The Roman architect Vitruvius believed there were three key principles to good architecture: firmitas (durability), utilitas (utility), and venustas (beauty). These apply not only to buildings but to all sorts of objects, the most important of which, for the purposes of this story, is the modern-day burrito.
Like houses, burritos have regional vernaculars — in some places they are small and minimalist, with little variation in texture and color; while in others, like San Francisco, they are positively Baroque. But across the board, good burrito construction results in a leak-proof, tear-resistant, fully mobile meal. And poor burrito construction can be devastating. This year, locating America’s most exceptional burrito — and defining what makes it so — was literally my job.
In early 2014, I was asked to take on the role of Burrito Correspondent for FiveThirtyEight, a news site that specializes in data-driven journalism. You may have heard of it — its founder, statistician Nate Silver, first became famous for his Major League Baseball predictions, and later much more famous for predicting Obama’s presidential win. Burritos might not seem like the most serious target for the site’s respected mathematical analysis, but the pursuit of the statistically perfect burrito was a rigorous one, and I shouldered great responsibility as the project chief.
The process worked like this: We took data from Yelp and analyzed reviews for 67,391 burrito selling establishments (BSE) around the United States. Silver created a statistic called Value Over Replacement Burrito (VORB), which gave a rating to every BSE. Those ratings were placed in the hands of several food experts, and together, we whittled thousands of options down to 64 restaurants that would compete in an NCAA-style tournament, which we called the Burrito Bracket.
As Burrito Correspondent and Decider, my job was to spend over four months traveling the United States on a quest for the perfect burrito. I ate more burritos than I can count (though it was well over 120, which would have equated to one for each day on the road), and spent more time than I care to admit pondering what goes into their greatness.
Of course, I was already a believer. I’d had a burrito conversion experience more than a decade earlier in San Francisco, while visiting a friend who had recently moved to the Bay Area. She wanted me to try one of the city’s culinary wonders, the Mission-style burrito. We went to Taqueria Cancún. I ordered tacos.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like burritos, they were a frequent part of my diet growing up in a college town, and in my twenties when I was working poorly paid jobs. I craved them occasionally, but they were mostly just a cheap solution for my oversized appetite. Like many food snobs, I’d spent most of my life scoffing at flour tortillas, singing the praises of tacos, and thinking of burritos as bro food.
It wasn’t until a follow-up visit to San Francisco, more than a year later, that I finally ordered a burrito at Cancún. My friend and I placed our orders at the counter, then sat down at an oversized picnic table with our foil-wrapped parcels. I may have thought wistfully for a moment of the tacos I could have ordered, but all that vanished when I took my first bite. The explosion of flavors bombarded me. Hidden within the floury barrier were whole pieces of avocado, saucy pico de gallo, rice, chicken, beans, sour cream…It was an abundance of ingredients, but I could taste each one in every bite. My feelings about burritos were forever changed.
Little did I know then where that revelation would lead me.
While researching for the role of Burrito Correspondent, I started to get a sense of why that first bite at Taqueria Cancún was so monumental for my taste buds (aside from the obvious deliciousness of the ingredients). Traditionally, smell and taste are the two senses we’ve associated with how we experience food. But recent science has shown that the eyes can influence the flavor of food as well. Often, what you see is more important than what happens in the nose, or on the tongue. One recent study showed that the plating of an entree has a significant effect on taste perception. Another found that by tinting white wine to resemble a merlot, people will experience the flavors normally associated with a red.
So what of an object like the burrito, which generally presents as a bundle, nothing to see but tin foil, wax paper or tortilla? By design, all but one of the ingredients in a burrito are invisible until you’ve bitten in, and the eater has no visual cues to what she is about to consume. Strong flavors and textures must lay within the folds to clue the mouth to what they’ve encountered, or the burrito will be a disappointment on first contact.
The foundation of burrito construction is the tortilla. It is the thing that turns a plate of food into an object. But more than just a delivery vehicle, the form of the tortilla also dictates the structure and ingredients that can be housed inside.
Tortillas in Arizona, for example, are pulled to impossibly thin proportions, with a hefty amount of lard to keep them stretchy. Their pliability makes them suited to holding in the juices of a stewy meat, but their fragility precludes them from holding multiple ingredients of varying shape and texture. In Ciudad Juarez, on the other hand, tortillas are slightly thicker and drier, griddled to a golden brown, but still soft and pliable. To make a burrito in this border city, either side of a tortilla is folded over one or two ingredients, allowing steam to escape from either end. They are then served in wax paper, ensuring moisture can evaporate, as the tortillas are prone to becoming soggy.
As standalone ingredients, the tortillas used on San Francisco’s Mission Street are unremarkable. They tend to be thick and often gummy; I have never seen one made fresh to order. But the thickness allows these discs to hold in an incredible quantity of ingredients, and a quick steam or, even better, time on the griddle, can make it like saran-wrap on a sandwich or a crusty shell, wrangling the innards into form.
Because the other ingredients will not be judged by the eyes, each must have a function in the overall experience of crossing the tortilla threshold. Crunch, liquid, fat, salt, creaminess, tang, heat; each ingredient must retain a personality of texture and taste strong enough to spring forth to the blinded eater. In the Mission, the sheer number of edible materials crammed into the tortilla makes well-balanced construction a challenge. It’s the supersized, American answer to a more minimalist Mexican snack.
With these complex creations, the order of events for construction is less dictated than traditional forms of architecture, but there are some rules: Ingredients may be brought into the folds in any order, so long as they obey temperature, distribution and liquid ratio requirements. If there is cheese, it must melt. If there are cool additions, like guacamole, they must not be so cold that they chill the warm ingredients. If there is rice, there must be enough liquid to keep it moist. If there is meat, it must be cut into small enough pieces to ensure every bite presents a complementary combination of ingredients. Temperature incongruity can be solved with a trip to the grill before being wrapped in tinfoil. Liquid ratio can be brought to balance by placing the salsa or pico de gallo last. The distribution can be made even by laying each ingredient in a series of stacked lines.
A History Lesson
Burritos likely became a food sometime in the late 19th century, though how closely they resembled the modern-day incarnation is questionable. In Feliz Ramos’ Diccionario de mejicanismos, written in 1895, he defines the burrito as a “rolled tortilla with meat or other things inside, which in Yucatán is called cosito, and in Cuernavaca and Mexico [City], taco,” according to food historian Jeffrey Pilcher in his book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Ramos attributes the term to Guanajuato and implies they were made with corn tortillas. Sometime in the 1930’s they show up in California with a floury dermis. Today, while almost ubiquitously available throughout the United States, they are a regional food rarely seen outside of the northern borderlands of Mexico.
At the center of the burrito’s evolution were three core tasks: make use of leftovers and cheap ingredients, be tasty, and be portable. At its heart, this was a meal designed to wrap up last night’s leftovers and transport them to the workplace, to be eaten all in one sitting during a lunch break. The wheat based wrapping allowed the little burros to hold up for long periods of time without falling apart, unlike the tacos made with corn tortillas.
In the states of Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico, as well as El Paso, Texas, burritos are eaten as breakfast, lunch and late night food, and are more of a snack than a meal. A handmade tortilla is laden with stew or a piece of meat, maybe some refried beans, never anything more. They are petite and rolled, not stuffed and folded like an envelope.
The Mission-style burrito, on the other hand, is something of an architectural marvel, pushing the boundaries of its raw materials to the limit. Calvin Trillin immortalized the creations in a 2003 essay for The New Yorker:
In San Francisco the burrito has been refined and embellished in much the same way that the pizza has been refined and embellished in Chicago. The San Francisco burrito, which is customarily wrapped in aluminum foil even if you have no intention of leaving the premises, is distinguished partly by the amount of rice and other side dishes included in the package and partly by sheer size.
This type of construction is so revered in the Bay Area that many San Franciscans scoff at burritos more closely associated with the dish’s origins. And though they are wrong to automatically claim superiority in flavor, the sheer challenge of engineering a great Mission-style burrito makes the superiority complex understandable.
San Francisco took the classic snack and, by pushing the limits of the food’s inherent structural capacity, turned it into a meal. The origin story of the Mission burrito goes like this: in 1962 a grocery store called El Faro needed to feed some hungry firemen. The cook put two tortillas together, stuffed them with meat, cheese, veggies, beans and whatever else was on hand. Or, maybe it was La Cumbre in 1969, who stuffed large tortillas with a half dozen ingredients and called it a super burrito. The precise origins of the Mission-style burrito are unclear, but the result has become a cultural icon.
Via Chipotle and other national burrito chains, the image of the burrito in the collective conscious has come to be synonymous with the hefty Mission-style masterpiece. It has attained cult status, the sidekick to many a late night antic, the object of too many contests to name. I know the obsession first hand; I wrote some 45,000 words on burritos this summer. And while even within the Mission’s boundaries, it’s hard to pick a favorite out of the dense taqueria landscape, one marvel towered over the rest — the classic, the monument to line-cook engineering, the La Taqueria carnitas super burrito.