A couple of weeks ago, I was in San Francisco for exactly 48 hours. I was guided by a single purpose: to eat as many burritos as possible. Jonathan Kauffman (a.k.a. SF Foodie), a food writer I revere, had just published his top 10 San Francisco burritos, and the plan was to go on a burrito crawl (a great idea, right?), ideally hitting every one of them, as well as some of my own standbys that hadn’t made it onto his list. I made it through exactly two burritos before admitting defeat. I know, I know – I wimped out – but in my defense, it’s HARD to eat ten burritos in two days, especially when your friends bring you morning buns and take you to Mission Chinese Food (so worth it!) and fancy taquerias. Also, my friends love me, but it didn’t seem fair to force them to eat only burritos just because I am obsessed.
All the same, I am EXCITED to write this blog post, because one of those two that I did manage to eat was the best burrito I have ever had. That is a statement of cold fact, uninflated by hyperbole.
Taqueria La Altena has two entrances, one on Mission Street, but it’s much more fun to enter through the Mission Market on Capp Street, where the butchers sell more offal than meat – huge heaps of tripe and trotters and kidneys and brains – and the seafood is so dazzling that I almost thought about staying in that evening, even though San Francisco is one of the best cities for cheap eats in the world. Like most taquerias, La Altena has a fairly extensive menu, but I was there to try the pork al pastor. Fatty pork is thinly sliced and marinated in annatto and chiles (and traditionally pineapple, which tenderizes the pork) and wrapped tightly on a vertical spit like meat for gyros. The slow cooking adds a caramel sweetness and slight char to the meat. The lovely cocineros griddle, rather than steam, their tortillas (this makes a HUGE difference to the texture of the resulting burrito), and then with wickedly long knives slice and fry up the al pastor, which becomes crisp and juicy.
You can have the burrito with rice, beans, and salsa ($5.50), or with fresh sweet Hass avocados ($5.95), or even with sour cream and cheese ($7.00 – unnecessary, in my opinion, since the pork is so spectacular). This burrito was simply sensational; phenomenal pork al pastor aside, all the flavours and textures were perfectly balanced. Even friend K, a long-time devotee of El Farolito, agreed that this may have been the best burrito she’d tried. Seriously, if you eat one burrito in the Mission, this should be it.
Although I wanted to try another place that was new to me, I have extremely fond associations with Taqueria El Buen Sabor. Friend K’s brilliant, gentle, reclusive former roommate E took me there for lunch a few years ago while K was at work. I had to try the pollo asado, he told me. We walked to 18th and Valencia and took our giant burritos back to the apartment, where we cracked open frosty beers (I love midday drinking) and devoured our burritos in near total silence. They were that good. The chicken was garlicky, juicy, slightly charred from the grill, and marvellously complemented by a quite exceptional, quite spicy salsa verde. During another visit I dragged a gaggle of K’s dismayed girlfriends there. (They’d have preferred posh nosh and fancy cocktails, but I got to pick because I was the out-of-town visitor. Lucky me!)
This time, while good, El Buen Sabor wasn’t quite the knockout that I remembered. I noticed the difference from La Altena in their tortillas, which are steamed, not griddled (making the tortillas slightly flabby-textured) and the burrito on whole was, well, wetter than I remembered. Although I am told that has to do with the skill of the person rolling the burrito. It’s like a fine cigar.
Still, the chicken was as tasty as I remembered. I guess it’s possible even for El Buen Sabor to have a slightly off day. I’ll be back – maybe after I’ve crossed the other burritos off from SF Foodie’s list.
Taqueria La Altena
2588 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Price per person: under $10
The verdict: Must try!
Taqueria El Buen Sabor
697 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Price per person: Under $10
The verdict: I’d eat here again