October 24, 2020

The Best Burritos in San Francisco - Serious Eats

The Best Burritos in San Francisco

san francisco burrito
Lori Eanes

I have a theory that the life of every San Franciscan, native or new, can be chronicled in burritos. There’s the First Burrito, the Worst Burrito, (many) Late-Night Drunk Burritos, the Beloved Burrito, the Convenient Burrito—and many of these, of course, change over the years, as we do.

When I first arrived in the city, 21 years ago, I was quickly introduced to my First Burrito. It was big and cheap and—to my suburban-Boston, Burger King–raised palate—an amazing creation. For a while, I ate basically nothing but burritos for dinner (and subsisted on bad bagels for breakfast, which got me through lunch). At that time, I was undiscriminating and inconsistent in my burrito tastes—and a vegetarian. I was also living on Van Ness Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with auto dealerships and steakhouses, all beyond my budget.

This meant that my Convenient Burrito came from a kitschy place called Pancho’s, on Polk Street, owned by a Jewish restaurateur named Randy Kaplan. My order was “The Veggie,” filled with things I’ve since come to detest in my burrito, like mushrooms and steamed broccoli and squash. One night, I got it “Atomico”-style—smothered with thick red chili sauce, melted cheese, and sour cream—ultimately leading me to pass out in a burrito coma on the couch and miss the second half of the Seinfeld finale. I took a bit of a burrito break after that.

My hiatus ended a couple of years later, when I resettled near the Mission and began eating meat again. Burritos and I were back on, big time. These days, burritos and I have become more like good friends—we don’t get to see each other as often as we used to, but whenever we get together, it’s like nothing has changed.

Most locals' burrito-eating habits ebb and flow, but whether they enjoy a burrito weekly or yearly, it is, almost always, the same burrito. Because there’s another burrito category locals love to discuss: the hands-down best burrito.

Tasting and debating and proselytizing for our nearly two-pound stuffed tortillas is a tradition. One that—as the city continues to change, and the family-run fixtures that sell them work hard to stay open—deserves to be honored again and again. For as long as both San Francisco and its burritos shall live.

What Is a Mission-Style Burrito?

The San Francisco–style burrito is a beast all its own. It’s made up of a floppy flour tortilla, a few inches larger than a Frisbee, which is steamed so it’s soft and warm. Then it’s swiftly folded around an assembly line of fillings that, while customizable to some extent, typically include beans (pinto, black, refried); meat (like braised pork, stewed chicken, grilled steak, or tongue); salsa; and rice.

Unlike the relatively slender, oozy, sometimes French fry–studded burritos common in Southern California, it’s served without sauce, in a handheld, foil-encased behemoth of a cylinder. There’s also my preferred option of ordering it “super”—with a splat of guacamole or some sliced avocado, cheese, and a cool splash of crema or sour cream.

If you’ve never been to San Francisco, yet find this all sounding very familiar, you can thank Chipotle for bringing this style nationwide. But these nourishing, super-stuffed silver bullets have been a city staple for more than half a century, ever since La Cumbre and El Faro, both of which claim the honor of stateside invention, started rolling them for Mission workers looking for a portable, filling lunch. Shops have since spread beyond the historically Latinx neighborhood, from The Avenues near Ocean Beach to downtown’s Financial District.

At nontraditional counters, fillings have, somewhat controversially, expanded to include everything from vegan soyrizo to spicy tuna to tikka masala to pork and kimchi. Yet over time, the classic burrito has held steady, becoming synonymous with San Francisco, a kind of edible greeting for travelers and transplants alike.

Still, somehow, not everyone loves them. Renowned food critic Jonathan Gold famously called our burritos “monstrous things wrapped in tinfoil.” And acclaimed San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins once said, “You might as well just take a bunch of stuff and throw it in a blender and eat it with a spoon…. It’s just gross…. Who can eat all that?”

Um, I can. And for this article, I ate more than ever before.

The Criteria

FiveThirtyEight’s exhaustive America’s Best Burrito bracket this is not. I set out on this journey with a collection of highly recommended picks I'd sourced from leading local chefs, food writers, and fanatical food fans on forums like Chowhound (mined from the 10,000 “burrito discussions” going back a decade), and then vetted and whittled it down to five of the city’s best, one burrito at a time.

In my search, I was guided by a few important criteria for what makes an excellent San Francisco–style burrito. Bear in mind that, given that the burrito was originally created to be hearty and easily portable above all else, there's some wiggle room around the exact ingredient lineup. As previously noted, I always go super-style (including throughout all my testing for this article), and I prefer a very light hand with rice, sometimes even choosing to—gasp!—skip it entirely.  

  • Warm tortillas: The flour tortilla should be fresh-tasting, supple, and substantial enough to stand up to its contents. Though you'll find a colorful assortment of tortilla options at many burrito purveyors, the plain white tortilla is standard.
  • Flavorful rice: Rice is undoubtedly a part of the San Francisco burrito’s DNA; when made well, it’s flavored in the Mexican style, with garlic, onion, and tomato.
  • Well-seasoned meat: Every burrito menu offers a choice of meat. Some have more options than others, but I always want to see well-prepared carnitas (lard-braised pork), al pastor (marinated pork), pollo (grilled or stewed chicken), and carne asada (grilled steak).
  • Beans: These may be plump whole beans (pinto or black), or creamy refried beans. Like the meat, they should be well seasoned and tender.
  • Salsa: It could be chopped tomato, onion, and cilantro, or a bright, spicy, peppery blend, but whatever it is, it's got to be fresh.
  • If you go super-style, melted Monterey Jack cheese: Sometimes it’s just a handful of shredded cheese, but in my opinion, the best Mission burritos are made with square slices of cheese that are melted until they’re one with the tortilla.
  • Proper balance of texture, temperature, and flavor: A good burrito is a blissful jumble of piping-hot chunks of tender meat and velvety beans; chilled salsa with subtle to strong heat; and, if done super-style, melted cheese, buttery-smooth avocado, and a tangy, refreshing swirl of crema or sour cream. Crucially, the rice shouldn’t outweigh or overwhelm the other fillings.
  • The result of my exploration? Here are five of the best burritos in San Francisco (with a bonus!). Also: I’m hereby on my next burrito break.

    Our Favorites

    Four meaty burritos, one vegetarian pick, and a new, noteworthy breakfast burrito to wake up to.

    El Farolito

    El Farolito
    Photograph: Lori Eanes.

    If the burrito is the soul of San Francisco, then the original El Farolito is its heart: always beating, full of love, and nourishing locals long through the night. The last thing anyone really needs at 2 a.m. is a supersized “snack,” but for 37 years now, it’s what drunken Mission District bar-goers want. Squeezing into a bright, yellow-topped booth and downing a delightfully sloppy, football-fat tube before bed is a beloved ritual—nay, a rite of passage—in this town.

    My standard El Farolito order has always been the quesadilla suiza, a near-burrito-sized quesadilla stuffed with as much meat, salsa, and other fillings as a flour tortilla can hold. But, in the name of burrito service journalism, I tried the super al pastor, on advice from a former colleague (who has an undying passion for El Farolito and its perfectly marinated rotisserie pork). The burrito was properly jumbled, with pintos, subtly spicy salsa, cool sour cream, melted cheese, and just enough rice, all in a steamy tortilla—and all for just $8.75! I couldn’t have been more pleased. I also could have eaten only half of it.

    Taquería El Farolito, 2779 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA   94110, 415-824-7877

    La Taqueria

    La Taqueria
    Photograph: Lori Eanes.

    Last fall, La Taqueria almost lost its landmark home of 46 years in a family dispute, a fate that, for many, would’ve felt like the last nail in the coffin for a gentrifying Mission. But then-almost-80-year-old owner Miguel Jara Sr., along with his sons, swooped in and bought the building, and “the world’s best burrito”—at least, according to the restaurant’s neon-lit sign—was saved. The back wall of the restaurant features dozens of framed accolades dating back decades. It’s a testament to La Taq’s longevity, and its seemingly unshakable place at the top of San Francisco’s burrito chain.

    The line of locals, tourists, tech types, teenagers, and seniors never ceases, snaking through the restaurant, out the archway, and sometimes down the block. It’s the only restaurant line I like to stand in these days, for its increasingly rare diversity as well as what awaits at the end of it: a cold Modelo beer; a pile of hearty house-made chips, doused in chunky, freshly chopped tomato salsa; and a golden dorado-style burrito, seared on la plancha (a ripping-hot metal flattop) and damn delicious. At $12.80, it’s one of the pricier super burritos in the city, but worth it. Mine came with tender, hot-off-the-grill carne asada (salted, garlicky top sirloin); stewed and fried whole pinto beans; melted shredded Monterey Jack; mashed avocado; just the right amount of cool sour cream; and—a La Taq signature—not a grain of rice.

    La Taqueria, 2889 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA   94110, 415-285-7117

    El Castillito

    El Castillito
    Photograph: Lori Eanes.

    Not every great burrito in this city has to come with a long wait in line, and El Castillito, a fluorescent-lit mainstay on Church Street, is a case in point. (The original El Castillito, a mile away at 2092 Mission Street, is separately owned by family members. “Same food,” the manager, Moses, tells me. “Church Street just has more vegetables.”) This particular location is across the street from the Castro Safeway, which means you can actually park, albeit illegally. It’s a happy, bright-yellow box of a shop, with a jukebox cranking Ricky Martin, a loyal following of all stripes, and a small, rarely crowded counter.

    Indeed, on a recent weeknight just before 8 p.m., I strolled right up and ordered the Zapata Burrito (extra super-sized, and accented with cilantro, tomatoes, onion, and shredded lettuce), rolled tight in a soft tortilla. Lined with melted cheese, it was bursting with just the right balance of juicy chicken, plump black beans, guacamole, sour cream, and rice—but not too much rice. Like all burritos, it comes with complimentary chips, which, here, I politely decline. Reminiscent of salted cardboard, the chips are the only thing not to love about El Castillito.

    El Castillito, 136 Church Street, #1111, San Francisco, CA   94114, 415-621-3428

    Taqueria Guadalajara

    Taqueria Guadalajara
    Photograph: Lori Eanes.

    With both La Taqueria and two outposts of El Farolito within stumbling distance, 24th Street’s Taqueria Guadalajara isn’t quite the most popular kid on the block. It’s more like the quiet, shy, often-ignored kid—whom you’d actually really like, if you just gave them a chance. After admittedly breezing past this place for years, upon hearing raves about its original location, I finally went in.

    The walls of Taqueria Guadalajara are covered in colorful murals and faux-stone arches. The decor is matched by an impressive salsa bar, brimming with pico de gallo and all kinds of escabeche, a condiment of spicy pickled vegetables. The super burrito I ordered was wholly satisfying and pleasantly hot: The flour tortilla was absolutely stuffed with fresh avocado, rice, salsa fresca, sour cream, and, most importantly, fat, deliciously crisped hunks of carnitas that I’m still thinking about. It also snuck in among the most affordable of the burritos I encountered, at a reasonable $9.60.

    Taqueria Guadalajara, 3146 24th Street, San Francisco, CA   94110, 415-642-4892

    La Palma Mexicatessen

    La Palma Mexicatessen
    Photograph: Lori Eanes.

    There’s no place to sit inside at La Palma (outdoor tables only), but that’s okay—burritos are built for standing anyway. There’s also a self-order kiosk, but people often bypass it for the living human being behind the counter, because La Palma isn’t a self-order-kiosk kind of place. Rather, it’s a time-warp of a market that has been making its own masa, tortillas, tri-colored chips, and salsa since 1953. Beloved by neighborhood eaters and local chefs alike, La Palma often sees a lunch line of strollers, hipster couples, and little old ladies that lasts long after 2 p.m.

    The all-day menu includes huevos con chorizo y papa, trays of fajitas, and floral-adorned flan. But it’s the burritos, each adorned with a mini Mexican-flag toothpick, that draw the crowds. My favorite is actually the vegetarian option—I had to throw at least one on the list in honor of my early burrito-bingeing days—which typically comes with a garden’s worth of lightly roasted broccoli, carrots, and green peppers, but I like it better now without all the vegetables: just plenty of silky pintos cooked with garlic and onions, cheese, lightly seasoned rice scattered with a bit of fresh tomato, and just-made guacamole, wrapped like a gift in a super-fresh tortilla with serious chew. Each burrito at La Palma comes with a single portion of homemade salsa; if you want a second (and, as it’s wonderfully spicy and bright, you likely will), it’s 50 cents extra. Money well spent.

    La Palma Mexicatessen, 2884 24th Street, San Francisco, CA   94110, 415-647-1500

    Breakfast Little

    Breakfast Little
    Photograph: Lori Eanes.

    A breakfast burrito may not technically qualify as a "classic San Francisco burrito," but it is an equally amazing American invention—as are Tater Tots, the fried potato puffs trademarked by Ore-Ida in the 1950s. And at Breakfast Little, a new restaurant in the Mission, the two taste great together.

    San Francisco native and first-generation Mexican-American Andrew Perez tucks the fried puffs into a gently grilled tortilla along with scrambled eggs, crisp nubs of smoky bacon, a subtle swipe of garlicky aioli, slices of fresh avocado, and a dash of habanero sauce—upon request. It’s called the Breakfast Little Burrito, and it deserves some attention. Compared with its hulking cousins, it is indeed little.

    As is the restaurant itself. Hidden next to a dim sum place on 22nd Street, Breakfast Little is squeaky-clean and bright, with one plant-topped table, three sweet women behind the counter, Whitney Houston in the background, and a playful menu where everything is under $10. At six months old, it’s also just a baby in San Francisco burrito years, but, walking out with a happy burn on my lips and feeling sated yet not stuffed, I was willing to bet big that Breakfast Little is here to stay.

    Breakfast Little, 3224 1/2 22nd Street, San Francisco, CA   94110, 415-619-8686