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Friday, July 30, 2010

The Two Oldest Burritos in San Francisco

Posted By on Fri, Jul 30, 2010 at 9:45 AM

Taqueria La Cumbre: Forty years of burritos. - JONATHAN K.
  • Jonathan K.
  • Taqueria La Cumbre: Forty years of burritos.
Part of a series on restaurants that have been around so long they've slipped into a media black hole.

There are two restaurants in San Francisco with legitimate claims to being the inventor of the Mission-style burrito ― which can be identified by its girth (the size of a baby elephant's leg), its carb load (plumped out with rice), and its variability (tailored to individual tastes). Was the ur-burrito served by La Cumbre in September 1969, or by the original, Folsom Street location of El Faro in 1961? SFoodie doesn't really care. However, SFoodie just recognized that we haven't eaten a burrito from either of these two venerable taquerias in years.

Deluxe steak burrito from La Cumbre. - YELP
  • Yelp
  • Deluxe steak burrito from La Cumbre.
While La Cumbre's exterior has grown forlorn over the years, we'd forgotten how it improves once you walk through the door: The room opens up into high ceilings with barn-like rafters, and colorful posters are shellacked onto the heavy wood tables.

SFoodie intended to get our standard order ― a grilled-chicken or carnitas regular burrito with whole beans and avocado. However, every burrito making it way down La Cumbre's assembly line contained carne asada, and the grill cook was cooking beef as fast as he could supply it. So we ordered a steak burrito and, just because we were feeling hometown pride, made it a deluxe, adding guac and sour cream (La Cumbre's super includes lettuce and tomato, and that just ain't right).

click to enlarge The original El Faro: open since 1961. - YELP
  • Yelp
  • The original El Faro: open since 1961.
The wrap: Tight. The first bite: flavorful rice, good beans, cheese already

melted onto the bottom of the wrapper. (Some burritophiles care about

steamed-versus-grilled tortillas, but that's never been as much of a

priority to us as well seasoned meat and rice, which has more

of an impact on the overall flavor.) There wasn't a bland spot in La Cumbre's burrito. Yet after a few bites we

realized that we were chewing. And chewing. The steak might

have gone straight from the grill to the tortilla, but it appeared to have come from the most rubbery cows who've ever grazed the American plains feedlots.

The next day, we rode over to El Faro. The flagship store is clearly of its time (i.e., the same era as the rise of Hardee's and Arby's), but it's still around and still well maintained. In fact, El Faro still has locations in downtown S.F. and Concord, not to mention a successful chain of imitators (El Farolito).

But if El Faro's super carne asada burrito is the Eve of the Mission burrito, the species has since invented the wheel and written language. We watched the cooks spoon refried beans over the rice, followed by chopped steak that had been floating in its own juices on the steam table. Afterward came a shower of cheese, a fat, liquid dollop of guacamole, and a big white squiggle of sour cream. When we picked up the burrito, it sloshed; when we bit in, it spurted ― Mexican beef stroganoff. You may accuse SFoodie of being biased, not to mention disrespectful of our predecessors, but the next time the burrito hunger descends, we're back to our normal haunts.

Taqueria La Cumbre: 515 Valencia (at 16th St.), 863-8205.

El Faro: 2399 Folsom (at 20th St.), 647-3716.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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