CHOW Tour
Two CHOW editors on a caloric extravaganza exploring innovation, novelty, and deliciousness. rss
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The Mission Burrito, Dissected

Not to be too gross, but if you dissected the stomachs of San Francisco’s population at any time, roughly a third would have the remnants of a Mission burrito inside of them. Cheap, filling, salty, and satisfying, the city's staple is like bagels outside New York: Other cities try to imitate Mission burritos, but they never quite taste right. Roxanne and I are not going to write about sourdough bread, the martini, cioppino, Irish coffee, or all the other things that were supposedly, with varying degrees of truth, invented in San Francisco. But a dip into Mission burrito territory seems necessary when discussing innovation.

What makes a Mission burrito a Mission burrito is, at its most basic level, its size. The flour tortilla is twice as large as one you’d find in the grocery store, stuffed to be about three inches in diameter with beans, salsa, meat, cheese, sometimes avocado and sour cream, and often rice, and wrapped tightly in aluminum foil. You buy it at counter-service taquerias where you can usually watch your food being made behind a short plexiglass divider, the burrito moving down an assembly line of fixings.

The Mission burrito was developed in the heavily Latino Mission District probably in the 1960s—though by whom is disputed. Now it is served everywhere and in all neighborhoods, though the best are still in the Mission, where giant grayish beef tongues, brain, and tripe compete for space on the cutting boards with more gringo-friendly fillings like carne asada (grilled steak), carnitas (deep-fried shredded pork), and al pastor (barbecued pork).

San Franciscans have strong loyalties to their favorite taqueria. We decided to compare the carnitas burritos at our two favorite Mission taquerias, La Taqueria and El Farolito, to analyze the finer points of this city’s staple.

La Taqueria is unique in that it doesn’t put rice in its burritos. Perhaps that was why it weighed in at 1.3 pounds to El Farolito’s 1.7 pounds. A cross-section revealed a generous dollop of roughly chopped tomato salsa in La Taqueria’s, and no visible vegetable matter in El Farolito's. Both burritos were salty, but Farolito’s was extra salty. El Farolito's carnitas (braised pork that’s been fried in fat prior to serving) had a soft, almost wadlike consistency, reminiscent of shredded chicken, but the meat was spiced assertively with what tasted like jalapeño and oregano. Their whole pinto beans were also well spiced and salted. La Taq’s meat tasted porkier, and had a textural contrast between softer bits of meat and chewier, crisper bits. Its beans were a bit bland. But the vegetal, juicy salsa was a delicious counterpoint to the meat. Neither pro burrito maker created too wet of a burrito: The construction remained intact throughout the duration of consumption.

It was difficult to say whether one was “better” than the other. Perhaps La Taq’s was a more refined version, with its slightly slimmer shape and tomato element, whereas Farolito’s was like a drunk or stoned person’s mushy-spicy-salty-fatty panacea. As I have grown older, I consume less of the “silver bullets” than I did in my 20s. But I must say, eating them was like slipping back into a nicely broken-in pair of slightly stinky Chuck Taylors.