Monday, 18 June 2012

Mission Burrito

When the Ewing and I first started dating, many aeons ago, both London and myself were just succumbing to our first wave of burrito love. It was before I was regularly blogging, and I decided that sampling and then writing about all the burritos I could lay my hands on would make a great new project.

Being in the first flush of love, I was somewhat oblivious to the Ewing's luke warm enthusiasm to endless helpings of sludgy beans and stringy chicken (I blame all the Margarita's we were helping the food down with) until, one fateful, hot afternoon in Islington, after becoming hopelessly lost, she finally put her foot down and would only eat a plain avocado and drink an agua fresca. The dream was over.

Fast forward to now, and although her interest is still somewhat limited, we have reached a happy compromise of burritos in moderation. A good job for me as I know our America trip would take us to San Francisco, home of the fabled San Francisco Mission Burrito.

First stop was La Taqueria, rated in both the guide books and on the web at sites such as Burritoeater as a decent shout for lunch. The large neon signs on the walls inside inside goe one step further, proclaiming that these are 'the best tacos and burriotos in the whole world'. A bold claim, and not one for a Mission Virgin like me to decide, but I was impresssed with the clean, bright interior as we arrived to the cool calm of the post-lunchtime rush; the glorious smell of grilled meat thick in the air.

After choosing our food, and ordering at the counter, we found a side table to sit down and enjoy our pineapple agua frescas while waiting for our ticket to be called.

I found this a little sweet for my tastes, but the Ewing was a big fan, helping herself to mine after she had finished draining hers in super quick time. If sweet, cold fruit drinks are your thing then the strawberry flavour are suposed to be very good, too.

The carne asada burrito with avocado. I hadn't realised when ordering, but La Taqueria are, controversially, one of the very few proponents of the Mission Style burrito who don't include rice (really making this more of a San Diego style wrap). I had mixed feelings about this, pleased that the filling was overwhelmed by extra carbs, but disappointment that the 'local' burrito I had been looking forward to was missing one critical ingredient.

In the end the absence of rice mattered very little; the burrito was a perfect mix of smoky, creamy and beany. Normally I would choose pork over beef, but here the grilled meat was gloriously charred, yet still tender. Its reasonably slender size (it's still pretty massive) and lack of rice also meant I could eat it without immediately slumping into a Cal -Mex coma, important when there are other things eager to be sampled.

The carnitas taco. I let the Ewing have a free reign with this one to start with, reasoning that the more modest bread 'wrapping' would appeal to her dislike of 'stodge'. My logic was right, and I had to quickly swipe the last few bites from her clutches so I could sample it for myself. I enjoyed this, the fatty, crispy shreds of pork topped with a fresh onion and tomato salsa, but found it a little uninspired compared to the majesty of the burrito.

La Taqueria on Urbanspoon

By this point we were both pretty sated; an unholy mixture of iced coffees, bacon donuts, bourbon cornflake ice cream, Mexican Coke, tacos and tortillas left us struggling to conemplate yet another feed. Walking back to the BART station we saw this on the corner, a tip in my burrito research and too tempting to pass by. A quick lap of Mission Street fortified us just enough for round two of our late Mexican lunch.

The interior here was darker and more austere. Despite the gloomy surroundings the place was pretty packed; every table taken by groups of friends, families, students and workmen, who were supposed to be concreting the pavement outside but obviously found the lure of meat and beans too hard to resist.(we had to be helped over wooden planks to get in the door).

Initally I may have been slightly dubious, but I really, really liked this place. The guy serving behind the counter was very helpful, patiently listening to our butchering of his mother tounge and explaining the menu permutations to us. The atmosphere was also lively and friendly, feeling at times more like a social club than a restaurant.

The totopos, gratis with every order. I quickly got stuck in, the crispy chips ably accompanied by pots of red and green salsa and  pico de gallo from the help yourself condiment bar. As ever the Ewing maintained a slight aloofness, until finally she relented and ate one. They didn't last for much longer after that.

Lengua Taco with beef tongue. Deciding that I wasn't quite ready for the sesos (brains) taco, I went for the tongue version instead. The meat was melty and soft, and pulled apart in strands as you ate it; the flavour was a little gamey, without being overpowering. The real problem was the whitish-grey, tastebuds still on the meat, that were rather reminiscent of the top of a piece of lego and gave the curious sensation of feeling like you were touching the top of your own tongue. The salsa seemed a bit gloopier than La Taqueria, and made the taco rather soggy, but the slices of lime on the side added a nice zing.

Weighing in at nearly two pounds this whopper was too much to manage after all our other Mission delights. Luckily it had been as carefully and neatly swaddled as a new born baby, meaning we could safely transport it back to our hotel, the silver foil helping to insulate it for a good few hours until we felt strong enough to brave it.

Luckily I still had room for beer, in this case a dark, slightly sweet Negra Modela; perfect with all the smoke and spice. The Ewing was particularly thankful for hers, after I assured her the pico de gallo wasn't that spicy (turns out that it was).

This is the real deal, rice'n'all, super burrito mission style. Tempted as I was to go for the carne asada this time I chose the al pastor; marinaded pork cooked on a spit with onions and pineapple. Despite my Mexican overload that afternoon, the glorious smell coming from my bag meant I couldn't resist unpeeling it from its silver wrapper as soon as I got home. Within minutes it had been devoured, leaving a trail of fallen rice and salsa drips in its wake.

Although I actually didn't miss the rice in La Taqueria's version, the extra carbs in this were spot on. The rice had been cooked with herbs and tomato, and was well seasoned, combining perfectly with the mealy, sweet pinto beans. The middle featured a cooling seam of avocado and sour cream resting on the spicy, smoky shreds of pork, and the pineapple and onion lending a slight sweetness to cut through the slightly fatty, crispy meat. This was a supreme burrito; despite any reservations about the rice the Ewing wolfed her half down without complaint, too.

While it might not always be pretty or chic, both our stops featured big, honest, good value food that doesn't taste cheap, or stodgy, or bland. The subtle spicing on the meats, as well as the different marinades and cooking methods mean the flavours remain distinguished, and the array of salsa, beans and toppings mean that there are endless permutations of the simple burrito and taco to be enjoyed.

El Farolito on Urbanspoon
It would be impossible to talk about the Mission Burrito without saying a little something about the area that begat such a wonderful thing. Taking the BART to Mission and 24th Street we were immediately hit with a wave of heat and colour; wall murals and painted houses and shops brightening every corner. As well as our Burrito fix we also made room for donuts and ice cream (at Humprey Slocombe and Dynamo Donuts, whose magnificence are to be saved for a later post) and a visit to Casa Lucas, the popular Mexican supermarket on 24th Street.

The Ewing, proudly clutching the aloe vera leaf purchased as a DIY aftersun substitute (a menace that lurked by the bathroom sink back at the hotel, ready to attack me every time I turned the tap on).

They certainly like their beans. Also note the sacks of maize flour and hominy used for tortillas, pupusas, and tamales on the bottom shelf, and the Rice-a-Roni on the second shelf down. This popular boxed convenience food bears features a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge and the tag line 'The San Francisco Treat!', as it originated in the Mission District.

Now, in me, Homer Simpson has a rival for the biggest pork rind lover in the West, but even I wasn't too convinced by these pickled specimens in bobbing menacingly in their glass jars. Curious as I was, these stayed on the shelf for another time.

Now, that's is more like it, shelves and shelves of hot sauces and canned chillies. I couldn't go home without grabbing some chipotles en adobo and some Tapatio sauce weighing down my suitcase.

Goat's milk caramel lollies. Although I didn't try one of these, I did buy some cajeta, after our delicious experience at Chicago's Girl and the Goat earlier on our trip. It currently sits in the cupboard, awaiting some culinary inspiration (or the point where a sugar crash and lack of options forces me to drink it straight from the bottle).

Sadly we only had time for one lap to experience the Mission's Mexican fare, meaning we missed out on such delights as birria (goat), chile rellenos, or the Californian tofu taco (maybe a good thing).
But how ever long you have to spend, this is a wonderful, colourful, vibrant corner of San Francisco, and an essential stop for anyone looking for some fabulous food and Cal-Mex culture.

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