When you move to the Mission District from somewhere far away, you learn about taquerias and what they offer. You realize that tacos are special snacks, plebian tapas, almost, and a topic worthy of a conversation all their own. Platters of grilled meat with fluffy rice, puddles of beans, negligible watery salads, and stacks of tortillas are for dads and adolescent boys. Quesadillas are tempting because their fully suiza'd incarnations incorporate a burrito's most appealing elements -- the meats, the flag-hued trifecta of guacamole, salsa, and sour cream, and so on -- but every time you try to down one, you sweat cheese and suffer cramps. Nachos are a little silly, masochistic, a nutritional mockery; they belong in sports bars, where they should never be ordered. Portable, tasty, and immensely filling, burritos are your thing. Ohio had burritos too. So did Kentucky. But, until California-style wraps invaded the fast food lexicon, those were vile orange cheddar-and-ground beef roll-ups populating the refrigerated cases of gas stations and college dining hall steam tables. You never ate them before, but now, having thrown down new roots in America's burrito basket you try many variations on this startling new discovery, too many, in fact, your stomach wearily tells you again and again, as you retire to bed at least two or three nights a week with a baby-sized slug of meat, beans, rice, and tortilla burrowed into your gut. After a few months of playing the field, following recommendations and wandering blindly into the taquerias with the catchiest names, you home in on the burritos you like best. For a time, with each salsa-flecked triumph, you have a new favorite destination. With like-minded connoisseurs, you debate the merits of various establishments' interpretations of the form. Out-of-town visitors always want to know where to find a good burrito. By the time they get around to asking you, you're wiser, over the course of weeks and months, a true aficionado. You come to understand that, while there are many very good burritos in your neighborhood, seeking out the perfect specimen is a impossible undertaking.
The best taquerias are frequently inconsistent. Even at the top of the heap, most earn their stripes for doing a specific few things really well -- a sublime meat or two, expertly seasoned and stewed or grilled, a special salsa, perhaps, or a unique portioning and folding method permitting an ideal and harmonious mix of wet, dry, spicy, rich, and acidic substances within. You never find a burrito that synthesizes all the traits you hold dear, but you do learn, for example, that El Metate's burritos are smaller than most you see in the Mission, a dependable, yet mildly sporty sedan navigating streets dominated by cumbersome trucks. Devotees tear up like Paula Abdul over the taqueria's sensational pork in chile verde. El Metate's burrito-crafters refrain from toasting the outsides of burritos prior to wrapping them in foil, but their innards more than compensate. If you ask at the right time, you might get your mitts on a bag of confetti-colored flour tortilla chips and a cup of extra-spicy salsa. A late-night hotspot for hungry drunks, El Farolito toasts admirably. Its strongest filling is boiled chicken, sublime moist shreds that could have been birthed in a cauldron of noodle soup. The salsa bar at Farolito is puny, but the green, as it's invariably called, puts it on par with the grand spreads you see at frillier taquerias – a creamy, avocado-slicked puree you want to slip into an i.v. after dipping a chip or two. El Castillito really toasts, more thoroughly than Farolito, until the shell of a burrito is flaky and singed, almost like a shawarma. Re-fried beans, often eschewed, excel here; they act as edible glue, fusing with melted cheese to unite the more flavorful components. Papalote has a rust-colored salsa so smooth and unctuous you can easily convince yourself it contains cream and butter. Irrigate the interior of your fresh shrimp burrito, and take home a few jars to eat ice cream.
Don't get me wrong though. I'm not telling you where to go for a burrito. Anyone you meet out here can tell you where to find one -- if you don't already know by now. As local media has noted over the last few years, there are numerous websites dedicated to the enjoyment and evaluation of burritos around town. I'm thinking primarily of the diligent and judicious Burrito Eater. Similar operations drop knowledge in other California cities. For instance, my friend Crawford runs Dr. Burrito in San Diego, and regularly schools ignorant folks on his terrain's regional particulars. These are experts. Lay-people obsessed with finding the perfect burrito -- again, a preposterous endeavor -- usually possess too much free time, and probably log an unhealthy amount of time crafting witty Yelp reviews. The taquerias I patronize most are the ones closest to my house or the bar. The idea of going out of your way for a six-dollar meal you'll eat in ten minutes contradicts the essence of a burrito. Nonetheless, if you engage the debate, you come to the conclusion that most taquerias you end up liking a lot are better at something than most others. When you go out for a burrito, you head to a destination with areas of strength that suit your predisposition at that moment. In this sense, you're re-visiting an experience, like putting on a beloved record or watching re-runs. I would like to listen to the White Album again. I would like to see Season Three of The Wire once more. I would like a fish burrito with no sour cream from El Metate. Dialing in a go-to combination from a reliable purveyor is the only recourse a dedicated burrito-hound has, though daydreams about the impossible persist -- the fantasy of a mutant hybrid burrito boasting the best traits of a dozen of the neighborhood's best. A garrulous housemate once eloquently outlined the concept:
"In a perfect world I would buzz around the Mission with a rocket pack on my back, collecting my favorite meats from each taqueria. And I would fold all the juicy delights into a giant burrito, probably the size of a heavy bag for boxing. I would eat some of the burrito, and then sit it up on the couch next to me, like a friend."
What if you could take El Metate's chile verde pork, squeeze it into an El Farolito-sized shell, take it to Castelito for toasting, and then crown it with dollops of Papalote's salsa? Shortly after the exchange, I visited Taqueria San Francisco on 24th St., near York –- incidentally a Burrito Eater favorite -- and couldn't, for the life of me, decide between ordering mine with chile relleno or chicken. In a moment of loopy clarity, I ordered them both in one burrito. The guy at the counter kind of smiled faintly. Ten minutes later, I was back at the house, hauling something silver and as heavy as a brick out of a thin plastic bag. It proved to be one of the most exciting burritos I have ever attacked. The doughy batter surrounding the hacked-up pepper had melted into the foundation of beans and rice. The juicy stewed chicken found a ready foil in the acidic salsa and the pepper's mild heat. Chunks of buttery avocado studded the interior. I had skipped the sour cream, but not the cheese, so this burrito was queso-heavy, a twisted, solid mass from the chile relleno running down the middle like a spine, and another layer melted against the inside of the tortilla.
I have not revisited this particular adventure, though other mildly outside-the-box burrito variations followed suit. Two years ago, upon recovering from a two-day bout with a stomach virus, slogging through a final cautionary day of bread and jam, and, on the fourth day, enjoying 2.5 hours of taxing pick-up basketball, I limped into El Farolito and ordered a super chicken burrito with extra meat, rationalizing that the extra calories would do me good. When I sliced the massive cylinder down the middle and turned the halves to expose the cross-section, it looked as if a turducken had exploded inside the glittering foil sheath. I ate 2/3 of it, and immediately collapsed for an hour, with the lights dimmed in my room, listening to Sibylle Baier and cursing myself. Incidentally, a frugal friend with a serious appetite has a good technique for extending the sustaining power of a burrito. He pulls off the foil, cuts a surgically precise slit lengthwise across the side without folds, and scoops out the "guts" with chips. Then he fills the hollowed middle with pico de gallo, packs the tortilla back together into a semblance of its original shape, and sucks it down.
Taqueria Guadalajara's steak and shrimp burrito, regular
Just last week, I was standing, cold and somewhat frazzled in the dining room of Taqueria Guadalajara, another 24th Street establishment. I hadn't had a burrito in a month, and was trying to decide what to order. I thought about the relleno-chicken mash-up I'd downed three years earlier, how it had awakened burrito 'buds I never knew existed. I knew most taquerias didn't mind letting patrons double up on fillings, but Guadalajara actually has a "mixto" option clearly listed on the bright, broad menu positioned above the counter. I ordered a burrito with steak and grilled shrimp. The result –- salty and chewy with a hint of the shellfish's brine peeking through the mix –- was good but not as balanced and magical as the relleno-chicken combination. I wondered if two flavors over-crowded in most arrangements, if a burrito was best served by a subtle backing section supporting a dominant soloist –- say, soothing boiled chicken, or bold, zesty carnitas -- not a duet. Still, I wondered which combinations would work best. Tripe and carnitas? Steak and chicken?
As I dived again and again into my selection, I wondered: What might up the ante, and take the burrito further out into the void while remaining respectful? Stupid wrap franchises have ruined fusion burritos with their jasmine rice-and-curry concoctions to be sure, but what if fried chicken replaced boiled chicken in an otherwise straightforward preparation? Or if thin-shaved lamb from Old Jerusalem's shawarma spits cozied up to green salsa and re-fried beans? A shrimp rolled out of the burrito and onto my lap. I ate it. The possibilities were as endless as the half-eaten tube before me.