Contrary to the popular belief that the burrito is a resolutely Mexican delicacy, the truth is that it’s far more of a “Cal-Mex” (Californian-meets-Mexican) success story. You can certainly track down burritos in the northern reaches of Mexico, but you’re likely to find far more complex and embellished versions north of the border – particularly in San Francisco, the birthplace of the Mission-style burrito.
The story goes that, one day in 1961, Febronio Ontiveros, manager of sandwich/taco shop El Faro in San Francisco’s Mission district, decided to shake things up for his daily clientele of hungry firemen by concocting an oversized version of a standard burrito. By piling extra meat, plus cheese, vegetables, salsa, and (for the brave) sour cream atop the burrito’s foundation of Mexican rice and refried beans – before wrapping the entire hot mess in a jumbo-sized tortilla – Ontiveros created what would, within a few decades, become California‘s greatest contribution to lowbrow food culture since the fast-food hamburger.
Today, San Francisco’s 47 square miles are awash in well over 150 taquerias, nearly all of which specialize in Mission-style (a.k.a. super) burritos. As you’d expect in such a bean-and-salsa-saturated market, certain taquerias here merit more credibility than others. Here are five of the best bets for burly burritos by the bay.
LA ESPIGA DE ORO
As San Francisco’s bourgeois factor has exponentially increased in recent years, the city’s Mexican dining scene has seen an influx of stylish, higher-priced options. For the salt-of-the-earth taqueria enthusiast, however, La Espiga de Oro perseveres undaunted. With an inviting open-air entrance, chicharonnes (deep-fried pork skins) on the menu, and ruthlessly grilled tortillas cradling its top-shelf burritos, this family-run operation has been an unsophisticated mainstay along 24th Street in the heart of the Mission district since the early 1990s. Note that the place closes by 7pm most evenings, so don’t delay your arrival into mid-evening (or later).
La Espiga de Oro: 2916 24th St (near Florida St)
Another family-operated burrito shop that got its start in the 1990s, Papalote was the first San Francisco taqueria to significantly up the ante on the quality of its ingredients (and charge a dollar or two more for the privilege) en route to reaping major rewards for its fresh slant on standard taqueria fare. It’s just about impossible to go wrong with anything on the menu here – carnivores and vegans routinely rave about the carne asada and marinated tofu, respectively – but it’s Papalote’s universally adored roasted tomato salsa that’s the true secret weapon of the tiny kitchen, and it’s available alongside a basket of warm chips served with every order. There’s also a wide variety of beer available.
Papalote: 3409 24th St (near Valencia St) and 1777 Fulton St (near Masonic Ave)
The Richmond and Sunset districts, which dominate the west side of San Francisco, aren’t quite as well known for Latin American flair, but it’s finally becoming an open civic secret that there’s no shortage of exceptional taquerias on the foggier side of the city. At the top of the mist-covered heap stands Gordo Taqueria, whose three Richmond and Sunset locations roll up hundreds upon hundreds of chubby burritos daily. Watching a Gordo burrito technician ply his craft behind the ordering counter is an exercise in cool efficiency, and while your lunch or dinner may not look remarkably special as its emsemble of ingredients is assembled in a matter of moments (with your crucial input, of course), the aluminum-foiled result is invariably heavenly. Request a grilled tortilla.
Gordo Taqueria: 1233 9th Ave (near Lincoln Way), 2252 Clement St (near 24th Ave), and 5450 Geary Blvd (near 19th Ave).
EL BURRITO EXPRESS
Some call it El Burrito Express, others know it as the Burrito Train, and the acronym-happy make it sound like an airport by referring to it as simply EBX. Local colloquialisms aside, this stalwart taqueria remains a perennial favourite for its burrito options both mainstream (all the usual carnivorous and vegetarian suspects are on offer) and slipstream (El Gigante, in tribute to the local baseball squad’s uniform colours, features black beans and sweet potatoes; the macho burrito is the approximate size of your head). Those with sizeable appetites early in the day may wish to drop by during morning hours for a belt-busting breakfast burrito. It’s closed on Sunday, but there’s beer available to enjoy with your burrito all the other days.
El Burrito Express: 1812 Divisadero St (near Bush St) and 1601 Taraval St (near 26th Ave)
Traditionally known for its exceptional, avocado-rich vegatarian burrito – to say nothing of its blindingly yellow-and-red interior colour scheme – Taqueria Can-cún has managed to keep its menu prices among the lowest of any San Francisco taqueria while never resorting to serving Grade-F monkey meat. On the contrary, in fact; Can-cún’s meat burritos, from carnitas pork to pollo asado to carne asada, are all equally reputable, as are its fiery salsas (although the chips with which they’re served could use a bit of work). Order a flavourful horchata to complement your meal – Can-cún’s sweet, rice-cinnamon agua fresca beverage offsets spicy foods splendidly well. Beer is also available.
Taqueria Can-cún: 3211 Mission St (near Valencia St), 2288 Mission St (near 19th St), and 1003 Market St (near 6th St)