America es un gran burrito, a giant tortilla stuffed with dreams. Or so it seems to me, now that I’ve eaten my way across it.
Early this year, FiveThirtyEight evaluated 67,391 burrito-selling establishments, huddled with food experts and selected 64 of the nation’s finest burritos to compete in the search for America’s best burrito. Since then, this burrito correspondent has traveled more than 20,000 miles around the United States and eaten 84 burritos in two rounds (to say nothing of the dozens of extracurricular burritos I polished off).
I journeyed from Key West to Hawaii in search of gastronomic nirvana. I snarfed breakfast burritos, burritos with french fries, and an avant-garde burrito stuffed with Cap’n Crunch-encrusted tilapia. I gobbled burritos from trucks, stands and brick-and-mortar establishments (not to mention a couple of vending machines). I bought a six pack of burritos in New Mexico for $11 and a haute burrito in Phoenix for $18.50.
Unlike the many burritophiles who claim allegiance to one particular style, I have come to love all the varieties as if they were my own children. I’m sorry to be so Pollyanna, but it’s true. I had no idea how difficult it would be to choose winners, to eliminate burritos that are so delicious they occupy my dreams and dinner table conversations.
But alas, a competition this is. And there can be just one winner.
To up the ante in this third and final round, I brought along El Padrino, Nate Silver, to relive his glory days as a burrito blogger and give him a taste of the nation’s four best burritos. Our four-day, coast-to-coast burrito boondoggle would lead us through a range of flavors and restaurant personalities. Somewhere along the way, we’d find our winner.
Delicious Mexican Eatery
EL PASO, TEXAS
In the dark hours of a Monday morning, Nate and I took off from our respective locales, joining forces at midday in El Paso. We were tired but hungry as we drove through radiating Texas heat to our first stop: Delicious Mexican Eatery on Fort Boulevard. Located at the nexus of Fort Bliss, Franklin Mountain State Park and the U.S.-Mexico border, the restaurant has been churning out rolled, petite Paso del Norte-style burritos for 36 years.
In the first round of our competition, Delicious was part of a motley group, facing off against burritos in Seattle, Idaho and Hawaii. The last of these was surprisingly awesome, stuffed with kalua pig and a perfectly sweet and salty guava barbecue sauce. Although I can close my eyes and almost taste that burrito (I ate three of them in the 36 hours I was on the island), there was no way it could beat out this border-city classic.
In the next round, Delicious faced off against one of the best contestants in the burrito-fueled Bay Area (and my personal go-to whenever I’m in San Francisco), Taqueria Cancún. Cancún made a few missteps, serving a dry and oily bundle, while Delicious ramped up the flavor for Round 2, earning the small Texas eatery a place in the final four.
El Paso is every bit as much a burrito city as San Francisco, more so in many ways, but it is far less discussed in national burrito circles. I’ve spent time there because I have family nearby, so I’d never thought of El Paso as particularly obscure. But the bracket has taught me how little most people know about this pocket of the country. El Paso and its conjoined twin, Juarez (I like to think of burritos as their shared lifeblood), are isolated geographically, far from the Texan hubs of Houston and Dallas, and have a culture all their own. That extends to the El Paso burrito’s construction, which is far less understood than that of its portly San Francisco cousin, so let’s recap.
As I’ve mentioned before, these burritos are simple and elegant, relying on fresh, tasty tortillas, and just a few ingredients in the form of a guisado — a stew or casserole-type filling. After the tortilla is made and griddled to a perfect golden brown, it is laid flat on the counter and guisado is ladled in the middle (the tortilla is often slathered with refried beans as well). Either side of the tortilla is then folded over the top, creating what looks like a rolled up tortilla rather than a stuffed envelope.
Nate and I ordered an array of burritos, then watched the action around us from a perch by the window. Our order came up, and he went to fill his salsa bowl from the bar (I prefer this one without the extra sauce). After his first bite Nate, smiling with delight, said, “It’s like it isn’t even a burrito!” When I reminded him this is one of the styles closest to the burrito’s origins, he qualified his statement, expressing that it was unlike any burrito he’d ever eaten. He could finally understand how this seemingly simple task of selecting a favorite burrito among four was made incredibly difficult by the dish’s wide-ranging iterations.
Delicious burritos are comfort food at its finest; I’m certain this chile verde is what I’ll crave from here on out whenever I’m feeling low. The tortilla is soft, brown, golden and white on the outside, fresh off the grill. The little bundles are satisfying, but never leave you stuffed. You can eat two (or three or four) to have a meal, or eat one just because. This is the spiciest burrito in the finals; it leaves the taste buds intact, but provides enough heat to make you glad you ordered a house-made lemonade. The array of textures is superb: a slightly chewy tortilla, pulpy chiles, tomatoes and onions, small chunky potato pieces and tender beef morsels. It’s not much to look at after the logo-emblazoned wax paper has been removed, but this burrito doesn’t need smoke and mirrors to create magic.
Fully charmed, we headed back toward the airport and hopped on a plane headed west for the City of Angels.
Al & Bea’s Mexican Food
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
After an afternoon exploring the spectrum of Mexican culinary options in Los Angeles, Nate and I made our way toward Al &5Bea’s, just as the sun was beginning to fall behind the 5 and 10. East First Street was clean and quiet, but the small hut and patio were crowded with patrons. We placed our order and sat at a table near the window, listening as a steady stream of customers placed órdenes. Even with that small a sample size, it seemed clear the bean and cheese burrito with green sauce ($3.50) is el preferido.
Al & Bea’s draw in Round 1 placed it in the grupo de la muerte, up against two other Boyle Heights classics — La Azteca Tortilleria and Manuel’s El Tepeyac Café — as well as the award-winning breakfast burrito from Athenian III in Orange County. With a different seeding, all four restaurants could have easily advanced to Round 2. But Al & Bea’s bean and cheese stole the win with the perfection of each ingredient, particularly the refried beans.
In Round 2, it came up against another old-school burrito (the red machaca from Carolina’s Mexican Food in Phoenix) and a surprise corn tortilla-wrapped contender from Atlantic City (Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria), but Al & Bea’s breezed through to Round 3 with relative ease.
And so I was back. The same man was at the prep counter. He pulled a tortilla from the stack, spooned in beans, sprinkled on cheese, flicked a spray of green chile sauce in the middle and wrapped it all up into a perfect little package. On a typical visit, the delicate yet powerful tortillas strongarm the stewy ingredients into a squat torpedo shape, holding them in until the last few bites, when some finger licking is to be expected.
(I’d say this isn’t a good place for a first date, but oddly I’ve seen a few couples get their start here; the gift of bringing Al & Bea’s into someone’s life for the first time trumps any stains or mess that would normally make for an awkward first encounter.)
On this occasion, a lingering turn of the wrist at green sauce stage left the collective innards thinner than usual, and the burrito was impossible to eat in its expected form. With beans and sauce dripping down my hand, I turned to watch an older gentlemen behind me who had cut his burrito down the middle and was forking out the liquidy insides. Although I had warned Nate about the proper eating technique of this burrito before our visit, he did not heed my advice, and set the burrito down when it was only half eaten. With more beans on his paper tray than inside the tortilla, El Padrino asked for his own fork.
While the tortilla was soft and powdery, the ingredients were just too thin to stay inside on this visit. It was a disappointing showing. Several dozen napkins later, Nate and I were once again headed to the airport, ready for a visit with San Pancho.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
We headed for Mission Street at midday, when sunbeams stream through La Taqueria’s skylights, bathing patrons in heavenly light. We ordered a long list of burritos and hovered over other customers, ready to pounce when a seat finally opened up in the packed restaurant.
The bombardment of liquid and flavor from a La Taqueria burrito are enough to stop any woman in her tracks, even one who’d been eating burritos daily for two months straight. And so, it breezed past its Round 1 competition with a high score of 98 (though Rosa Maria’s in San Bernardino, California, put up a good fight).
It had a tougher go in Round 2, when it encountered another of my favorite burritos of the tournament, Taqueria y Tortilleria Ramirez in Lexington, Kentucky. Even with chunks of carnitas cut far too large, bringing La Taqueria’s second-round score down to 95, it advanced to the finals, winning by a single point.
During the Burrito Selection Committee meeting in the spring, both celebrity chef David Chang and Mexican food expert Gustavo Arellano named La Taqueria as the favorite to win the whole tournament. This burrito’s construction sets it apart. Like many Mission Street burritos, it’s prepared assembly line-style; the sour cream is added liberally from a squirt bottle, guacamole comes by the spoonful from an enormous metal bowl, pico de gallo and all its juices are added at the end. But unlike at other taquerias, each ingredient keeps its juices, making this burrito saucy in form and personality (the absence of rice also makes it noteworthy among its neighbors).
After my first visit, I received emails from several kind readers who, having noted my preference for griddled burritos, alerted me that La Taqueria has a menu secreto. It includes burritos “dorados,” La Taqueria’s signature torpedo-like bundles thrown on the griddle until they’re brown and bubbly all the way around. For this final visit I decided to order two carnitas burritos, one super, one super dorado. My conclusion? No need to choose a favorite — always get one of each. Nate ordered a super chorizo dorado and a super carnitas.
I watched Nate take his first bite, and I swear he achieved nirvana before my eyes. I got to work eating myself, and we munched in silence (except when I asked to borrow his second burrito because I’d dived into both of mine before I remembered to photograph them) until we’d each finished a burrito. You see, data-loving Nate had dined at top-ranking El Farolito, but this was his first time at La Taqueria. “I don’t want to bias you,” he said, “but this is really, really good,” pointing to two baskets left with nothing but foil and wax paper.
We caught a redeye back to New York, just one more burrito to go.
BRONX, NEW YORK
The success of Taqueria Tlaxcalli’s burrito is impressive when you think of its origins: The restaurant is owned by a Mexico City native who was desperate for traditional Mexican food, and though he sees burritos as Mexican-American cuisine, he decided to put them on the menu. For his creations, he stuffs a tortilla with meat, rice, black beans and a few vegetables, and then tops the plated bundle with four glorious sauces in red, white, purple and green. Knife and fork required.
Round 1 saw Tlaxcalli up against two other New York City restaurants as well as a young Chicago locale. New York’s contenders were all surprisingly strong given the city’s long, burrito-less history (if we’re confining the conversation to good burritos). Both Mission Cantina and Tres Carnes serve thoughtful burritos that are the pinnacle of their menus. Tlaxcalli came out on top with beautifully cooked steak and the inspired combination of sauces that provided a range of flavors to an otherwise simple dish.
In Round 2, Tlaxcalli squared off with a San Diego favorite (Lolita’s) and a personal favorite from Santa Fe (The Pantry). A poor showing from the other contenders and the depth and breadth of its chile, crema, spicy black bean and avocado sauces allowed Tlaxcalli to cruise through to the finals, part bracket buster, part beneficiary of the seeding process.
Nate and I arrived at 10 a.m. The restaurant’s Yelp page says it opens at that hour, but the workers were still mopping the floors when we arrived. We had invited a handful of people to join us in this far corner of the Bronx, so delaying the visit wasn’t an option, but with the grill still warming up, it was clear this wouldn’t be Tlaxcalli’s peak performance. Indeed, the meat was a little gristlier (perhaps the previous day’s leftovers) and there was a lot more rice than usual.
The experience was disappointing, but then, we hadn’t showed up at any of the other places while the grills were still cold. So I went back a couple of days later, to give Tlaxcalli a fair chance. The burrito was exactly what I’d eaten on the first two visits, a swirl of creamy sauces coating finely chopped pieces of carne asada and flavorful Mexican rice. This food is an East Coast godsend, but it isn’t in the same league with the other finalists.
And so, we have a winner. La Taqueria takes the title of America’s Best Burrito.
It’s not necessarily the burrito you’ll want to eat every day, and may not even be my personal favorite (I’ll leave you guessing on that), but it’s a technical marvel with a monumental first bite worthy of a national title.
CORRECTION (Sept. 10, 12:23 p.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the highway that passes near Al & Bea’s Mexican Food. It is the 5, and in that segment also the 10, not the 405.