Staff favorites: San Francisco burritos & Oakland tacos

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It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the burrito to the average San Francisco resident. The burrito may not be native to San Francisco, but much as pizza in New York or curry in London the burrito has been adopted and adapted by the local culture to the point that the idea of San Francisco without burritos is simply unthinkable.

From an aesthetic point of view, the burrito is not a thing of beauty — as a burrito lover it's hard to admit this, but it's true.  Burritos are pale often lumpy cylinders wrapped in foil, oozing at the ends, and a peek at their innards does little to improve things. Despite these shortcomings, San Francisco burritos attract endless admirers and inspire regular pilgrimages to San Francisco's burrito epicenter, the Mission District. Burritos even seem to have the unlikely power to make fans wax poetic, take for example Lonely Planet US Travel Editor Robert Reid's reply when asked about his favorite burrito spots: "Mission burritos in San Francisco are like stars in the sky — no need trying to count them, just enjoy whichever one you gaze on."

What defines a San Francisco burrito? This is a surprisingly complex question, enough to inspire a rather long Wikipedia entry on the subject and incessant late night debates inherent to the burrito-loving culture of San Francisco. Some insist on a grilled tortilla rather than a steamed one, others insist on chunky fresh pico de gallo rather than a thin salsa, the addition of sour cream is essential to some but hopelessly unhip to others. This is what the local Lonely Planet staff say when asked what defines a San Francisco burrito:

  • “Long lines.”
  • “Complex and huge compared to what you would find in Mexico, but no silly ingredients. Any place that uses mango salsa, chipotle sour cream, or cilantro flavored rice and calls themselves ‘San Francisco style’ has got it all wrong.”
  • “Must be the size of a fat baby’s arm.”
  • “A San Francisco burrito needs to be as big as your head and most definitely needs rice. An SF burrito can come with or without lettuce, but if you’re smart you’ll take it with.”
  • "Definitely no lettuce. Yuck."
  • “Guys in pork pie hats and skinny jeans arguing over what makes the perfect burrito.”

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Typical San Francisco burrito in cross-section (image resurrected from early editions of the Lonely Planet San Francisco City Guide). Sour cream and lettuce, two of the most controversial ingredients, not included.

Related article: The LA food truck revival

Top San Francisco burritos — Lonely Planet staff picks:

La Corneta Taquería (Mission St. between 24th St. & 23rd St.) – A favorite of several LP staff members, who cite its bright decor, speedy assembly line, and meats that are a notch above the rest in terms of quality. If you're looking to avoid burrito-induced postprandial somnolence, a.k.a. "food coma," try the brilliant Super Baby Burrito, which delivers all the delicious ingredients of a super burrito in a smaller less coma-inducing package.

eltoroEl Toro Taquería (Valencia St. at the corner of 17th St.) – Pancho Villa Taquería is a perennial favorite burrito joint in San Francisco, but those in the know head a block away to the sister restaurant El Toro. The options at the two restaurants are similar and feature the same excellent carne asada, a large selection of aguas frescas (not to mention entertainment from a band of roving mariachis), but you're more likely to easily find a table in El Toro and you can have a conversation with friends without screaming. The spicy pico de gallo here means business and should only be ordered by those who have made friends with the jalapeño.

El Metate (Bryant St. at the corner of 22nd St.) – The meat options such as pollo en chile rojo and chile colorado are saucy and flavorful, and if you want to venture away from the burrito offerings they have some of the best fish tacos around. El Metate may not get the indie cred that the real hole-in-the-wall spots gets high marks for a mix of good value and sit-downability. "You could take your mom," says Robert Reid.

oaxaquenaLa Oaxaqueña Bakery and Restaurant (Mission St. between 17th St. & Clarion Alley) – Not a taco truck, but almost the size of one, La Oaxaqueña has incredible al pastor that includes bits of pineapple cooked on top of the meat rotisserie. Not just a burrito palace like many other spots in the Mission, be sure to try their banana-leaf-wrapped tamales and other regional specialties of Oaxaca.

Taquería El Buen Sabor (Valencia St. at the corner of 18th St.) – Overshadowed by better known burrito joints nearby, El Buen Sabor may not be the prettiest taquería in the Mission, but it delivers on flavor and doesn't break the bank. Try the spicy al pastor burrito, grab a stool by the windows and watch the Mission foot traffic stream by.

Papalote (24th St. between Valencia St. and Poplar St.) – When TV chef Bobby Flay challenged the Escobedo brothers to a burrito throwdown, he didn't stand a chance. There's often a line out the door and a wait for a table at this popular taquería known for it's commitment to freshness, vegetarian-friendly options, and, the house specialty, a massive (and pricey) burrito called "The Triple Threat" stuffed with chicken, carne asada, and shrimp. Beware the fiery orange-hued salsa: it looks innocent enough, but it packs a punch.

lataqueriaLa Taquería (Mission St. near the corner of 25th St.) – No place seems to stir up as much debate as La Taquería. The name is either blandly generic à la "The Band" or implies that they're the ne plus ultra of taquerías. The burritos are small, expensive for the area, and steadfastly refuse to contain any rice. No beans? That’ll cost you extra. Order one sans-frijoles and you'll soon find out why: they fill the bean space with more meat, and it's the delectable meats that keep people coming to this Mission institution. Finding a seat generally means hovering and pouncing the second someone hints that they might be getting ready to leave. "I can really only tolerate sitting in there if/when I've been drinking," says Robert Reid.

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Heading across the Bay to Oakland, the burrito scene is replaced by an equally vibrant and competitive taco truck scene. The highest density, and generally the best trucks, can be found in Oakland's Fruitvale District, although you can find taco trucks scattered throughout other neighborhoods (including one right across the street from Lonely Planet's US office near Jack London Square). In some areas of the Fruitvale, you'll find several trucks per block and sometimes multiples sharing the same corner, so competition for your business is fierce and locals are often staunch defenders of their favorite truck. The arguments about the best of the best, tortilla preparation, verboten ingredients, etc. that you find among San Francisco burrito aficionados are mirrored in the Oakland taco truck scene.

For visitors new to the concept, follow these basic rules when selecting a taco truck:

  • Look for a line. Busy trucks mean fresh and tasty food is being served there.
  • In general the best taco trucks stay in one place. They're essentially permanent restaurants that happen to have wheels. Think about it this way:  moving trucks are harder for the health department to find.
  • Research. Oakland foodies are constantly bickering about which taco truck is the best, who makes the best carnitas, who commits the ultimate taco crime of adding cheese, etc. Taco trucks also move and change hands somewhat frequently, so it's good to get current information from online review sites and local food bloggers.
  • Want a guided tour? Consider joining a Tour de Taco, a group bicycle tour of the top taco trucks in Oakland - the only problem is getting yourself back onto a bicycle after sampling multiple tacos.
  • Tacos served at trucks are quite small, so if you don't know what the specialty of a particular truck is, try several to get an idea of what you like.
  • Taco trucks are often not in the best neighborhoods. While an element of danger probably adds to their hipster status, keep your wits about you especially if you're not familiar with the area.

Top Oakland taco trucks — Lonely Planet staff picks:

sinaloaTacos Sinaloa (International Blvd. at the corner of 22nd St.) – One of the few taco trucks that provides some seating, which is one reason that Sinaloa is so popular. The other reason, of course, is the food. Fish tacos are a specialty here, but don't miss out on the rich and spicy al pastor.

Tacos Guadalajara (International Blvd. at the corner of 44th Ave.) – Guadalajara Restaurant on Fruitvale Ave. has a few trucks scattered around the area but this is our staff favorite. Why not go to the restaurant itself for more comfort? Because the trucks have an entirely different menu. The al pastor here is the best you'll find, and the carnitas are a close runner up.

ojodeaguaEl Ojo de Agua (Fruitvale Ave. at the corner of E. 12th St.) – A popular truck near the Fruitvale BART station, El Ojo de Agua makes top notch carne asada tacos topped with a spicy guacamole. If you want something more filling than a taco, Ojo de Agua has a lengthy torta selection. Also check out the selection of fresh fruit juices and shakes that help put out the fire after a spicy meal.

Tacos Mi Rancho (1st Ave. at International Blvd.) – Outside the core taco truck area of the Fruitvale, Tacos Mi Rancho is easy walking distance from Oakland's Lake Merritt, a pleasant place to eat your tacos. Don't let the flocks of Canada geese that occupy the shores of the lake bully you into giving them any of your food, the carnitas are so good at Tacos Mi Rancho you won't want to give them to your best friend much less an ornery goose.

[Photos by: jeroen020, Gary_Soup, Egan Snow, VirtualErn, and The Inadvertent Gardener]