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At the heart of his trip? San Francisco burritos

Renowned, varied, delicious (and with a dedicated critic)

By Russ Juskalian
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2011

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SAN FRANCISCO — A few years ago, I moved back to the East Coast from California, returning to the land of above-average pizza. It was a classic example of gaining one thing only to lose another. In exchange for a cornucopia of tomato sauce, cheese, and yeasty dough there would be no burritos.

That’s not entirely true. Since coming back, I have eaten a dozen or so burritos. But the best left me feeling unsatisfied. The worst sent me to a place between irritation and gloom.

So on a recent trip to San Francisco, I set out to make up my burrito deficit. I would eat more burritos in a week than I had in the past three years. And I would try to eat some of the best burritos this city, renowned for the dish, has to offer. I figured San Francisco’s eminent walkability would help me burn off the extra calories. But with over 150 taquerias in the city, the next meal was never far.

My first stop was at an old favorite, Taqueria San Francisco, a short walk from the 24th Street station where my girlfriend, Steffi, and I got off the BART train from the airport. The only difficult part about the walk was resisting the temptation to stop at any of the half-dozen taquerias along the way.

Taqueria San Francisco hadn’t changed. Outside was Juana Alicia’s powerful mural, “La Llorana’s Sacred Waters.’’ Inside, the taqueria still had small tables, wooden benches, a menu (including beef brains) supplemented by laminated sheets of paper stuck to the wall, and, as always, a soccer game playing on a small overhead TV.

“Oh no!’’ I blurted through a mouthful of fresh tortilla chips after ordering.

“What’s wrong?’’ said Steffi, looking at me like I had just broken a tooth.

“I forgot to order super burritos.’’

After a day of traveling, and a multiyear absence from regular burrito eating, I had made a most amateur mistake. A typical San Francisco burrito, sometimes called a Mission style burrito, is a simple thing: rice, beans, meat, and tortilla, all wrapped tightly enough in aluminum foil that it’s easy to eat while walking. But at most places, the finishing touches — the bits that elevate this meal to something spectacular — are not added unless you order it “super,’’ which generally means the addition of cheese, guacamole, and sour cream.

“Please,’’ I said to Steffi, “hit me if I do that again.’’

I slumped on the bench. The burrito that arrived was perfect in its preparation, but incomplete. Taqueria San Francisco’s finely chopped steak, grilled to a nice char, tucked inside a flaky tortilla, needs gooey, melted cheese to sing. But here’s the thing: What I ate on that evening was better than anything I had eaten back East in years.

A couple of days later, I made a list of taquerias to visit based, in part, on the recommendations of Charles Hodgkins, a man who knows the San Francisco burrito scene better than any other.

A writer by trade, Hodgkins runs www.burritoeater.com, a website where he documents, down to the smallest detail, every burrito he eats. Over the course of eight years, Hodgkins says he has eaten thousands of burritos, what he has dubbed “slabs.’’

On a blustery spring day, Steffi and I headed to a downtown parking lot at the corner of Hayes and Polk, where Los Compadres Taqueria had, according to burritoeater.com, “decided to invest in a second slabwheeler, hurl a metric ton of red paint at it, and park it in a corner lot a few blocks south of City Hall.’’ Translation: burrito truck, bright red, in a soulless spot surrounded by boxy concrete buildings.

The super carnitas burrito Steffi and I split was a classic, if a bit pricey (over $8), example of what I had come here to find. Rice, beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, melted cheese, tasty shredded pork, perfect tortilla, tightly wrapped, not drippy, but warm and moist to the last bite. Here in the parking lot, sitting at one of three small, aluminum tables, the biting wind was no match for a perfect slab.

After a brief visit to the capital building, Steffi and I headed to Taqueria El Castillito (“the good one,’’ writes Hodgkins), at Golden Gate and Larkin, to meet the burrito eater himself. Nestled in the southwest edge of the seedy Tenderloin district, Taqueria El Castillito, grimy inside, has a reputation for massive, consistently good burritos on a budget.

As I tore into a super carne asada burrito, Hodgkins whipped out a sheet of paper. On it was his 13-point rating scale, including headings like “tortilla,’’ “ingredient mix,’’ “burstage abatement,’’ and “intangibles.’’ Every couple of bites, he jotted down a few words.

“I don’t rate in stars or points,’’ said Hodgkins, “I rate in mustaches.’’

Hodgkins deconstructed the burrito for me: “textbook grilled tortilla’’ (flaky without being dry), “mediocre ingredient mix’’ (too much rice at first, too much meat in the middle), “great use of avocado’’ (huge slices instead of a prepared guacamole).

I spent the next days walking around the city eating savory, hand-holdable slabs.

I tried two branches of the popular Papalote. All three burritos I ate were drippy, though bolstered by fantastically seasoned main proteins (one super pollo; one marinated tofu; and one chile verde). I also experienced fierce taqueria partisanship among residents. “If I were dying tomorrow, and I knew it,’’ Hodgkins told me, “I’d go to Papalote.’’ A few hours later, my friend Thushan, just as adamantly, said Papalote was one of his least favorite places in the city.

La Chihuahua, a newer taqueria in the Noe Valley neighborhood, didn’t quite live up to its reputation, but offered something unique: two types of refried beans, regular and black.

La Espiga de Oro, on 24th Street in the Mission, was, as Hodgkins suggested, an underdog poised for greatness. I couldn’t put down the super carnitas, even though it was my second burrito in less than an hour. With a little more time, I would have returned for an encore.

And then there was Gordo, a local establishment since 1977, with six locations in San Francisco and the East Bay. Gordo, which means “fat’’ in Spanish, isn’t a place for veggie lovers, but it makes up for this in speed, consistency, and richness of the finished product. Its Outer Richmond location held the top spot on burritoeater.com.

Nicknamed “Gordito’’ because of it’s small size, the Gordo at 2252 Clement St. is in an unlikely neighborhood. Anchored by ethnic Chinese and Russian populations, the Richmond has neither the Mission’s Latin American heritage nor the hipsters, foodies, or young tourists thronging that and other parts of town.

The trick at Gordo, Hodgkins had said, was to ask to have the tortilla grilled instead of steamed, “even if they look at you a little funny.’’ It was all here: melted cheese, thick refried beans, oniony guacamole, meat bursting with flavor, and barely enough space for a few stools to sit on. As I sat there with a stupid grin on my face, I recalled something Hodgkins had written not long ago. After a particularly good burrito, he called Gordito “the exact pinpoint on the San Francisco taqueria map where truth meets legend.’’

And, I might add, where my hunger for San Francisco burritos was finally satisfied. For now.

Russ Juskalian can be reached at rjuskalian@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to eat
Los Compadres Taco Truck
Parking lot at the corner of Polk and Hayes streets
Great for a lunch break near City Hall and Civic Center Plaza, $6-$8.
La Espiga de Oro
2916 24th St.
415-826-1363
Outstanding carne asada and carnitas, $5-$7.
Gordo (Outer Richmond)
2252 Clement St.
415-387-4484
Ask for your tortilla to be grilled, not steamed. Alternatively, you can order a quesadilla, but ask for rice and beans, $4-$6.
Taqueria San Francisco
2794 24th St.
415-641-1770
Deep in the Mission (remember to check out the mural outside), $5-$7.