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Thursday, January 5, 2012

San Francisco's Top 10 Burritos

Posted By on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Within five minutes of arguing with any San Franciscan about the best burrito in town, it becomes clear that what makes a great burrito is different for all of us. For some people, greatness is impossible without girth. For others, the quality and quantity of the meat is most important, and a few stalwart taqueria regulars refuse to eat a burrito unless the tortilla has been griddled.

SFoodie doesn't really care about size or tortilla heating method. For us, the most important factor is flavor. And not just the flavor of the meat and salsa: The beans must be well cooked, and the rice can't be just filler -- seeing as how you're carbo-bombing your body, the bulk of the wrap should taste like more than starch. A great burrito stacks six or seven good components on top of one another, so that even when you get a bite without cheese, or salsa or meat, you want to keep eating the thing.

Here are our 10 favorite right now:

Papalote's Mission location. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Papalote's Mission location.

10. Papalote Mexican Grill (24th St. location)

We love the fact that Papalote cooks most of the meats in its burritos to order, but the results can be pretty generic, until you drip on Papalote's magic potion: that roasted-tomato salsa. Smoky, tangy, and deep, it electrifies everything it touches, and for us, that means spooning more into the wrap with every bite. You could eat that salsa by the jar -- hey, now you can.

Little Chihuahua. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Little Chihuahua.

9. The Little Chihuahua (Divisadero location)

Lil' Chihuahua may be the only taqueria on this list that buys sustainably raised meat. And that's probably a good thing, on the whole. But SFoodie actually goes there for its black bean and plantain veggie burrito. Most of the Mission's veggie burritos fail because they make a direct substitution of tofu for meat. Tofu will never be meat, no matter how long you simmer it in ranchera sauce. The plantain and black bean burrito starts from a different point altogether: The burrito brings together slices of creamy, sweet fried plantain with roasted red peppers, enough cheese to contain the sugars in the fruit, and black beans, which don't need a hunk of smoked pork to taste meaty.

Gordo Taqueria - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Gordo Taqueria

8. Gordo Taqueria (Clement Street location)

There are a number of Gordos in San Francisco and Oakland, but SFoodie had long written off the chain because we hadn't eaten at the right one: The farthest west location, a tiny takeout joint that looks like it dates back to the San Francisco burrito's earliest days, with prices we haven't seen in Mission taquerias since the 1990s. Here, it's all about the carne asada super burrito; almost every bite hits you with that flash of the salsa, segueing through the char on the steak, the buzzy sub-base of beans and rice, and ending in creamy guac and melted cheese.

El Metate. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • El Metate.

7. El Metate

Apart from the fact that El Metate's dining room, with its faux-finish walls and thick wood tables, is the kind of place we enjoy hanging out at over a book or conversation, the taqueria makes a mean SF burrito. El Metate rolls them tight, which means you're rarely stuck with a mouthful of pure rice. Whether black or pinto, the beans are always good enough to pick out, creamy and meaty (in the figurative sense), and the al pastor and the steak are solid.

La Alteña. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • La Alteña.

6. Taqueria La Alteña

La Alteña, a pleasant enough space whose back door leads into the Mission Market, makes it onto the top rankings for two specialties. Its chorizo, torridly spiced, emitting blasts of cumin and garlic, is always worth building a burrito around. And La Alteña's one of the few taquerias to offer proper pork al pastor -- spit-roasted pork coated in a bright-red marinade. And that pastor: fatty enough to survive a re-crisping on the griddle, densely porky, with the barest hint of sweetness, is so rich that SFoodie never bothers with super-ing our burrito out with sour cream or cheese.

El Toro. - PECANPIEGUY/FLICKR

5. El Toro Taqueria

If you asked SFoodie where you could find the archetypal Mission burrito, we'd have to point you to El Toro, Pancho Villa's smaller, faster sister taqueria, which has been our ol' reliable for two decades. The carnitas isn't so great here, and we've never understood the appeal of a mole burrito, but the pollo asado and al pastor soak up a lot of marinade before the meats make it to the grill, and the beans and rice are always solid. The burrito rollers spoon on enough cilnatro'd-up pico de gallo to give the burrito a bright, oniony crunch, augmented by whatever you find on the salsa bar.

El Farolito on Mission and 24th St. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • El Farolito on Mission and 24th St.

4. Taqueria El Farolito (Mission and 24th St. location)

Though perennially popular, over the years El Farolito has had its ups and downs. SFoodie took a decade-long break from the place after we'd eaten one too many gloopy super burritos there. But after the steak super burrito we ate at El Farolito last week, we have to say, the taqueria is definitely back in form: griddling the burritos so they're blistered and flaky. Keeping girth down to the size of a pro wrestler's wrist in order to keep the flavor of the meat at the fore. Mixing up a pico de gallo with enough of a kick to liven up the beans, and applying the sour cream and cheese with a light hand. Here's how good that burrito was: We pulled the remaining half of the burrito out of the fridge the next day, took a bite, and ate the rest of the thing cold.

La Taqueria. - PAUL LOWRY/FLICKR

3. La Taqueria

Best in town, some say. Not a true SF burrito, others gripe, since it doesn't puff out its skinny burritos with rice. For SFoodie, San Francisco's highest-Zagat-rated taqueria has a few weak points, such as the the grainy, whizzed-up salsa and the bland poached chicken. But nothing compares to La Taq's carnitas burrito, so meaty it makes the beans taste like they were cooked in pork stock. And when you drizzle on the restaurant's scouringly spiced red and green salsas? You'd have to snort a fat line of MSG to top those umami levels. This is a no-sour-cream kind of place -- the burritos don't need it.

La Corneta's Glen Park location. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • La Corneta's Glen Park location.

2. La Corneta (Glen Park location)

When it comes to taquerias, lettuce is the Voldemort. The ingredient-that-shall-not-be-named, the harbinger of evil (OK, mediocrity). La Corneta is the only taqueria in San Francisco allowed to add lettuce to the burritos -- that's because the chicken and steak super burritos there are spectacular: The chicken is so smoky that you can taste the grill through the tortilla, the beans and rice thrum with flavor, and the cheese the taqueria uses has a vivid tang to it. So if there's a little extra crunch from the greens, it's just part of the spectacle.

Taqueria San Francisco's carnitas burrito: classic. - JONATHAN KAUFFMAN
  • Jonathan Kauffman
  • Taqueria San Francisco's carnitas burrito: classic.

1. Taqueria San Francisco

About as humble a taqueria as they get, TSF is a purist's haven: The guys there make a regular carnitas burrito so good you couldn't imagine eating it with gobs of guac or salsa. The balance of beans to meat to rice is perfect; there's no need to keep rotating the burrito, searching for the right angle of attack. A pleasant smell of toasted lard rises up when you bite through the tortilla (griddle-warmed, FYI), flanked by the sharper scents of green chiles and cilantro. And the jars of pico de gallo and throbbing salsa roja sitting on the table are there to turbo-charge every bite. Yes, there's chorizo and al pastor on TSF's menu, and SFoodie swears someday we'll order one with chicken or steak. But only when we get tired of the pork burritos, and that day may be decades in the future.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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