Two years ago, I participated in FiveThirtyEight's Burrito Bracket, an epic undertaking in which stats guru Nate Silver and a panel of four other judges used Yelp reviews, old-fashioned journalism and more to try and find the best burrito in America. The eventual winner was La Taquería in San Francisco, which I called from the start: it's the Mission burrito wrapped to perfection.
But was it a false winner? A curious afterlife has emerged over a burrito that wasn't considered because of me: El Castillito in San Francisco, on Mission and 17th streets. During our Burrito Bracket deliberations, I specifically excluded the spot from deliberations because I felt that my sentimentality over the place—I've eaten here once a year since 2000, drawn to its ruddy al pastor, silky-smooth beans and rice, toothsome tortillas, and a television perpetually tuned to soccer matches—clouded my objectivity in saying it's the best burrito in the world. But then famed NYC chef David Chang tried it after the Burrito Bracket powwow, and said it “might be the best burrito I’ve ever eaten.” Burrito Bracket judge Anna Maria Barry-Jester called E Castillito “the burrito that got away.”
Now comes a third vote for best-burrito-in-America status in the form of John Birdsall, senior editor of CHOW.com and a James Beard Award-winning food writer. In an October story for Bon Appetit, he examined San Francisco's current Mission burrito culture—not just the cult of the cylindrical god, but also the gentrification that's currently endangering the taquerías in San Francisco's Mission District barrio. He noted that “bearded bros are nowhere in sight” near El Castillito, describing how it's maintained its working class essence, and quoted me about why I thought so.
Birdsall wrote about the mystique of this burrito among Chang, Barry-Jester, and myself, and admitted he had never tasted it. And then he did:
This could be the best Mission burrito in San Francisco. This could be the best Mission burrito in the world. Damn, I’ll go Chang one better: This is the best burrito I’ve ever eaten.
Maybe it’s survived, with original Mission soul intact, by building enough of a wall to obscure it from the tourists, the techies, and the condo buyers. That’s some irony: The most authentic Mission burrito is also the most obscure. Long may it roll.
Granted, un chingo of people will not agree with El Castillito being the best burrito in America—no less a critic than Jonathan Gold once infamously called Mission burritos “monstrous things wrapped in tinfoil, and filled with what would seem to be the contents of an entire margarita-mill dinner” (funny how Mr. Gold doesn't levy the same charges against Manny's El Tepeyac in Boyle Heights, a place I love but which sells burritos twice the size than anything Chipotle could possibly envision). To those haters, I say in the voice Jehovah used on Job to clapback at him: have you eaten burritos from Crossville, Tennessee to San Francisco to Tucson to Maine to Mexico and beyond.?Have you had the Mexican hamburgers of Denver, the Gollo's Special at Casa Reynoso in Tempe, poke things in Kihei? Burritos de guisadas in El Paso? De carnitas near the University of Kentucky? Pastrami in La Habra?
No? Then no hables, güey. Long may El Castillito roll. And #fuckthehaters