Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way upfront: Burritos aren’t authentic Mexican food. At least not in the state that most of us have experienced them: floppy, sweaty, swollen roughly to the size of a grown man’s bicep.
Of course, the blueprint of the burrito was sketched below the border. Like most great foods, there are myriad origin myths to contend with, from that of the Aztecs, the world’s first street food fanatics, wrapping meats and beans in corn tortillas as an easy way to convey sustenance from hand to mouth, to the more poetic theory that Mexican wives in the north of the country (where hard wheat is more common than corn) would wrap last night’s scraps—beans, mostly, perhaps a few shreds of meat—into a large tortilla to keep it warm until lunchtime.
But the 21st century burrito, the burrito that you probably know, has more in common with a plate of chicken Parmesan or a carton of General Tso’s than it does with Aztecan history. Like those beloved “ethnic” dishes, it’s a distortion of an idea born in a distant land, shaped by border crossings and cultural pressures. Dishes like these are the scourge of the food cognoscenti, sneered at on foodie forums and laughed at over rounds of mango margaritas. It’s hyphenated fare for people who don’t know better, made saucier, cheesier and dumber for the American palate.
But why are foods like this derided for being bastardizations rather than celebrated for being adaptations? Food evolves with time and circumstance—that’s what makes it so fucking great—and in the United States the entropic effects of assimilation have a hand in most of the country’s greatest dishes. What is American cuisine if not a buffet of tweaked tastes and borrowed dishes?
Few places better embody this than San Francisco’s Mission District. The neighborhood is a cacophonous mix of immigrants and hipsters, grifters and graphers, gangsters and Googlers. Walking through the Mission these days you’ll find bars serving $14, eight-ingredient cocktails next to Latin markets still selling eight limes for a dollar. In recent years, as piles of tech dollars have poured into the Mission, the neighborhood has lost a bit of its bite, but there’s still plenty of spice in this stew.
One axiom continues to hold true: The best food in the Mission (which is to say, among the best food in the city… which is to say among the best food in the country) is the byproduct of cultural convergence. At Mission Chinese Food a Korean-American chef makes tweaked-out versions of Szechuan classics like kung pao pastrami and salt cod fried rice. At Namu Gaji another Korean makes tacos out of seaweed and covers french fries with kimchi and chopped short ribs. At Pizzeria Delfina, a Bay Area couple cooks puffy-rimmed, thin-crust Naples-style pies lavished with the darlings of the California agricultural system: stinging nettles and asparagus and farm-fresh eggs with yolks like Highway 1 sunsets.
And, of course, at the dozens of casual Mexican spots that blanket the neighborhood. There are nearly 100 taquerias in this 10-square block neighborhood, a concentration of al pastor trompos and horchata fountains unrivaled anywhere, save perhaps for a few blessed pockets of Mexico City. But few of these places feel like they belong in Mexico, what with their polished menu boards promising plates of super nachos and chicken quesadillas. And, above all, burritos.
The burrito is subject to many regional variations: the deep-fried shredded beef bombs, otherwise known as chimichangas, of the Tex-Mex cannon; the wet burritos of Mexican-American combo plates, covered in sauce, draped in melted cheese, edible only with a knife and fork and an alcohol-inspired hunger; and, of course, bundle of border fusion, the California burrito, a San Diego staple that replaces the rice and beans with a pile of hot french fries.
But if you’ve eaten a burrito at Chipotle or Qdoba or pretty much any generic Mexican restaurant the world over, the burrito you tussled with was almost certainly a Mission-style burrito.
Sometime during the 60s or early 70s, as the Mission’s Mexican population was soaring, someone (exactly who, predictably, is the subject of heated debate) decided that a tortilla filled with meat and beans wasn’t enough. It needed more body, more spice, more calories. More everything. Thus the Super Burrito was born, a hulking amalgamation of three kinds of starch (tortilla, beans, rice), two kinds of dairy (cheese, sour cream), and a dizzying array of condiments (guac, salsa, hot sauce). It’s not something you eat during your Tuesday lunch break, not if you plan to return to work at least; it’s what you eat before venturing off into the wilderness for a week, a resounding farewell to hunger.
There are many fine examples of the form: Papalote on 24th Street serves a slightly more restrained burrito with what may be the best salsa in the city, La Taqueria stuffs tortillas with gently-larded, crisp-edged carnitas, and Taqueria Cancún pairs late-night hijinx with a heavy hit of chile heat. But for me, when I want a Mission-style burrito in all its bulky beauty, I head to El Farolito.
Farolito is a place where hangovers go to die, a dark, loud, balmy sliver of a restaurant on Mission just off 24th Street that serves food well into the small hours of the morning. The chips are lousy, the salsa is timid, but goddamn do those guys know how to put out a fine burrito.
Farolito’s version weighs in at just under two pounds. The tortilla, about the size of a manhole cover, is first gently coaxed into pliability on the griddle, then layered with great mounds of pinto beans and orange rice, avocado and sour cream, cheese, salsa, and, of course, about eight ounces of finely chopped carne asada.
It lands with a thud on your table, a warm package wrapped tight in shiny foil. You peel it back like a present and for one brief moment it feels like Christmas has come early. There is nothing subtle about the food before you. You won’t think about how the char of the beef plays beautifully off the heat of the salsa and the acidity of the sour cream. In fact, if your tasting notes move much beyond “holy shit”, you’re trying too hard.
If the taco is about the union of warm corn and savory meat, the burrito is about the fellowship of fat, salt and refined carbohydrates. It drips and oozes, gasps and groans, and slowly buckles and unravels under its own weight. By the time you peel back that last inch of foil, it’s gathered itself into a shapeless mass of beef fat and bean paste and salsa detritus. It’s not uncommon to hear slurping at the end of an El Farolito Super.
As tempting as it would be to call this hipster food or white people fare, as I’ve heard it called so many times before, it’s too big, too flexible, too damn delicious to be dismissed so easily. Last week at Farolito I found the place packed with Mexican customers. I didn’t see them ordering tripe tacos or tostadas de ceviche. In fact, not a soul—not the Asian family or the black couple or the group of Latino construction workers—walked through that door that didn’t walk away from the counter with a foil-wrapped football-sized burrito pressed into their palms. Let’s just call it authentically American.