San Francisco Burrito

San Francisco burrito is an Urban Food Log that first became popular during the 1960s in the Mission District of San Francisco. Author Gustavo Arellano classifies the Mission-style burrito as one of three major styles of burritos in the United States, following the earlier, simple burrito consisting of beans, rice, and meat and preceding the California burrito containing cheese and potatoes that was developed in the 1980s.

Originally a Mexican-American food, the San Francisco burrito is distinguished from a regular burrito partly by the amount of rice and other side dishes included in the package, and also by its sheer size. Many taquerias in the Mission and in the greater San Francisco Bay Area specialize in San Francisco burritos. It is typically served in a piece of aluminum foil around a large flour tortilla which is wrapped and folded around a variety of ingredients.

A food critic working for the San Francisco Chronicle counted hundreds of taquerias in the Bay Area, and noted that the question of which taqueria makes the best burrito can ‘encourage fierce loyalty and ferocious debate.’ New York-based writer Calvin Trillin observed that the burrito in San Francisco ‘has been refined and embellished in much the same way that pizza has been refined and embellished in New York and Chicago.’ Since its commercial availability began in the 1960s, the style has spread widely throughout the United States.

Long-time residents of the Mission District trace the origins of the San Francisco burrito back to the 1960s. The owners of ‘La Cumbre’ Taqueria have been credited as the first taqueria to sell this style of burrito.The creation of the style is credited to Raul and Michaela Duran who sold burritos from their meat market, which in 1972 was converted into the La Cumbre Taqueria, and have dated the birth of the San Francisco burrito to September 29, 1969. However, like most such claims, this is debated by others who claim to remember similar burritos from earlier in the decade. If the claims of the owner of ‘El Faro’ are to be believed, the first San Francisco burrito was sold September 26, 1961 to a group of San Francisco firefighters, using two 6-inch tortillas to play the role of what would later become the large single tortilla. The fact that he did not have—and had not previously considered the need for—larger tortillas suggests that the birth of the San Francisco burrito as we now know it probably did not come earlier than that time.

And yet, the San Francisco burrito does have historical forebears in burritos made elsewhere. Some assert that the original San Francisco burritos were directly inspired by burritos brought by California Central Valley farmworkers into the fields, then reproduced in the city. One restaurant consultant remembered his teen years in the fields this way: ‘Freezing cold five AM mornings, the best time to pick lettuce, owners needed a very good cook to attract the best fast crews. We’d get huevos rancheros at five, sweet strong hot coffee with a shot of brandy at seven, then full spicy killer burritos at around 10:30, keep you going till afternoon. I remember the texture of the shredded beef, the heat of the green peppers, and the proper proportion of rice and beans. They were so spicy you didn’t need salsa– but you needed that protein and fiber, couldn’t survive without it.’

Other burrito researchers trace the burrito’s ancestry even further back to miners of the 19th century. The first printed references to burritos came in the 1930s; in the 1950s and 1960s, versions of the burrito spread through the American Southwest and beyond. But while the Mexican-American burrito began as a wider regional phenomenon, most would agree that the San Francisco burrito emerged as a recognizable and distinct local culinary movement during the 1970s and 1980s. One writer asserts that the San Francisco burrito—a large, compact and quite cheap meal—played a special role for those who lived through the local economic recession of the 1980s and early 1990s.

During the mid- to late-1990s, the Mission District faced increasing rents and property values and an influx of higher-income residents and visitors, particularly during the dot-com boom. During this time, some elements of the San Francisco burrito experience became politicized. One activist disdained the practice of charging extra for chips and salsa, for instance, as an anti-Mexican symptom of gentrification. Some taquerias also offer additional types of flour tortillas (for instance, whole wheat or spinach). The same activist declared, ‘I will shoot my son and daughter if they ever order a green burrito.’ In the end, the rhetoric of burrito politics underscores the role of the San Francisco burrito in both bohemian and Chicano culture in San Francisco.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a large national chains which arguably offer versions of a San Francisco style burrito. Two key technologies that made the San Francisco burrito possible are the large flour tortilla and tortilla steamers, which together increase the flexibility, stretch, and size of the resulting tortilla. The tortilla steamer saturates the gluten-heavy tortilla with moisture and heat, which increase the capacity of the tortilla to stretch without breaking. This in turn allows for the size of the San Francisco burrito. Corn tortillas, the original indigenous pre-Columbian form of the tortilla, cannot achieve either the size or the flexibility of the flour tortilla, and thus cannot be used to make a San Francisco burrito. A few San Francisco taquerias grill the tortillas instead of steaming them, using heat and oil instead of steam; and a few grill the finished product before the final step of wrapping it in aluminum foil.

The aluminum foil wrapping, which is present whether the customer is eating in the restaurant or taking out, acts as a structural support to ensure that the tortilla does not rupture. One of the main difficulties of the San Francisco burrito is the issue of structural integrity, but skilled burrito makers consistently produce huge burritos that do not burst when handled or eaten. A successful large burrito depends on an understanding of the outer limit of potential burrito volume, correct steam hydration, proper wrapping/folding technique, and assuring that excess liquid has been removed from the burrito ingredients prior to inclusion.

Most San Francisco burrito purveyors use a modified assembly line. Most or all possible burrito ingredients are laid out in a mise en place of metal serving containers, heated from below, and in front of a counter. The preparation area is shielded by glass or plastic from the customer. Workers move the tortilla along the counter, quickly scooping successive ingredients onto the tortilla. They then fold and tighten the tortilla around the large bundle of ingredients, and wrap a sheet of aluminum foil around the completed burrito. Some taquerias mix the ingredients together on a grill just prior to placement in the tortilla.

For meat fillings, almost all San Francisco taquerias offer a choice of stewed or grilled chicken (pollo or pollo asado), grilled beef steak (carne asada), barbecued pork (al pastor) and braised shredded pork (carnitas); many also offer additional ingredients, including pork stewed in green chile sauce (chile verde), beef stewed in red chile sauce (chile colorado), Mexican sausage (chorizo), beef tongue (lengua), stewed and shredded beef (machaca), stewed beef head (cabeza), beef brain (sesos), beef eyeball (ojo) and shrimp (camarones). Many taquerias also offer vegetable or tofu fillings to accommodate their vegetarian customers. Other fillings offered in San Francisco taquerias include birria (goat meat), camarones diablos (extra-spicy shrimp), carne deshebrada (shredded beef with red chile sauce), carne molida (ground beef), chicharrónes (fried pork rinds, stewed), barbacoa (marinated lamb, sometimes pork is substituted), pescado (fish, usually fried or grilled tilapia and sometimes salmon), picadillo (ground beef with chopped chiles and tomatoes), mole (chicken stewed in a chile and chocolate sauce), nopales (prickly pear cactus), and tripas (beef tripe).

According to Andrea Schulte-Peevers and Sara Benson in their 2006 travel guide ‘Lonely Planet California,’ it is customary for diners eating San Francisco burritos to forgo utensils entirely and to eat the burrito with their hands, tearing the foil gradually down as they eat from above, but keeping the foil on the bottom to continue to support the structure of the uneaten portion. Adding salsa to the burrito before each subsequent bite is a popular practice.

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