How discovering Bay Area burritos permanently changed me

Except in May, when I came to the city to do a comprehensive overview of the Bay Area real estate market for SFGATE (Spoiler alert: Housing here is expensive). I didn’t have the time to do any of my usual bougie meal planning before coming. I had to WORK, and work I did. I walked miles across (and up and down) the city, touring every last open house I encountered and talking to real estate agents until my tongue became petrified. House hunting, even when you have no intention to buy a house, is a fantastically exhausting enterprise.

One day, while canvassing around the Mission, I needed lunch. The photographer for our story knew just the place.

“It’s my favorite burrito joint. I always take people there,” he told me. I trusted him. Also, I needed the burrito. It’s a rare moment when you actually have to eat a burrito for sustenance, but holy s—t I had done so much walking. More walking than Gandhi did. And no food delivers 1,200 calories to your system as efficiently and tastily as a burrito can.

We got into my colleague’s car and he took me to Papalote, where you order your burrito at the counter and then wolf it down under the dining shed outside. I ordered the al pastor: pork, rice, beans, pico de gallo. Very simple, but I wasn’t in the mood to get cute with my lunch. Food-as-fuel people are a deeply annoying lot, but sometimes your workload reduces you to being one yourself. I was expecting a good burrito. I was not expecting transcendence, mostly because I was not looking for it.

My burrito came out. I took a bite, and I was like, “F—k, this is good.” Sometimes you praise a restaurant dish because you planned your visit meticulously, paid for your meal, and whetted your anticipation so thoroughly that the praise almost comes off as a sales job you’re doing on yourself. Other times, the praise comes out of sheer surprise. Instinct. You didn’t know this dish would be THIS good. You didn’t ever care what you were eating until the dish forced the issue. This burrito — this beautiful, perfect burrito — fell into the latter category. Not a shred of the pork was dry. The rice and beans melded so perfectly with the meat that I couldn’t tell what had been layered upon what. I doused each bite with a flight of house salsas (Papalote, like a lot of small restaurants, has found that retailing its own sauces is a handy way of creating a secondary revenue stream), but the salsa was beside the point. The burrito itself had enough tang to balance itself out. Also: I now refuse to eat any burrito that isn’t properly griddled.

I know I’m out of my element here. I’m not writing a hot take where I’m ready to declare X place THE best burrito in the galaxy. If you’re a local, you almost certainly have burrito opinions of your own. This very website is a haven for such opinions. And I, as a non-Californian, have an ignorant palate when it comes to burrito authenticity.

Prior to my Papalote visit, my favorite burrito was a duck burrito at Canyon Road in Manhattan. You don’t have to yell at me that Manhattan is a Mexican food wasteland. I promise you that I already know that. And that burrito was a yuppie burrito: the kind of meal I splurged on back in the late ’90s when I was making $25,000 a year and wanted to impress a date. Plus it had duck, so I liked it. But it wasn’t a real burrito. Live in a burrito desert your whole life and you might trick yourself into believing that burritos are just burritos; one can’t possibly be that much more superior to another. Not only is this wrong, it’s shockingly detrimental to your well-being, and I say that knowing what any burrito can do to your intestinal tract.

I went back to work that afternoon, and for the rest of the week. I toured more houses and conducted interviews and went back over all of the research … but I never stopped thinking about that burrito. I still haven’t. I haven’t bothered to look for a comparable burrito back home in Maryland because I know it doesn’t exist. You, the native San Franciscan, know that the most basic burrito in your town blows anything mine has out of the water. And I have to tell you that it is an absolute PLEASURE to discover this fact firsthand, even knowing that, back home, I am now so far removed from the burrito pleasures of San Francisco. The burrito haunts me. It tempts me. It calls for me. I don’t find this desire painful. I find it oddly thrilling.

It’s been three months. I wanna go back for more. I WILL go back for more, and for every other burrito on that Papalote menu (there’s a mole one; I’ve never had mole burrito, but I bet it kicks ass), and for every other San Francisco burrito. My journey has only just begun. I had no idea that burritos could be this good. But now that I do, I have a lot more work to do.

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