The Bay Area is known worldwide for its foil-wrapped, rice-stuffed Mission-style burritos. But burritos in this city come in more forms than just that now-ubiquitous — thanks, Chipotle — style and shape, traipsing from sauce-smothered to inventive riffs like paneer-stuffed and the sushirrito. That means ordering a burrito in the Bay might be intimidating terrain to navigate. After all, it’s not like everyone grew up with bountiful burrito access. Dilsa Lugo, owner of Mexican restaurant Los Cilantros in Berkeley, told Wildsam she didn’t even know what burritos were when she moved to the Bay from Cuernavaca, Mexico.
So while the Mission District’s La Taqueria was recognized for its oversized contribution to the burrito game with a James Beard Award, and El Farolito inducts a new acolyte to the church of burritos each time a tourist takes a bite, it can still be difficult to figure out where to start. Which is where this guide comes in.
There are essentially three key burrito styles that define San Francisco’s landscape: The pervasive Mission burrito; the equally significant wet, or mojada, burrito; and the ever-evolving category that we are choosing to call All Inclusive burritos. We even canvassed local experts on which burrito styles are key in the Bay Area, and where to get the best versions. Once you’ve got a handle on these three categories, you’ll be rolling up to both Al Pastor Papi and La Corneta with ease.
This is the most famous and common style of burrito you’ll encounter in San Francisco. Mission-style burritos are known for their size and indulgent stuffing. It’s common for Mission-style burritos to be about the length of your forearm and filled to the gills with fixings before a panini press sends the flour tortilla wrap into a foil blanket. Classic hallmarks include a steamed, 10-inch flour tortilla; Mexican-style, long-grain rice; a meat option; and either black or pinto beans, preferably laden with lard. The Mission-style burrito’s tremendous size, as John Krich put it in the New York Times in 1989, may be its “supreme contribution to Western civilization.” It’s worth mentioning the controversy around who first came up with the Mission burrito, even briefly. The frontrunner seems to be the owners of El Faro, a burrito pioneer by all accounts, in 1962. But if you ask Wikipedia, this burrito was created by Raul and Micaela Duran at La Cumbre on September 29, 1969.
There are usually two main choices to make when ordering a Mission burrito: with or without meat, and whether or not to make it “super” with pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, and a variety of salsas. Typical meat options vary from restaurant to restaurant, but usually run the gamut, from fresh fish to marinated pork to lengua and cabeza. Once an off-menu item, El Farolito on 24th and Alabama streets in the Mission District even serves bacon-wrapped shrimp in one of its Mission-style burritos.
Almost every burrito dealer in San Francisco sells some version of a Mission-style burrito. There are variants, though. La Taqueria’s Miguel Jara told the New York Times that rice distracts from the burrito’s flavor and famously opts not to include any in its burritos. At Taqueria Cancun they grill the tortillas rather than steaming them, and add avocado instead of guacamole. South San Francisco native Kristee Ono — who spent 100 days eating one burrito every day as a form of “burrito performance art” — says there are no strict regulations on Mission burritos. As long as the burrito covers the basics — flour tortilla, protein, and stuffing — variation is permitted. She has her favorites, though, including those burritos at Taqueria Cancun. For the city’s west side residents, Ono recommends Gordo’s for its carnitas burritos.
Wet or mojada
Less hallowed than the Mission-style burrito, and rarely mentioned in the myriad anthologies of burritos in the region, is the wet or mojada burrito. This one is a burrito drowned in red or green chile sauce. Think of a plated dish, rather than a portable meal, that resembles something akin to enchiladas — but bigger.
In New Mexico and Colorado this iteration may be called “smothered,” and the origin of the riff may belong in the Tex-Mex canon. But food writer John Birdsall nailed it when he proclaimed San Francisco’s green and red, fork-and-knife-required wet burritos the best there are. Kevin Madrigal Galindo, a South San Francisco born-and-raised poet and founder of food advocacy organization Farming Hope, agrees, citing the mojada as a now-standard San Francisco option. There are just as many wet burritos as Mission these days, he says, and there’s a certain indulgence to the smothered option that the Mission variety doesn’t always satisfy.
Papalote, a mini-taqueria chain founded in 1999 by brothers Miguel and Victor Escobedo in San Francisco, is well-loved for its salsas, making it a fine choice for a wet burrito. El Castillito on Church Street offers a wet burrito for $12.49 that’s as primo a pick as any thanks to its gratifying size-to-price ratio.
Of course, San Francisco businesses have innovated and spun new microstyles of burritos into existence, too. To cash in on the familiar formula, though, still requires a blueprint: Across the board, these inventive iterations feature a wrap of some kind, a protein, and, usually, rice. Prerna Walia brings Indian burritos — filled with butter chicken and paneer — to San Francisco with Kathi Roll Crew, though he opts for a warm paratha instead of a flour tortilla. The 70-year-old HRD dishes up Korean bulgogi beef burritos, showcasing a much-spicier seasoning blend than one might expect. And sushi burritos are almost commonplace at this point, but don’t forget it was Peter Yen who created the madcap roll in San Francisco’s downtown in 2004. Over at Amitis Café on Masonic Street, they sell eight different kinds of sushi burritos, all featuring rice and roasted seaweed alongside various ingredients ranging from tamago to snow crab salad to unagi.
And there’s more. While not an intersection of international cultures, San Francisco’s increasingly healthy population of breakfast burritos displays the city’s aptitude for incorporating regional styles. The breakfast burrito is an American Southwest creation by most accounts. San Francisco’s Tony Baloney’s egg and bacon affair in Civic Center and flag-bearer La Palma’s potato-stuffed breakfast burritos are strong local options.
Vegan and plant-based burritos deserve their own shoutout, and the Little Chihuahua’s plantain and black bean burrito has captivated the hearts of many a meatless diner (that trendy restaurant may be the only dealer with a gluten-free rice tortilla option, too). Senor Sisig, a Mexican and Filipino restaurant mini-chain and relative newcomer to the burrito game, demonstrates the joy of Kapampangan-style burritos with its own “vegano” menu, including three plant-based burritos.
No matter which of these styles one goes for, all of the three are Bay Area classics in their own right.