Savory fish, zesty crema, a hint of bitterness from the cabbage, and a host of different sources of sweetness from the tortilla, onions, and tomatoes had my taste buds working hard to catch up with my appetite. And, as if the variation in texture and flavor was not enough, the temperature of the taco’s components ranged from the almost-sizzling cod straight out of the fryer to the cool cabbage and crema, which nicely calmed the heat of the fish.

I find that the most enjoyable meals are ones that either extract a maximum of flavor from three or four ingredients or contain various different elements working in harmony with one another. Although not extremely complex, this was the latter. How can you not enjoy such a commixture of different flavors, textures, and temperatures? The experience was so pleasant that I nearly forgot to enjoy sipping my Negra Modelo between bites, but thankfully, I did not. I finished, craving and hunger both satisfied, and watched the world go by as I basked in the accomplishment of my day’s only goal.

I’ve had other fish tacos at places much more swanky that Bahía Don Bravo in both Los Angeles and San Diego—ones served on a plate rather than on a styrofoam tray—but to me, they don’t compare. And that’s okay. I’m grateful to live in a place where I can extract nearly as much pleasure from a five-dollar meal as from a prix fixe tasting menu, and where such restaurants can exist only blocks apart. It’s a nice reminder that sometimes, dreams come true.


Are there better fish tacos out there? Do you have a family recipe I should know about? If so, PLEASE let me know.