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Our Correspondent Laments The Burrito That Got Away

I’ve written extensively about the process of selecting the 64 burritos that would compete in FiveThirtyEight’s Burrito Bracket. California, with the most burrito-selling establishments and an overwhelming number of delicious options, was perhaps the most difficult of our four regions to narrow to 16 taquerias. Many greats were left out, but there was one omission in particular that caused great consternation: El Castillito in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Food expert and Burrito Selection Committee member Gustavo Arellano spoke highly of it but also told the committee that it had sentimental value, and he wasn’t sure where the line between great memories and sheer deliciousness fell. The Mission Street location has a Value Over Replacement Burrito score of just +0.7 (though there are several locations, and a quick review reveals that Yelpers often conflate the various locales). We wanted to keep the Bay Area to four entries, and with such insanely tough competition in San Pancho, El Castillito didn’t make the cut.

And yet, it didn’t disappear after the vote. A couple of weeks after the selection meeting, committee member David Chang made a stop in San Francisco and told me, “I don’t know. It might be the best burrito I’ve ever eaten.” In a follow-up interview, Gustavo expressed that his single lament of the bracket selection might be the exclusion of El Castillito. Obviously, I had to find out for myself.

Several blocks north of La Taqueria, El Farolito and Taqueria Cancún, in an area less marked by hipsters and gentrification, the yellow and red façade of El Castillito jumps out from a dull concrete building. Inside, tables and swivel chairs line the narrow, dark room in long rows, creating an aisle to the counter in the back. It’s dingy inside -– the yellow walls have seen brighter days, the floor is stained, and tabletops are carved with the initials of previous patrons.

I ate carnitas and al pastor super burritos. Because I’m not forced to choose a favorite here, I won’t. They were both decadent: rich chunks of fried pork for the carnitas, mean and smoky; spicy and sweet al pastor. El Castillito adds cheese to the burrito at the end of its time on the griddle, producing a gooey, perfectly melted barrier of creamy bliss in every bite. Thick slices of avocado add to the gluttony, and brown rice keeps it in check. The tortillas, flaky and subtle, are a step up from the Mission Street taquerias in the bracket.

El Castillito doesn’t produce the technical masterpieces of La Taqueria, but there is a depth of personality and flavor, and a knowing simplicity, that I’m not sure I’ve had anywhere else in the bracket. This Little Castle is home to royalty.

So, how would El Castillito have fared in the bracket? Very well. Here’s how I would have scored the al pastor:

Tortilla: 19

Al pastor: 20

Other ingredients: 18

Presentation: 18

Overall flavor: 20

Total: 95

Of the 64 taquerias I visited in Round 1, only two — Al & Bea’s in Los Angeles and La Taqueria — scored higher. And yet, El Castillito is not among our 16 semifinalists.

I will always remember El Castillito as the one that got away.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.