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Burrito in Foil
Photo: swift benjamin on Flickr

San Francisco. It’s a magical name for foodies, instantly conjuring saliva-inducing images of chewy sourdough bread, delicate dim sum morsels, the freshest fruits and vegetables from the nearby San Joaquin Valley, and enormous, gut-busting burritos. The best burrito, in fact, this side of anywhere.

Whoa. What a minute. Hold on there, muchacho. Burritos? Since when?

Well, to be precise, since Sept. 26, 1961, when the first burrito now known as the San Francisco burrito was served up at El Faro, a taqueria in the city’s heavily Latin Mission District.

OK, fine. But even if you buy the argument that San Francisco is the best food town in this country — including You-Know-Who back there on the Hudson — can San Francisco really claim to be home to the best burrito in the land? Better than L.A.? Better than Texas, or Arizona? Best burrito on the planet, even?

Damn straight.

Once you’ve chowed down on a San Francisco burrito, or, more locally, the Mission-style burrito, you’ll agree that there’s nothing quite like it anywhere. If you’re a burrito devotee, then a visit to the Mission District is de rigueur, the gustatory equivalent of an art lover’s pilgrimage to Florence, or a blind man traveling in hope to Lourdes.

Plan on making it a lengthy visit, too, because the taquerias of the Mission are everywhere. Nearly all of them serve burritos, and no two are exactly alike.

People who know about these things say the Mission-style burrito is unmatched for its sheer size, and for the quality of the ingredients that add to its cylindrical heft.

This, from Charlie Hodgkins over at

“A Mission-style burrito stands apart from its stripped-down cousins for its often outsized proportions – the result of a jumbo tortilla and the inclusion of rice, beans, cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole and a host of veggie elements, from avocado and pico de gallo to jalapeño pepper and lettuce.” (Hodgkins considers the inclusion of lettuce a minor crime, but, well, that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla, right?)

Local chef Afreen Wahab, who runs the catering service/cooking school Cuisine Afreen, prizes the Mission-style for its versatility.

“(It can be) personalized to taste by choosing different condiments,” she says. “It is a humungous burrito, but very fulfilling and cost effective… I suppose if I could take artistic license, I would call it ‘one size does not fit all.’ Depending on the individual palate, the consumer gets to design their particular style of burrito to flavor and taste.”

You get the idea. It’s big and it’s tasty, and you get a lot for your money.

Contrast the Mission-style burrito, that veritable tin foil-wrapped banquet, with the so-called San Diego burrito (also known, arrogantly, as the “California” burrito). Not only does the San Diego lack the aforementioned tasty ingredients, but it actually swaps out the rice for french fries. San Diegans can get a bit shirty when it comes to defending their scrawny little burrito, and this has caused some bad blood between the towns.

In fact, the Mission-style burrito is so packed with good things it is the only one of its kind that comes wrapped in tin foil. You can thank your Reynolds wrap that it is: You’d be wearing most of it if it weren’t.

While San Franciscans can brag about having the best burrito around, we can’t claim to have invented it, as is occasionally done. The exact origin of the burrito is hard to pin down, but it almost certainly came out of the Mexican border towns during the first half of the 20th century. Because it was easy to make, with portable ingredients — remember, these were much simpler affairs than the Mission-style — the burrito became a staple of ranchers, cowboys, and others who moved around a lot.

(You can check here and here for histories that, with a few variations on the theme, are fairly consistent.)

The Mission-style burrito continues to hold its ground half of a century after its invention. 

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