When All Else Fails, There is El Farolito

Don Chava, the ur-burrito chain’s founder, died last week at age 70, but his cultural legacy is practically synonymous with S.F. itself.

In the latest salvo from its multiyear series of off-kilter long-reads that skewer San Francisco for its perceived foibles, The New York Times examined the rootless higher-income people who have moved out. Why exactly are they fleeing the city they helped gut, now that it’s no longer necessary to tolerate it here another minute longer? For at least one of them, it’s the overpriced burritos.

The founder of one blockchain startup(!) — a guy who can apparently suss out a fellow ex-San Franciscan from their keyboard array — is among those who’ve since decamped, in his case to San Diego. The final indignity he suffered was fairly minor: paying $15 for a burrito and learning you can get one down in O.B. for a mere six bucks.

This is supposed to be the definitive slapdown, right? This is the hand mirror brought to San Francisco’s nostrils then held aloft for all to see the fog-free glass, indicating that our city is the coroner’s problem now. 

Well, San Francisco is very much alive, but sadly, Salvador “Don Chava” Lopez, the founder of El Farolito, died last week at the age of 70. Barely two years after the death of Virginia Ramos, our city’s definitive Tamale Lady, the reeling Latinx community of the Mission has lost another legend — one who emigrated from Mexico almost 50 years ago and grew a mini-empire of burrito joints alongside a championship amateur soccer club of the same name

As recently as December, El Farolito was racking up “Best Mexican restaurant in California” plaudits, but it was Esquire’s rhapsodic 2013 profile that vaulted the Mission burrito to the national stage, crowning El Farolito’s burrito the “most life-changing.” (FiveThirtyEight, and many Bay Area food writers, side with La Taqueria, but its documented history of rampant wage theft disqualifies it in perpetuity, at least in my book. Also, I like rice.) 

Don Chava didn’t invent the Mission burrito, but El Farolito certainly popularized it as a symbol of affordable decadence. It’s no coincidence that by the mid-2010s, the term “Mission” had come to evoke a cool-hunter cachet more than the NorCal capital of Latinidad. That was the moment when “GBUS to MTV” entered the lexicon, when the tech boom reached its giddy, yes-there’s-an-app-for-that zenith. It’s also when post-recession foodie culture began to interrogate its own whiteness-centering biases, including a fetishization of cheap “ethnic” foods as authentic. Devouring a burrito or a bánh mì was both a money-saving life-hack and a marker of cultural broadmindedness.

So what I want to know is where was this unspecified $15 burrito that we might use to chisel San Francisco’s latest epitaph? Also: What was in it, was it any good, and was the person who led this burrito-eater astray a habanero-averse Rick Bayless fan accustomed to badging into a cafeteria for free food all day, every day? 

Because they almost certainly didn’t go to El Farolito, where even in 2021 you can get a perfectly fantastic carne asada burrito for $7.75, and an extra dollar gets you sour cream and guac. It is true that the “Bosses Burrito,” a more-super-than-super burrito with shrimp and al pastor, runs $14.75. I guess you can order one, eat it, feel dissatisfied, move away, slander it to the Newspaper of Record, then feel as though you have enjoyed satisfaction. But you might as well leave a one-star Yelp review of San Francisco itself, with “needless to say, I won’t be coming back” as your sneering coup de grâce.

Photo courtesy of El Farolito Facebook

El Farolito is everything and serves everyone. I like offal on my tacos — ideally tripe on tacos al vapor at Taqueria Vallarta — but the carnitas super burrito has always been my jam, a hangover cure after sleep, water, coffee, and self-gratification prove inadequate and you’re about to start drinking again. Lengua is my runner-up meat. For many others, the panini-esque quesadilla suiza that El Farolito advertises on its awnings is the ultimate. 

“If Farolito went away, I would get a steak-and-shrimp quesadilla suiza tattoo in its honor,” Wes Rowe of Wes Burger ‘N’ More told me.

The three San Francisco locations — of a dozen in all — serve essentially the same menu, but they’re subtly different. On Mission just north of 24th Street is the clear original: narrow, a little untamed, adjacent to BART. It’s loud. It closes some nights at 3 a.m. It has a bizarrely shaped old-school sign that indefatigable pop historian Burrito Justice determined had belonged to a bar called Smile Awhile. 

The other, slightly chiller one, is at 24th and Alabama streets, full of copies of El Tecolote. The garbage cans have more stickers than the restroom mirror at now-closed Lucky 13. The tip jar is a plastic jug with a handle, which may have originally contained industrial-flavor and -strength orange juice, and they empty it out every 20 customers or so. These days, its tables are turned on their ends and pushed to the edges, making the whole place a big waiting room where people queue along the walls like nervous seventh-graders at the dance. This may be the only place in the world I ever drink soda, and that soda is always a tamarind Jarritos. (Why aren’t more things flavored with tamarind, which tastes like caramelized lemon-ginger candy?)

Then there’s the other other one, on the 4800 block of Mission Street in the Excelsior, two doors up from fellow local institution Hawaiian Drive Inn. Inside, the seats are caution-taped off. Some of them are faux-wood, others millennial pink, but they’re all Formica. Outside, an unclaimed-looking gray parklet styled like an out-of-service F-Market streetcar might actually belong to Hawaiian Drive Inn.

For me, it largely functions like an actual farolito (or “little lighthouse”), a landmark indicating that I’ve biked almost to Daly City. I think I’ve only eaten there once or twice. The people who made El Farolito pan-galactically famous and who are now leaving in embittered droves may have never come at all, if they even knew it was there this whole time. It has a fraction of its siblings’ Yelp reviews. It’s open until 3:45.

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