Join us as we go into the kitchen and behind the bar at some of San Francisco’s best-known restaurants and bars to break down the anatomy of their most-famous offerings.
Having lived in the Mission District for the last 15 or so years, I’ve consumed my fair share of Mission burritos. I don’t think there’s a best, per se — every burrito has something special to offer, and there’s a time and place for each taqueria. La Taqueria is a perennial favorite, of course, a classic institution where I like to get my burritos filled with smoky carne asada griddled until golden on the plancha, dorado-style. Further down Mission Street lies Taqueria El Farolito, a late-night spot where my rule of thumb is to consume the massive missiles only after 2 a.m. and only after many drinks (the two usually go hand-in-hand). Head even further down and near 19th Street you’ll find Taqueria Cancún, which, in my younger days, I’d frequent after a long night of dancing and drinking at Beauty Bar across the street. But the burrito here tastes just as good any time of the day, even when not inebriated.
Taqueria Cancún was started by a couple of friends and El Farolito alums, Gerardo Rico and Pedro Grande. Neither has any connection to the bright blue beach town for which the restaurant is named; Rico moved to the Bay Area from Guadalajara, and Grande hails from El Salvador. “It’s short, and easy to remember,” Rico says about the moniker.
There are three locations: The first opened in 1991 on 6th and Market, the Mission District location opened in 1993, and the last location in Bernal Heights opened three years later. But if you ask a San Franciscan where Taqueria Cancún is, they’ll likely point you to the Mission District outpost.
The burrito starts with a large, 12-inch flour tortilla. Many taquerias first steam their tortillas, making them warm and a bit more pliable, and therefore easier to fold. Cancún, however, skips this part and places the tortillas directly on the plancha, a decision that makes it unique in the Mission’s crowded burrito scene. If you order your burrito “super,” which you should, the tortilla is then topped with shredded Monterey Jack cheese. The warmed tortilla, with its melty cheese, is next placed on a square of foil and gets buried under a heaping of red tomato-tinged rice and a spoonful of your choice of beans: black, refried, or pinto, the latter of which I prefer for their plump texture.
The burrito is then laden with a healthy handful of diced onion and cilantro to lighten and lift, a spoonful of fresh pico de gallo, a generous drizzle of sour cream, and a few slices of creamy green California-grown Hass avocado before being finished with your protein of choice. It’s important that the meat goes last.
“When you wrap it, you have the meat in the middle and all the ingredients around it, so when you bite you can taste everything,” Rico says.
I don’t always gravitate toward chicken — I’m typically an asada guy. But at Cancún, I’ll always go with the pollo asada, which is juicy and extra savory from its marinade and plays well with all the other components of the burrito. At Cancún, the kitchen uses boneless skinless chicken thighs. “It has more flavor — chicken breast is too dry,” Rico says. After cleaning and trimming, the chicken gets marinated overnight in adobo, a sauce made with blended spicy California chile, white pepper, cumin, onion, garlic, salt, orange juice, and a little vinegar.
Each super burrito weighs in at around two pounds, costs $13, and comes with chips and salsa included, which feels generous in expensive, inflated San Francisco. The pico de gallo is spiked with vinegar, while the verde is boosted with avocado, and there’s a roja in the back if you ask, which is ingeniously flavored with chopped freshly-fried tortillas.
Before the pandemic, the Mission District location of Taqueria Cancún was doing upwards of 140 burritos per day during the week and up to 250 on the weekends. These days, hours are shorter, and they’re doing less volume. But they’re still going strong with no compromises.
“We don’t use anything frozen,” Rico says. “We make everything fresh every day.”
Whether you pull up a big brown wooden bench or take your burrito to the park — Taqueria Cancún is an essential San Francisco experience.