Sunday, October 09, 2005

Revelation 9: Burritos!

Yes, we're back on the topic of food in San Francisco and environs, this is most likely our penultimate California post, and, believe me, we may very well have saved the best for last.

We carried out a few taste tests while we were out in California, but there's no question that the most comprehensive taste test, and the the most satisfying one, was our burrito taste test. Once we got going, it was hard to stop. Every day we wanted to sample another taqueria's goods, or at least return to a favorite taqueria. Part of the "problem" was that we were staying with my sister in Noe Valley, just a short hop from most of the finest taqueria's in San Francisco (if not the known universe). Sometimes we almost had to force ourselves to go elsewhere and try out other cuisines to round out our experience of the Bay Area's best eats, when all we really wanted was another burrito. We don't really have this "problem" here in Montreal. There's been a spurt in the number of quality Mexican eating establishments here over the last few years, but, as of yet, there are no taquerias here that can hold a candle to those of San Francisco. I'm reminded of a line from that short-lived Spenser For Hire spin-off that focused on Spenser's associate Hawk. If memory serves me well, the line went as follows: "Take the baddest dude you know, multiply him by 2, add a couple of zeroes to that, and that doesn't even come close to how bad Hawk is" [actually, on second thought, I'm sure that wasn't an example of memory serving me "well"]. The same could be said of the relationship between a Montreal burrito and a San Francisco burrito from a place like Casa Sanchez, let alone a place like La Taqueria.

We knew we had a limited amount of time and we'd have to work fast, so we headed straight into the Mission District when we got to San Francisco and made Casa Sanchez our very first stop of the entire trip. From that point on, we tried to not let two or three days go by without having another burrito. Sometimes I wish I was more like Calvin Trillin, who claims to only be a serious eater, not a serious cook. Our desire to take advantage of the local shops and markets, with their excellent local ingredients, and to cook at home probably kept us away from quite a number of magical food discoveries--god knows what kind of Mexican and Mexican-American delights we might have chanced upon had we had more meals on the town!--but, then again, it also kept us from running out of money within 3-4 days of arrival (as opposed to 14).

When our informal burrito taste test was done, we'd tried everything from breakfast burritos (like the one pictured above--with eggs, bacon, and sausage--that we had at the Alameda Flea Market), to baked burritos (in an American-Mexican [if you catch my drift] restaurant in San Juan Bautista, to vegetarian burritos (both standard bean-based burritos, as well as a grilled vegetable burrito), to chicken, pork, and beef burritos, and a whole range of tacos (in some cases, as "dessert") to boot.

I've been going to Casa Sanchez to have their burritos for over 10 years now, I love the selection of salsas they offer from their salsa bar, and as long as they continue to maintain their high standards when it comes to their burritos and tacos I'll continue to be loyal, but the two biggest revelations of the trip, in terms of burritos and tacos, were found elsewhere. In both cases--one traditional, the other a bit more new-fangled--what distinguished our top choices from the competition had to do with the quality of the grilling, the freshness of the ingredients, and, perhaps most immediately, the tortilla itself. It's amazing what a difference just the tortilla alone can make, in terms of texture and in terms of overall flavor.

As a former vegetarian I feel a little strange saying this, but, I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of Papalote from the moment I laid eyes on their menuboard with its wide selection of vegetarian and vegan burritos. I remember thinking, "This place is awfully close to Noe Valley. Maybe it's just the taqueria equivalent to that yuppie botanica around the corner from Karina's place on Church." Any doubts I might have had were erased within a matter of minutes when we received our three burritos--one grilled vegetable and black bean, one grilled prawn, and one carne asada. As vegetarian burritos go, the grilled vegetable and black bean was by far and away the best we encountered during our trip. Understandably, vegetarian burritos in traditional taquerias can often be a little lackluster. Papalote's was anything but. The true standouts, however, were the grilled prawn burrito and the carne asada burrito. I couldn't believe how generous the prawn burrito was, and the carne asada burrito was tender, juicy, and wonderfully seasoned. Excellent.

If we had to pick our very favorite taqueria, though, it seems as though we'd be in agreement with the overwhelming majority of San Francisco's burrito aficionados: La Taqueria. We tried their vegetarian burrito (pictured below), their chicken burrito, and their carne asada and carnitas tacos over the course of a couple of visits. The vegetarian burrito wasn't nearly as inspired as the one we had at Papalote, but everything else was fantastic. We had a hard time deciding which meat--chicken, beef, or pork--we liked the best, they were all so delicious, and La Taqueria's burritos come "unadulterated," without any rice, so you really get your money's worth. Plus, the atmosphere at La Taqueria is just so classic. We became La Taqueria regulars in just two short weeks in San Francisco; there's no question that we would be regulars if we actually lived there.

burrito, La Taqueria
Originally uploaded by michelle1975.

Regrets? Sure, San Francisco is absolutely overwhelming when it comes to Mexican and Mexican-American delicacies. My biggest regrets were that we never chanced upon the legendary Tamale Lady who makes the rounds of the Mission's bars late at night (although I had the pleasure of having one of her tamales years ago, so I know she would have easily merited her very own "Revelation"), and we didn't begin to scope out those vending trucks you find in the Mission, Potrero Hill, and vicinity. Oh, well, we'll be back...

Casa Sanchez, 2778 24th St., San Francisco, CA (415) 282-2400

Papalote, 3409 24th St., San Francisco, CA, (415) 970-8815

La Taqueria, 2889 Mission St., San Francisco, CA, (415) 285-7117



Anonymous said...

That's Tamale Lady to you, brother.

Virginia is a sweetheart and a godsend to Mission barhoppers! Hell, someone even made a documentary about her called Our Lady of the Tamale, or something like that.

aj kinik said...

hi Karina,
Oops, sorry about that. I'll make the correction ASAP.

I need to get a copy of that documentary. Did you actually see it? Is it interesting?


Anonymous said...

I have the good fortune of living very close to La Taqueria and am definitely a regular there. I generally prefer the tacos (especially the carnitas) over the burritos, but you're right that it's hard to decide. For tacos, it's my hands down short list choice.

aj kinik said...

Hi Brett,
We loved both their burritos and their tacos. We had a carnitas taco once "for dessert" after having split a chicken burrito and carne asada taco combo for lunch. It was so damn good we threatened to go to La Taqueria "for dessert" again on a few more occasions. Things were starting to get out of hand. That's when we knew it was time to head back home.

Who else is on your short list?

Anonymous said...

When Jen and I were in San Fran (for a friend's wedding), we had a Farolito burrito that was transcendent. It struck me that you never know where your next food revelation will come from. After eating at Gary Danko we both agreed that while it was a delicious meal, and a fantastic dining experience, the burritos at Farolito were a more memorable, and arguable better tasting food experience (I had marinated pork, Jen chicken, we both had Horchata -- mine straight up, hers mixed half and half with strawberry juice).

Maybe I'm restauranted out, or my Czech and French-Canadian peasant-food loving genes are winning out...

aj kinik said...

Hi Michel,
I know what you mean. One of our last nights in SF we treated ourselves to a dinner at Zuni Café. We had a wonderful dinner including their legendary roast chicken for two. Everything was perfect. But, the truth is, I've given a lot more thought to La Taqueria (and Philz, and the Swan Oyster Depot, etc.) than to Zuni since returning to Montreal. It's the difference between a place you love and a place you love and love to frequent (or, in this case, a bunch of places you would love to frequent if you only lived in that particular city).

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the Tamale Lady doc, but I'm sure it's a very loving portrayal.

Also, the Bay Area's fleets of taco trucks deserve props. One of the best veggie burritos I've ever had was from a truck in Oakland. Luckily my friend spoke fluent Spanish and was able to order us two with the works, though the cook found it strange that we didn't want any meat. (Silly Anglos, I know.)

There are trucks (El Tonayense) parked regularly at Harrison and 22nd Streets, but I think they make the rounds in the Mission.

I keep passing a taco cart way down on 24th that smells amazing.

And don't get me started on Fruitvale's pupuserias.

aj kinik said...

Hi Karina,
Please, tell us about Fruitvale's pupuserias!

brother A

Anonymous said...

I just returned from San Fran yesterday and already I am craving mission street burritos & agua frescas. Know anywhere in Montreal that could help fight the hunger?

aj kinik said...

Hi, Anonymous,
not really

talk about a million-dollar idea

we make ours at home