Unfortunately, my girlfriend had, like her sister, been raised on Taqueria La Cumbre, and for the rest of the day our conversation was strained, to say the least. We broke up a few months later (not necessarily because of the burritos), and though my outburst was uncalled for, to this day I believe that La Cumbre is barely a top 10 taqueria in the Mission, itself widely regarded as the home of the world's finest burritos.
If San Francisco has a signature food, the burrito is it. I lived on burritos for most of 1997, and it took me about 30 visits to realize the al pastor (marinated, spit-roasted pork) at the twin Taquerias San Jose is overrated. I remember a place on 24th that used to deliver burritos, but those weren't very good. More recently, I've seen two writers plug the offerings at Taqueria El Buen Sabor. Intrigued, I dropped by and received a bloated, soulless creature -- far too much rice, anemic salsa, al pastor scooped from a bin, for Christ's sake. Was someone getting paid off? I couldn't help but think so. Even such mediocre establishments as El Taco Loco, El Castillito, or La Alteña can do better.
So who makes the Mission's finest? I've now eaten at every taqueria within the area bound by 16th, Mission, Cesar Chavez, and Guerrero streets, and I'd say there are five top emporiums of varying philosophies and styles. Though it may be foolhardy to pick one above all others, I adore burritos enough to take a shot at it. I enlisted my friends Ezra, Elsbeth, and Dan on a Friday night and sampled 15 little burros, hoping to find the single best burrito in the best place to get one on Earth.
The burrito is the result of a meeting between wheat flour and the pre-Colonial corn tortilla, and it first hit the scene in the mid-1800s. A century and a half later, La Taqueria claims to produce "the best tacos and burritos in the whole world." They're small (a 7-inch circumference -- and yes, I used a tape measure), purist versions that eschew rice, sour cream, and avocado in favor of a core of intensely flavorful meat. We started with carnitas (pork sautéed in pork fat) -- slightly chewy, decadently savory shreds of meat set against a nicely balanced backdrop of beans, tomatoes, onions, hot sauce, and cilantro. It was a fine meal, and certainly better than the cabeza (mushy, stewed head meat). But then came the chorizo -- Mexican sausage seared to a crackling, smoky-sweet ferocity, so resplendent with juice that the liquid spilled over the tortilla in a blood-red gush. Everyone raved, angels began singing, and before we knew it, Ezra had exceeded our recommended two-bite limit and taken a third -- a strong endorsement, but a terrible idea considering we had 12 more burritos to go.
With that, we sealed our stubs in plastic bags for further study, then strolled down Mission to El Farolito. To some, El Farolito may seem a bit skanky: We saw bits of meat under the tables, crust on the refried bean bin, and at least three customers who appeared to have spent the previous night in jail. As if to prove that shady characters hang out here, our friend Jennifer walked in and joined us. We ordered a trio of supers, which were huge (nearly 10 inches in circumference) and came with rice, beans, fresh avocado, sour cream, cheese, cilantro, and salsa. The ingredient distribution could have been better -- some bites were all sour cream, others all beans -- but the meats were undeniably superb. The al pastor crunched like autumn leaves, the chicken exploded with clean, clear juice, and the carne asada -- divinely rich meat seasoned with a sharp note of lime juice -- was so irresistible it triggered multiple bites all around.
Next came La Corneta, which is easily the cleanest taqueria in the neighborhood: bright lights; gleaming, pale wood tables; and sponge-painted yellow walls. The place serves new-school burritos -- rice laced with carrots and peas, lettuce inside the tortilla, a modest 8-1/2-inch circumference -- and though I like mine a bit spicier, tableside jars of fiery red and piquant tomatillo salsas helped remedy the situation. A super chicken was a goopy disaster due to far too much sour cream, but we'd come for seafood variety, including a regular fish rendition that contained (of all things) salmon, exuding a delicate floral note. It was marvelous, but the super prawn edged it out -- grilled-to-order crustaceans played off a well-balanced foundation of rice, beans, sour cream, and guacamole, causing Ezra to triple-bite yet again.
Unfortunately, we lost Ezra on our way to Taqueria Can-Cun, where I've eaten at least 150 burritos over the years. During all those visits, I'd never tried the sesos (brains) version, so I ordered one.
"Sesos?" asked the cashier.
I probably should have taken the hint, because the thing about sesos is that it tastes ... well, let's say it's a distinct, slightly sour flavor. Dan didn't mind it, I actually gagged, and no one else would touch the sesos for a million bucks. We moved on to a pair of supers that weren't huge (8 inches in girth) but won us over via a remarkable attention to detail. The tortillas were grilled to a pleasant flakiness (El Farolito also grills its tortillas, but not as well as Can-Cun), chunks of jalapeño tantalized the palate, a distinct note of cilantro took the flavor to the next level, and pockets of fresh avocado were like biting the edge of heaven. Can-Cun's tender carne asada used to be my meat of choice, but lately I've become partial to the al pastor, which brought us all to our knees. The spicing was immense, with cloves and cumin playing off a slight dryness that forced us to grind the al pastor with our teeth to extract every molecule of flavor.
We found Ezra (who'd been doing shots at Beauty Bar) on our way to Pancho Villa, which by taqueria standards was like visiting the Ritz. A security guard worked the door, and the salsa bar offered an unbeatable array of condiments: two salsas frescas, one tomatillo salsa, three darker salsas studded with chili seeds, plus roasted jalapeños, pickled jalapeños, dried peppers, lime wedges, and cool, soothing radishes. At $9.85, the steak and prawns was the most expensive burrito I'd ever seen (and it wasn't even a super) -- a 10-1/2-inch zeppelin stuffed with freshly sautéed prawns, unfathomably smoky strips of grilled steak, and plenty of lettuce, tomato, beans, rice, and salsa. It was so huge it fell open when laid seam up, as did a super carne asada, which oozed rivers of sour cream and guacamole. We finished with carnitas -- picture a log of grease-seeping pork, as big as an entire La Taqueria burrito, folded into one of the behemoths mentioned above.
Then it was time to vote. Ezra preferred the carne asada at El Farolito, Jennifer the al pastor at Can-Cun. If he had to choose one, Dan said reluctantly, it would also be the al pastor at Can-Cun. Elsbeth agreed, but then decided a few days later that the chorizo at La Taqueria haunted her more thoroughly. As for me, I had some 20 pounds of remnants in my backpack, so I spent the next four days eating burritos, dissecting burritos, comparing rices, beans, meats, and salsas. I even froze one (you'd rather be beaten to death with the result than eat it), then went back for seconds of my favorites. In the end I decided I'll never get tired of burritos, and that Pancho Villa (viva salsa!) is my new taqueria of choice.
Still, the point was to choose one above all others, which would have to be the infinitely complex, entirely flawless super al pastor at Can-Cun -- surely the finest burrito in the entire universe.