We were nearly eight hours into the Burrito Selection Committee meeting, and it was raining buckets outside as the afternoon submitted to dark, menacing clouds. All day we had been casting votes for our favorite burrito joints in America. Now we were gathered around a tiny television screen screwed into the wall, watching an Excel spreadsheet translate the final round of those votes into rankings.
The list of America’s 64 best burritos was complete, but we still faced the task of seeding the top four in the California region. This was a big decision. California burritos are so good that the top four seeds in the state would arguably be the top four in the nation.
After eight hours and 12 rounds of voting, the committee still had enough fight left in it to haggle over the choice. At least half of the six members felt that San Francisco’s La Taqueria was the favorite to win and therefore deserved the top ranking. But Yelp rankings and perennial placement on top 10 lists in the local and national press made nearby El Farolito the favorite among some of the data-reverent members.
Should historic consensus or the Burrito Selection Committee reign supreme? Which restaurant would be the top seed for America’s Best Burrito?
In March, the Burrito Selection Committee’s six burrito fanatics and experts gathered in a conference room above the golf practice stalls at New York City’s Chelsea Piers. Our goal was essentially to do the impossible: identify, in a single day, the top 64 burritos in America. Once selected, the establishments that sell these burritos would be placed in an NCAA-tournament-style bracket of four regions, with 16 restaurants in each region.
I am FiveThirtyEight’s burrito correspondent. My job, if you can call it a job, is to visit all 64 restaurants, eat a burrito at each one, rate the burritos and decide which will advance to the next round of competition. Round 2 will yield 16 burritos, from which (after more eating) I will choose the final four.
The third, and final, round will produce America’s Best Burrito.
But first we had to make the list of the top 64 burrito-selling establishments (BSEs). The members of the Burrito Selection Committee brought impeccable credentials and unique vantage points. Each of the Burrito Bracket’s four regions (California, West, South and Northeast) had its own representative:
- Gustavo Arellano is El Californiano. He wrote the book on Mexican food in the U.S., “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.” He is an editor at OC Weekly and has a syndicated column called “Ask A Mexican.” The New York Times called him “perhaps the greatest (and only) living scholar of Mexican-American fast food.”
- Jeffrey Pilcher, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, is The Academic. He wrote a book on the history of Mexican food and its movement around the world. He’s eaten Mexican food in just about every country where you can find it, but conducted intense local food research while completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Southwest. He is representing the West.
- Bill Addison, The Food Critic, represents the South. He once ate 100 burritos (and 300 tacos) in 10 weeks to find the best taqueria in the Bay Area. He’s also worked at top publications around the country: The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Magazine and, most recently, Eater, in addition to serving as a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
- Representing the Northeast is The Chef, David Chang, founder and owner of Momofuku Restaurant Group and winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef Award. Chang has made a big name in food by bringing slow fast food to the masses, and he’s a closet burrito obsessive.
- Then there’s Nate Silver, El Padrino and FiveThirtyEight’s editor in chief. Back in 2007, just before FiveThirtyEight was born, Nate created a Burrito Bracket to assess the taquerias in his neighborhood in Chicago. Then FiveThirtyEight took off and the Burrito Bracket lay dormant for six years. Now it’s back, but it’s gone national.
- And finally there’s me, The Decider. I’ve spent most of the last decade living and working abroad as a visual journalist, training myself in the art of street and popular food in the process. I fall more into the “fanatic” than “expert” category; I’m not a food critic (I’m most often a health reporter, and generally write about food more from the perspective of obesity), but I have put in my time when it comes to eating burritos. I have a degree in Latin American Studies and work at Univision, and have spent years reporting on Hispanics in the United States.
We had agreed on a painstaking process of decision-making. We divided the country into four regions based on Mexican-American population, the number of taquerias in the Yellow Pages and searches for burritos on Google.Then we gathered Yelp data on 67,391 burrito-selling establishments across the United States. Nate — I mean, El Padrino — borrowed a statistic from baseball to create a score for each restaurant. Just as Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) measures a player against one who might replace him, Value Over Replacement Burrito (VORB) accounts for quality and quantity of Yelp reviews, while adjusting for location (factoring in the extent to which different geographical areas use Yelp, as well as how different locations rank chain Mexican restaurants). More on that in Nate’s Burrito Bracket manifesto.
A spreadsheet with scores for all of the BSEs was distributed to the committee. Each regional representative studied the VORB rankings and worked his sources to create a cheat sheet of recommended restaurants for inclusion in the bracket.1 Everyone took a slightly different approach: Chang called chef friends all over the Northeast while Arellano tapped into his mental Rolodex, since he’s visited an inordinate number of BSEs in California. Addison culled through personal experiences, spoke to other food critics and cross-referenced against trusted sources. Pilcher looked at the notes from writing his book and spoke to food historians across the West. El Padrino and I scoured the data and other online sources, and I spoke to dozens of food-lovers around the country.
We were left with hundreds of potential BSEs, and a single day to create a list of 64. (Note: We didn’t want to bias our voting that day at Chelsea Piers, so we ate tacos instead of burritos for lunch. It verges on cruel and unusual punishment to talk about burritos for eight hours straight and not be allowed to eat them.) I’ll roll out the list in four articles, starting with this one on the most competitive region of all: California.
The Burrito State
Originally, it seemed bold to make California its own region in the Burrito Bracket. One state out of 50 getting a quarter of the spots? But a closer look at the data revealed that a fairer division might have been Northern California, Southern California and the rest of the country split in two. California has 26,911 BSEs on Yelp, by far the most of any region (for comparison, there are 15,753 in the entire Northeast, the region with the second-highest count). California also displays an overwhelming advantage in VORB scores, approximately double the strength of the Northeast and West, and about four times that of the South.
While California’s burrito obsession is obvious, whether it can lay claim to the dish is a more of a mystery.
The difficulty of finding the burrito’s geographical birthplace is partly a result of the shifting winds of history in the sands of the Sonoran desert. Burritos were almost definitely born in modern-day Mexico’s state of Sonora, but first identified by the written word as a food item in California in the late 19th century, according to Jeffrey Pilcher, The Academic. California was part of the Spanish crown’s claim for over a century, and then belonged to Mexico when the Republic declared independence in 1821. Even after the United States annexed the Golden State in 1848 (the same year that gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains — coincidence?), its cuisine has always been most directly tied to the borderlands.
Corn tortillas were eaten by indigenous communities throughout what is now Mexico and the American Southwest long before the arrival of Europeans. The invaders deemed corn peasant food, preferring wheat-flour tortillas, which have remained the more popular mode of food conveyance along Mexico’s northern border, while corn reigns supreme farther south. Flour tortillas were key to the genesis of the burrito; they can carry a larger quantity of goods, keep longer and are more portable than corn tortillas. The colonial ties to wheat flour also have unfairly called into question the “authenticity” of burritos as Mexican fare.
Defining what is Mexican when it comes to food requires nuance and historical perspective. Burritos are rooted in Mexican food, and California has promulgated them since their creation.
El Padrino speaks
California is the region where the members of the BSC have the most personal experience. Between our first-hand knowledge and the robust Yelp data, we came to the California vote with excitement, trepidation, and a lot of opinions.
Gustavo Arellano, California’s regional expert, preempted the vote with an animated overview of his favorite California burritos. A food writer himself, his cheat sheet for the meeting came with hilarious and mouthwatering descriptions: “a forearm of gluttony,” “sometimes, a bean and cheese with red sauce is the only thing you need in this world,” and “like the Mission burrito except without pretension.”
An important disclaimer before we go forward: There were many restaurants in California that didn’t make the bracket but would have been strong contenders for a top seed in other regions. We’re only human, and California’s burritos are divine.
For the top seed, several BSC members voiced support for La Taqueria in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s a classic Mission-style burrito (defined by its massive girth, hefty portions and tin foil encasement) and it’s prepared to perfection. But just a block down on Mission Street, El Farolito also has the die-hard support of the masses — at 20.7, its VORB is the highest in the country. These restaurants had much in common, and yet were worlds apart if you asked the BSC. It was clear to us that they would occupy the top two seeds nationally, but in which order?
Nate was silent, fingertips pressed together in concentration and giving us a look we could all now interpret; it was time for one of El Padrino’s “I speak for the data” speeches. I was in his camp this time, leaning towards El Farolito for No. 1, but the regional experts clearly outnumbered us. Nate held court, invoking top 10 lists, burrito bloggers and the incredibly high VORB of El Farolito. Nate’s debate skills were on full display, and after glances around the room, a final, unanimous vote was taken. El Farolito would be ranked No. 1.
Seeds three and four are not Mission-style burritos, and were selected quickly and easily in the first round of voting. Lolita’s Taco Shop in San Diego is said to have descended from the family that invented the California-style burrito (meat, cheese and potato in the form of french fries). Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac is a Los Angeles institution, serving up “Hollenbeck burritos,” massive and smothered in green chili, since 1955. We’d made it past the first round, but in many ways the worst was yet to come.
The unseeded 12 burritos were incredibly difficult choices. Arellano pointed us to many restaurants we’d never heard of, and we all had personal favorites. Online sources and reviews are populated by burrito zealots; it’s hard to know what to believe. But the underlying problem is that the options are essentially endless, and so good. It took a long time to sift through the noise, and to find a geographical distribution we felt comfortable with. The selections fell into one of three categories: classics, diversity picks and those with Yelp and expert support.
First, let’s talk about diversity. There’s a lot of burrito variety in California: Mission burritos, classics like bean and cheese, California-style burritos, breakfast burritos, seafood burritos. While we’re searching for the most delicious burritos, we also recognize that if Mission-style Burrito A is clearly better than Mission-style Burrito B, then including both A and B will turn up a clear winner, A, while including more variety of style has the potential for an upset. The BSC decided it was important to include some geographic diversity, to represent the various styles and contributions to burrito culture of the Golden State. This created a difficult situation in the Bay Area, where Mission-style burritos are almost ubiquitous.
Two restaurants that were favored early, Guerrilla Tacos and Lupe’s (both in Los Angeles), were both cut after long debate. David Chang swears Guerrilla Tacos is doing something that will change the way we think about Mexican food. But it’s known for tacos, and we could find no evidence of the quality of the burritos. Despite strong sixth senses that they would be marvelous, we just had too many restaurants from LA.
In an effort to bring in diversity of style and geography, we came to some unexpected choices: Chando’s Tacos in Sacramento, Rosa Maria’s garbage burrito in the Inland Empire, Spencer Makenzie’s (a fish restaurant that also serves tacos and burritos) in Ventura and Dos Chinos in Costa Mesa, an Asian-Latino fusion superstar. None would have made it on VORB score alone, but expert knowledge and an offer of something very different won each establishment a place in the bracket.
Then there were the other must-have classics that didn’t make the top seeds: Athenian III has been named best breakfast burrito by OC Weekly. Al & Bea’s is a Los Angeles classic and, according to Arellano, also a personal favorite of Jonathan Gold, a food critic for the Los Angeles Times and the first of his profession to ever win the Pulitzer Prize. La Azteca Tortilleria, also in Los Angeles, is a regular at the top of burrito lists with its legendary chile relleno burritos.
Finally, there were five restaurants with high VORB scores that either received the support of the BSC or had enough historic clout to be included: El Chato Taco Truck in Los Angeles, Lucha Libre in San Diego, El Zarape in San Diego, Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco and HRD Coffee Shop in San Francisco.
With nearly 27,000 burrito-selling establishments in California, each with its own ardent followers, we knew we were going to upset some folks. After the meeting, I asked Arellano if he was afraid of the inevitable pushback from his constituents, the burrito-loving masses of Southern California. He told me he was proud of our selection.
“I think as a reflection of burrito culture in California, it’s a fabulous list. We have everything from the obvious ones: San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, to places that deserve a little more respect, like Inland Empire, Ventura, Sacramento,” he said. “My all-time favorite burrito, El Castillito in San Francisco — it didn’t make the list. At some point, I had to put aside my feelings and look at the hard truth. There’s a difference in my mind between my favorite burrito and the best burrito. My favorite burrito is El Castillito, but I think the most perfect burrito in the United States is La Taqueria. For what it is, it is magnificent.”
This won’t be the last time you hear mention of El Castillito.
El Farolito (No. 1 seed)
2779 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
VORB score: 20.7
La Taqueria (No. 2 seed)
2889 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
VORB score: 14.2
Lolita’s Taco Shop (No. 3 seed)
7305 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92111
VORB score: 14.5
Manuel’s Original El Tepeyac Cafe (No. 4 seed)
812 N Evergreen Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90033
VORB score: 13.0
Al & Bea’s Mexican Food
2025 E 1st St.
Los Angeles, CA 90033
VORB score: 10.7
8511 La Palma Ave.
Buena Park, CA 90620
VORB score: 4.5
La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 E Cesar E. Chavez Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90022
VORB score: 9.4
863 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95816
VORB score: 9.1
El Chato Taco Truck
5300 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90019
VORB score: 15.3
Food truck, no fixed location
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
VORB score: 6.0
HRD Coffee Shop
521 3rd St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
VORB score: 15.4
Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop
1810 W Washington St.
San Diego, CA 92110
VORB score: 14.8
Rosa Maria’s Drive-In
4202 N Sierra Way
San Bernardino, CA 92407
VORB score: 9.7
Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company
806 E Thompson Blvd.
Ventura, CA 93001
VORB score: 4.8
2288 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
VORB score: 14.0
4642 Park Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92116
VORB score: 15.1
CORRECTION (June 6, 5:45 p.m.): An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the burrito served at La Taqueria in San Francisco, and by extension the Mission-style burrito, as containing rice. Not all Mission-style burritos incorporate rice, nor do La Taqueria’s.