San Francisco burrito

In San Francisco, California, the Mexican-American burrito has become a city specialty, as the New York-based writer Calvin Trillin describes in his essay "Grandfather Knows Best": "In San Francisco, the burrito has been refined and embellished in much the same way that pizza has been refined and embellished in New York and Chicago." Since its likely beginnings in the 1960s, the style has spread widely through the San Francisco Bay Area, and variations on it have spread throughout the United States.

This type of burrito was born in the city's Mission District, and it is often called a Mission or Mission-style burrito as a result. Taquerias in the Mission, contrary to their taco-derived name, specialize in large, aluminum-foil wrapped burritos. The aluminum foil holds a large flour tortilla which is wrapped and folded around a variety of ingredients. The San Francisco burrito is distinguished partly by the amount of rice and other side dishes included in the package and partly by sheer size. A food critic working for the San Francisco Chronicle counted hundreds of taquerias in the San Francisco Bay Area, and noted that the question of which taqueria makes the best burrito can "encourage fierce loyalty and ferocious debate".


Long-time residents of the Mission District trace the origins of the San Francisco burrito back to the 1960s. The owner of "La Cumbre" Tacqueria near Valencia and 16th claims that his were the first, and that he designed the style that then became popular; if his claim is true, he dates 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 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 forbears 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.

Culture and politics

Starting in 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), but this same activist declared, "I will shoot my son and daughter if they ever order a green burrito."

In the end, this kind of heated rhetoric of burrito politics mainly serves to exemplify the fact that the San Francisco burrito has become an important part of both bohemian and Chicano culture in San Francisco, as evidenced by an article originally published in the former SF Weekly, featuring La Raza studies professor Jose Cuellar.

Imitators and descendants

The San Francisco burrito is also one of the progenitors of the idea of the wrap. The wrap was invented by four business school students who realized that in each of San Francisco's ethnic neighborhoods, some dish involved wrapping a tortilla-like wrapping around some food, and that therefore the ingredients inside a large tortilla could be composed of a wide range of ingredients.

The Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Taco del Mar are all large national chains which arguably offer versions of a San Francisco style burrito; Chipotle was started by a chef who directly acknowledges the inspiration of Mission taquerias. In New York City there is a chain of taquerias that specializes in SF-style burritos called Burritoville, and in the southeast another called Barberitos.

Some New York establishments advertise "Cal-Mex" or "San Francisco style" burritos. Two small chains of Boston taquerias are modeled after a local Bay Area chain. Burritos made in the San Francisco style can be found in other cities across the United States.

Some Chinese restaurants in San Francisco use flour tortillas in place of rice pancakes for Mu Shu Pork and similar Mu Shu dishes, with a corresponding improvement in structural integrity.


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-Colombian 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 which 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.

The basic ingredients of the San Francisco burrito include the large flour tortilla, Spanish rice, beans (frijoles, usually with a choice of refried, pinto or black), a choice of a single main filling, and the customer's choice of salsa, ranging from hot to mild. Most taquerias also offer a "Super" burrito which includes a choice of meat and all of the available non-meat burrito ingredients. This usually includes sliced fresh avocado or guacamole, cheese (queso), and sour cream (crema).

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 beef head (Cabeza), beef brain (Sesos), beef eyeball (Ojo) and prawns (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), Chicharrones (fried pork rinds, stewed), Barbacoa (true barbecued pork), 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), and Tripas (beef tripe)

Many taquerias also provide corn tortilla chips to accompany the burrito as a side dish, along with free salsa. There are also "salsa bars" at many local establishments. There you can select different kinds of salsa to enhance the taste of your chosen burrito.

How to eat a San Francisco burrito

According to Andrea Schulte-Peevers and Sara Benson in their 2006 book Lonely Planet California, it is recommended that diners forgo utensils entirely and to eat the burrito with one's hands, tearing the foil gradually as they eat it. Adding salsa to the burrito before each subsequent bite is a popular technique.

Notable taquerias


Further reading

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External links

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