Carne Asada Burrito Showdown (Part 1)

I came across 7×7 Magazine’s list for the Top 6 (+1) Super Carne Asada Burritos in SF, which seemed right up my alley! Not only do I look for good taquerias, but I am most fond of carne asada burritos. Even if it is an old post, it’s still relevant to my interests.

My initial reactions: burritos are not particularly photogenic. (= Seriously, though:

  1. El Farolito, good but certainly not life changing
  2. Papalote, the first good carne asada burrito I’ve had in SF
  3. Taqueria Cancun, better than El Farolito’s carne asada, plus much better salsa options
  4. El Tonayense: on my list of places to try
  5. Chipotle: lol, srsly?
  6. Gordo Taqueria: on my list of places to try
  7. El Castillito: on my list of places to try


To elaborate:

I recently ate at Papalote as a result of finding this list, and this is the real reason for writing this post. I can confidently recommend Papalote to my out-of-town friends! This is the first place I can say this about, so far.

  • The setting: When I went it was a cold evening, but inside was steaming hot! Wear layers. As with many taquerias, you order at a counter then squat a table until your order is ready. Fortunately, I came with one other person and we were able to save ourselves a table by putting our drinks, jackets, etc. on our table of choice. [burrito pic]
SF - Papalote (Mission)

SF – Papalote (Mission)

  • The food: The regular carne asada burrito was really good here. The burrito itself was of an average size (1⅓ lb according to 7×7), and came served with a small mound of veggies plus a bowl of chips and salsa. I thought the burrito clearly stood on its own merit. I did not feel compelled to add lime or salsa, which says a lot about the flavoring and harmony of the burrito components as is. I’m salivating as I write about and mentally recall this! The meat was seasoned well, not just due to grease and salt (though, that goes a long way in itself!). I don’t think I’m quite at the level where I can tell exactly what was used in the seasoning, but I would venture to guess that the meat is seasoned with onion powder, garlic salt, and a little cumin powder. I’m pretty sure the meat itself is what carried everything else in the burrito, since the rice and beans seemed average when tried separately.
SF - Papalote (Mission)

SF – Papalote (Mission)

  • Adding lime and/or the orange salsa did add value that I could appreciate, but it was not necessary. I think the lime and salsa were good, particularly with the free chips. My recommendation of the carne burrito here is not conditional on adding lime and hot sauce, as is the case with my favorite taqueria. Overall, while not my most favorite carne asada burrito ever, I would actually go out of my way to go here. Recommended!

My thoughts on the others:

Taqueria Cancun’s carne asada burrito is good but also not outstanding. Fortunately, there are a variety of salsas with which one could augment the burrito. It is definitely in a better setting, as I didn’t feel gross sitting down here. It’s worth stopping by if you’re around, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get a carne asada burrito here. 4 – on my list

I almost closed the window when I saw the name Chipotle. Not because it’s bad, but I just can’t consider it as a burrito from a taqueria. I consider Chipotle to be in another class of “healthier versions of junkier food,” and therefore un-comparable to taqueria food. If you’re wondering why I think of it this way… I’ll tell you!

When I first tried Chipotle, I thought it was an abomination. It wasn’t wrapped correctly (something I often take for granted): its shape was more cubic than cylindrical, and it was leaking ingredients through both ends AND the middle! Clearly, Chipotle employees do not know how to properly wrap burritos (and I still find this to be the case more often than not). Later I found out that Chipotle was supposed to be healthy and fresh; I couldn’t understand how people liked this from a burrito! After asking friends and colleagues what they like about Chipotle, I heard a common response: it provided a healthier option of similar food. I gave it another try with the mindset of getting healthy food… and only at this point was I able to appreciate Chipotle’s burritos as a collection of fresh, healthy, burrito-like ingredients. Clearly not what I normally expect when going to a taqueria!

El Farolito is good but certainly over-hyped for carne asada burritos. There is obviously a difference in my taste vs. others’ taste since I don’t think the burrito is outstanding in itself nor with the usual lime/salsa condiments. This is why it is important to find someone whose taste you can understand and align to! The fact that it is continually rated as the best *for or by those who are drunk or hungover* is already a red flag for me that the reason why others like it (to recover from a bad night out?) is far different than mine (for a harmonious and purposeful combination of rice, beans, and carne asada).

Not that is an invalid reason, it just points to the need to understand why others recommend or like something, hence my desire to put forth these posts and this blog!

Life changing burrito. Really?

Earlier today, I read about a poll conducted that asked people about life changing burritos.  The results indicated that El Farolito burritos changed the most respondents’ lives by a wide margin.  This evoked an immediate response:

First, I question whether lives really changed.  And if they changed, how so and why is the change due to this burrito?

Second, I question the validity of the survey and audience composition.

Why?  One of the first-remembered recommended taquerias in San Francisco came from a co-worker who lives in Austin, TX.  She claimed to have dreams about burritos from El Farolito.  She strongly urged that I try it and report back to her.  I indulged, but I was disappointed.  Not because the burrito was bad, but because it was good.  It was not life-changing, only good.  Something didn’t seem right!

I have a standardized burrito-eating process.  I tend to get the same, favorite options in order to have something consistent to compare against: regular (not super, which is typically meat, rice, beans, and sometimes salsa) carne asada burrito, plus some salsa and limes/lemons.  I will try a few bites of the  burrito without adding anything in order to see how it comes originally prepared.  Next I’ll try it with limes, then with salsa, lastly with limes and salsa.  Only this way do I see what the burrito has to offer, and how (if at all) it is complemented by the lime and/or available salsa(s).  This goes back to my appreciation of harmony, how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The result: The regular carne asada burrito was good in a mediocre way.  Nothing special about it, but nothing bad about it either.  It was of an average size, with an average flavor, an average cost, in a seemingly average setting (average for SF, which may be atypical everywhere else?).  The individual components seemed appropriately seasoned, but not in a way that was special.  The lime was a pleasant addition as it typically complements Mexican food, however the salsa did not seem to complement with the burrito.

Why wasn’t my life changed?!  The next day, I asked what it was that my coworker dreamt about.  Turns out she loves the chile relleno burrito.  I don’t particularly look for chile relleno burritos.  They just aren’t my thing.  Perhaps that explains it!

Eventually, I did go back to try the chile relleno burrito… and my life has not changed.  And I took a photo of a chile relleno plate that my girlfriend ordered:

SF - El Faroltio's Chile Rellenos

SF – El Farolito’s Chile Rellenos

I even went back a third time, to try their carnitas burrito (my usual backup if carne asada is lackluster), and my opinion remained the same.

My conclusion: I think many of the readers have been shown what a true burrito should be by going to El Farolito.  This is a good thing, as I am a fan of burritos and seek to explore taquerias in SF to find a favorite.  For many people whose lives were changed, I posit that El Farolito likely set the bar, giving them a new standard with which to measure future burritos.  But in my decades of taqueria burrito-eating experience, it just isn’t special.

To complete my review… the bathroom was musky, but relatively clean for a place in SF’s Mission district.  I didn’t shudder like I do when I have to hold the handrail on the Muni.  The line for the cashier seemed in itself a slice of San Francisco, with people of all kinds: yuppies, homeless-looking folks, a hipster couple, some unsupervised children, one elderly asian lady, and someone dressed like Michael Jackson.  If only I took a picture.