There comes a time when one must take up the food gauntlet and choose sides. Chocolate versus vanilla. Pepperoni versus sausage. San Francisco versus the East Bay.
Everyone may be moving to Oakland, but will they regret leaving their neighborhood restaurants behind? Is San Francisco still the top dining destination in the Bay? Starting today, we'll be comparing the best from Fog City to the East Bay, beginning with perhaps the most quintessential Bay Area dish of them all -- the burrito.
The Mission district has long been the favored destination for burrito-philes. You can barely take a step down Mission Street without landing in front of a taqueria that feeds everyone from hungry lunch-goers to late-night drunken bar-hoppers. But the Mission doesn't have a monopoly on good burritos. In Oakland's Fruitvale district, it's equally easy to soak up a few beers with a carne asada or juicy carnitas. Further up I-80, there are dozens of killer taco and burrito trucks; as long as you know where to look, you're never too far from the comfort of warm meat wrapped in a giant tortilla.
Can any of these East Bay joints rival a true Mission burrito? I sampled a pork burrito each from perennial Mission favorite Taqueria Cancún and Berkeley's hidden gem, La Mission Mexican Grill to find out.
Taqueria Cancún: Carnitas burrito with "everything" ($4.50, comes with chips and salsa)
I stopped in to Cancún for an early lunch one recent afternoon, and the taqueria was already jam-packed with an Edible Excursions tour of The Mission and plenty of other single diners like myself. Despite the crowd, my carnitas burrito came out within minutes of ordering; the gratis chips and salsa got little attention.
After sawing the burrito in half, I was surprised to see very little meat. Beans, rice, and salsa were all clearly present, but it took a few big bites to discover huge mounds of pork hiding at both ends of the burrito. This pork, once I found it, was tender and well seasoned, with an abundance of prized fried edges. Equally as tasty were the creamy pinto beans, expertly cooked with nary a burst skin in sight. The rice, however, was a greasy, starchy disappointment; it served only to clog up the burrito with extra bulk. A generous pour of spicy salsa was a nice complement to the mild pork, but the few stray hunks of jalapeño were an unpleasant surprise. Wrapped around the filling is a fine example of a flour tortilla: soft and supple, yet strong enough to hold back the tide of pork juice.
La Mission Mexican Grill: Chile Colorado pork burrito with black beans ($6.55)
La Mission doesn't look like it would serve decent Mexican food. It sits in a former Taco Bell on University Avenue in West Berkeley, a mile or so down the road from Cal's campus. But the space is transformed upon stepping inside and breathing in a deep whiff of the aromas of simmering mole, braising pork, and freshly fried tortilla chips.
Unlike Taqueria Cancún, La Mission specializes in braised meat dishes like mole poblano, mole guajillo, chile Colorado, and chile verde. Each comes with chicken or pork and can be ordered in a burrito or on a platter. And yes, their burritos are significantly more expensive than Cancún; in a move that shouldn't be surprising given their location, La Mission uses happy, antibiotic-free meat. It comes at a cost.
My lunchtime choice was a chile Colorado burrito with pork, black beans, and rice. La Mission's pinto beans come cooked with chorizo, which is a bit of an unfair advantage. Composition-wise, La Mission was far more successful. Each bite of burrito exhibited balance, with an even spread of beans, rice, and pork. The pork itself is well prepared, falling into tender shreds in the fiery chile Colorado sauce. The beans are humble and fairly bland; there's nothing terribly wrong with them, but they do little to stand out. La Mission's rice, on the other hand, is stellar -- with individual grains coated in a savory, rich tomato sauce. Like Cancún, La Mission's tortilla is first-rate vessel for the filling inside.
It's a close call, but one burrito has to win. Let's break it down.
Rice: La Mission
Sauce/Salsa: La Mission
Composition: La Mission
The winner? La Mission and the East Bay. (Please keep your torches and pick-axes at home.)