Life

Unwrapping The Mission Burrito, San Francisco’s Mysterious Culinary Creation

Let me tell you about the first time I ever saw a Mission-style burrito. I was walking home from my favorite comic shop in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s a part of town known for its rich Latino culture, colorful graffiti, tall palm trees, and a tight knit community. I was still new to the area and, on this specific evening, I was very, very drunk. I hiccuped my way down Mission Street, stumbling as I tried to pull up the address of the nearest BART station on my phone.

The illumination from the screen blazed like a beacon that screamed “I’M NEW HERE, DEFINITELY NOT A LOCAL.” And that’s when I bumped into Charlie.

Charlie was attacking a woman in a blue dress in the middle of Mission Street, just a block or two from the BART station. She was pulling on the woman’s dress and yelling words I couldn’t understand as the woman smacked back with her purse, trying to shake free.

I shoved myself in between the two women and yelled “Hey! Cool it!”

It wasn’t my best line. Like I said, I was drunk.

The woman in the blue dress ran away immediately. I turned to Charlie, sluggishly, just in time to see her slash at me with a knife.

“Christ on a bike!” I screamed, like a child. In an act of absolute luck—the kind of luck that makes you believe in God—I caught Charlie’s wrist and took the knife out of her hand.

{Don’t worry mom, it was just a steak knife. You need a really long knife to reach the important stuff.}

Charlie immediately broke down in tears. I stumbled back a bit, trying to figure out what to do, trying my best to determine the most appropriate course of action. I put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m not going to call the cops… but please do not stab me.”

I handed her back the knife. Like I said, I was drunk.

Charlie didn’t stop crying right away. Instead, she went on, between sobs, about how hungry she was. I didn’t have any cash on me, but I did have a card, so I asked her if I could buy her dinner. She immediately pointed to La Corneta, a taqueria across the street from where we were standing.

I sat on the curb with Charlie while she unwrapped a gargantuan burrito. It was stuffed with chicken and pinto beans and pico de gallo, all inside a fresh steamed tortilla. The burrito seemed twice the size of Charlie’s head and, after her first bite, an aroma of intense spice, slow-stewed chicken, and handmade salsa lifted into the air and formed an ethereal fist. The fist punched me in the stomach. What is this wondrous burrito? I thought. Where does it come from? Surely Charlie can’t eat the whole thing by herself.

“Can I have a bite?” I asked.

“No,” Charlie said, clear as day. She burrowed further into her burrito.

***

“You have to put THAT in your article,” said Mark Shrayber, Uproxx Life senior writer and minor* internet celebrity. “I can’t believe she tried to stab you.”

“It was more of a swipe,” I said. “I don’t think I could handle a real stabbing.”

We were sitting in El Farolito just off 24th and Mission. It’s Mark’s go-to taqueria, and the first place he suggested when I told him that I wanted to try an authentic Mission-style burrito for the first time. El Farolito is narrow, jammed tight with out-of-date plastic tables, yellowing tile, and offensively orange walls. Close your eyes and think of a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant. The image you just conjured is El Farolito, and that’s how you know it’s good.

I followed Mark’s lead and ordered the chile relleno burrito– an oversized steamed tortilla stuffed with rice, pinto beans, and a freshly deep fried chile relleno. Some people will tell you that a Mission-style burrito is a traditional burrito with the addition of shredded cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and onion. In my experience, the only real constant is that the burrito is huge, several times the size of a human stomach, contained only by some tinfoil wrapping.

What are you doing?!” Mark asked, in shock, like I’d just spat on the grave of Cesar Chavez.

Like a rookie, I’d removed my burrito from its tinfoil completely. It wiggled in my hands like one of those squishy snake toys from the ’90s, the ones that are famously impossible to hold.

“That’s basically the worst thing you can do,” Mark said, looking over his shoulder to make sure that no one inside El Farolito had witnessed the heathen he brought to their church.

I shrugged, tried to remember the last time that I’d washed my hands, and tore into my burrito like a bear tearing into Leonardo DiCaprio.

“This is the best burrito I’ve had in my entire life,” I sang, as the tortilla slowly unraveled in my hands and I clumsily tried to rewrap it. The chile relleno was flawless, crispy and savory and melty and juicy, and the tortilla was perfectly steamed, chewy, almost al dente, with a fine buttery taste that held up against competing flavors. It’s the kind of meal that makes you wish you were hungover because it contains the four major drunk food groups: fried, spicy, carbs, and cheese.

“I’m in love,” I said. “I am in love with this burrito.”

“Told you,” Mark said, handling his burrito like a civilized adult.

No one really knows where the Mission-style burrito comes from. It may have been created in 1961 at El Faro, just off 20th and Folsom, by then-owner Febronio Ontiveros. Or it could be that Michaela Duran invented it in 1967 at Taqueria El Cumbre, to help hungry working people stay full all day long. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, or both stories are true, or the real story is lost forever.

If the Mission-style burrito sounds familiar—and it should—it’s at least partly because of a man named Steve Ellis. He brought the Mission-style burrito to America’s far corners when he opened the first Chipotle Mexican Grill, not far from the University of Denver campus, in 1993. The restaurant adopted the oversized tortilla, the Bacchanalian serving sizes, and the choose-your-own-adventure style assembly-line made famous in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Of course, Chipotle failed to give credit to El Farro, El Cumbre, or even the Mission-style burrito by name — which may explain where the E. coli came from. Burritos have always been the karmic wolves of global cuisine, roaming the badlands, issuing digestive justice on all who slight them.

Credit or no, the Mission Burrito is easily one of the most influential culinary creations to come out of California — with Mexican ancestry, obviously. In a state known for world-class cuisine, Michelin stars, and some of the best chefs in the history of modern cooking, it’s comforting to know that a burrito, simply and lovingly prepared, reigns supreme.

***

Mark and I parted ways outside of El Farolito. He left to do standup at a nearby club and I left to have another drink before taking the train back to Oakland. I walked next door to the aptly named El Farolito Bar, which itself was rundown, lit only by the warm glow of flat screen TVs playing soccer games on loop. The patrons were mostly older men, wearing jerseys, speaking to each other in Spanish, playing pool, drinking from large pitchers of beer.

The bartender brought me a bottle of Corona with a dash of salt around the rim and a slice of lime wedged in the neck. I thought about saying something in Spanish but was worried that I would sound, as I often do, like an unintelligible ass.

And then a gaggle of middle-aged white women waddled into the bar, dressed business casual, with chunky charm bracelets clanging back and forth on their plump wrists. “How quaint,” they squawked. “Three frozen margaritas! It’s international margarita day!”

The bartender stared at the middle-aged women with a steely glare. She slowly explained, in broken English, that the bar did not have frozen margaritas. The women were shocked and, even more, offended. They started speaking loudly—you know, loud and slow, as if that would make English easier to understand—trying to explain how a frozen margarita is made. Ice, tequila, whatever.

The middle-aged women finally settled on a round of margaritas on the rocks with extra, extra ice. They handed the bartender a phone and asked that she take a picture, crowding together with spiked smiles, yelling in demonic unison “Hashtag International Margarita Day!”

“Don’t forget to tag me,” one said to the other.

“We are so authentico,” said the worst of them.

“These women are the worst,” I whispered into the darkness.

The man sitting next to me at the bar ordered another drink. I listened to him talk to the bartender and, calling on Spanish classes of long ago, I was able to make out the words “stupid white bitches.”

I laughed.

The bartender asked me “¿Hablas Español?”

“Un poco,” I said with a blush. The bartender winked and the man next to me smiled. I may not have been a local, but with my belly full of burrito I didn’t feel like a stranger, either.


*Major.

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