A Mission burrito (also known as a San Francisco burrito or a Mission-style burrito) is a type of burrito that first became popular during the 1960s in the Mission District of San Francisco, California. It is distinguished from other burritos by its large size and inclusion of extra rice and other ingredients. It has been referred to as one of two major styles of burritos in the United States, following the earlier, simple burrito consisting of beans, rice, and meat and preceding the California burrito containing cheese and potatoes that was developed in the 1980s.
Many taquerías in the Mission and in the greater San Francisco Bay Area specialize in Mission burritos. It is typically served in a piece of aluminum foil around a large flour tortilla which is wrapped and folded around a variety of ingredients. A food critic working for the San Francisco Chronicle counted hundreds of taquerias in the Bay Area, and noted that the question of which taqueria makes the best burrito can "encourage fierce loyalty and ferocious debate". New York-based writer Calvin Trillin said that the burrito in San Francisco "has been refined and embellished in much the same way that pizza has been refined and embellished in New York and Chicago." Since its commercial availability began in the 1960s, the style has spread widely throughout the United States.
Long-time residents of the Mission District trace the origins of the Mission burrito back to the 1960s. The owners of "La Cumbre" Taqueria near Valencia and 16th have been credited as the first taqueria to sell this style of burrito. The creation of the style is credited to Raul and Michaela Duran who sold burritos from their meat market which in 1972 was converted into the La Cumbre Taqueria, and have dated 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 be 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 Mission burrito as we now know it did not come earlier than that time. Yet the Mission burrito does have historical forebears 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.—Peter Garin, quoted in SF Weekly, 1993
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 Mission burrito emerged as a recognizable and distinct local culinary movement during the 1970s and 1980s. One writer asserts that the Mission 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
During 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, the rhetoric of burrito politics underscores the role of the Mission burrito in both bohemian and Chicano culture in San Francisco, as evidenced by an article originally published in the former SF Weekly, featuring Chicano Studies professor Jose Cuellar.
The Mission burrito has also inspired fiction. An imaginary tunnel designed to transport Mission burritos from California to New York was the topic of a humorous short story titled "The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel.", which begins with the quote:
Who can imagine New York City without the Mission burrito? Like the Yankees, the Brooklyn Bridge or the bagel, the oversize burritos have become a New York institution. And yet it wasn’t long ago that it was impossible to find a good burrito of any kind in the city. As the 30th anniversary of the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel approaches, it’s worth taking a look at the remarkable sequence of events that takes place between the time we click “deliver” on the burrito.nyc.us.gov website and the moment that our hot El Farolito burrito arrives in the lunchroom with its satisfying pneumatic hiss.
Imitators and descendants
Chipotle Mexican Grill, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Freebirds World Burrito, Taco del Mar, and Moe's Southwest Grill 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. The New York City-based restaurant chain BurritoVille, which existed from 1992 to 2008, specialized in SF-style burritos. Atlanta was home to one of the first San Francisco-style burrito restaurants on the East Coast, called Tortillas, from the mid-1980s until the early 2000s. Another, called Barberitos, is based out of Athens, Georgia.
Some New York establishments advertise "Cal-Mex" or "San Francisco style" burritos. Two chains of Boston taquerias (Anna's Taqueria and Boca Grande Taqueria) are directly modeled after a local Bay Area chain, and other burrito businesses also cite the influence of San Francisco burritos.
Burritos made in the San Francisco style can be found in other cities across the United States.
A small chain of establishments have been appearing in the UK under the name "The Mission" selling Mission-style burritos in Oxford, Reading and Bristol.
Two key technologies that made the Mission 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 Mission burrito. Corn tortillas, the original indigenous pre-Columbian form of the tortilla, cannot achieve either the size or the flexibility of the flour tortilla, and thus cannot be used to make a Mission 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 Mission burrito is the issue of structural integrity, but skilled burrito makers consistently produce huge burritos that 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 Mission 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 Mission 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 and shredded beef (machaca), stewed beef head (cabeza), beef brain (sesos), beef eyeball (ojo) and shrimp (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), chicharrónes (fried pork rinds, stewed), barbacoa (marinated lamb, sometimes pork is substituted), 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), nopales (prickly pear cactus), 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, allowing the diner to use different kinds of salsa to customize and enhance the taste of their chosen burrito.
Diners eating Mission burritos customarily forgo utensils entirely and eat the burrito with their hands, tearing the foil gradually down as they eat from above, but keeping the foil on the bottom to continue to support the structure of the uneaten portion. Adding salsa to the burrito before each subsequent bite is a popular practice.
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