By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
I didn't realize the extent to which people love their Mission District burrito of choice until a few years ago, when a former girlfriend's sister (who was visiting from Cleveland, but grew up in the Bay Area) asked if we could drive to Taqueria La Cumbre for her and pick up a half-dozen varieties so she could freeze them and take them back to Ohio. It was a terrible day -- frigid July winds, traffic that felt like simmering murder, high clouds that hadn't broken for weeks and seemed to smother all hope and desire. The city was angry, we couldn't find parking, and after our third trip around the block I lost it: This was insane, I told my girlfriend. I could think of seven places in the Mission that make better burritos than Taqueria La Pinche Cabrón Cumbre.
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.
3071 16th St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
El Farolito super carne asada -- $4.25
La Corneta super prawn -- $6.95
Can-Cun sesos (brains) -- $3.20
Can-Cun super al pastor -- $4.25
Pancho Villa steak and prawns -- $9.85
Pancho Villa super carnitas -- $6.45
La Corneta Taqueria, 2731 Mission (at 23rd Street), 643-7001. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49. Noise level: moderate.
La Taqueria, 2889 Mission (at 25th Street), 285-7117. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (8 p.m. on Sundays). Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49. Noise level: moderate.
Taqueria Can-Cun, 2288 Mission (at 19th Street), 252-9560. Open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12:45 a.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 49. Noise level: loud.
Taqueria El Farolito, 2777 Mission (at 24th Street), 826-4870. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 14, 48, 49; BART. Noise level: moderate to loud.
Taqueria Pancho Villa, 3071 16th St. (at Valencia), 864-8840. Open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 26, 22. Noise level: loud.
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 Taqueriaclaims 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.