A Tale of Two Visits: 24 Years, 4 Tacos and a Burrito

img_0873The real reason for the drive to San Francisco was to visit a dear friend of…ack…24 years…in the hospital. So my days were spent at surreal Laguna Honda, a sprawling long-term care hospital, hospice and rehab center for the uninsured on the western slopes of Twin Peaks. It’s the oldest nursing home in the state, pre 1906 earthquake, and it looks it. Most of the complex is condemned (which doesn’t stop it from being fully inhabited): peeling paint, gorgeous old tilework, stairways to nowhere, WWII missiles (5’ tall steel oxygen tanks on refrigerator-bearing dollies) lining the halls and wheelchair-bound, panhandling patients assembled along the walkway to the parking lot. It’s Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

img_0854But the therapy-giving, shit-swabbing caregivers have hearts of gold and probably work for lower wages than a Nordstrom perfume sprayer (without the clothing discount), and where would the indigent and uninsured go otherwise? I’m glad they’re there for you Yona, and I hope you get the hell out of dodge soon.

Every day as I stopped by Tower Burger for Yona’s daily milkshake (Mitchell’s ice cream, but only chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, no avocado, tamarind or purple yam here) I resisted the lure of the organic Niman Ranch burgers that Yelpers seem to love. After all, I had to save my appetites for burrito testing. It’s been many years since I’ve known the best haunts for Mission carne asada and carnitas, and after six years in Portland it seemed high time to reacquaint with my addiction.

As I awaited my first burrito on a warm, slightly foggy Thursday afternoon, I did the math on the big burrito test and realized it wasn’t going to add up. There was no way to cover enough ground detouring through the Mission from the East Bay (homebase) to Twin Peaks (hospital) three days in a row. Especially at odd hours: a super burrito, even shared, takes some serious appetite. Even the rip-off $8.50 burrito at Pancho Villa, which was shockingly slender…no bigger round than my wrist…was too big to eat alone if I was going to taste anything else in the name of scientific research.

With JP’s help, we split two tacos and the burrito, and readjusted the test. Though the Mission burrito is still my great love, with limited opportunity to taste, we’d have to make tacos the testing ground. Price aside (double the price of memory, though I admit I’ve officially become my mother, who refuses to pay more than $24.99 for a double motel room because “that’s how much they’re supposed to be”) Pancho Villa still got our disgusted thumbs’ down. The carne asada wasn’t bad, with a bit of smoky char and lots of salt, but the al pastor was mortifying: bits of dry pork overly spiced with cumin and chile powder to make up for the total lack of fire-kissed flavor. The saving grace was the salsa bar, even salsa fresca, which is portioned out like gold in Portland but is self-serve at every self-respecting taqueria in SF.
mission-sanjose3

For my second opportunity I picked two of the most highly rated Yelp spots, which were also conveniently located across the street from one another. Taqueria San Jose (2830 Mission, see photo left) had the requisite, abundant, serve yourself salsa bar and excellent $2.45 tacos. Foregoing another al pastor tragedy (“Duh” Rule: no rotisserie, no al pastor) we stuck to one asada and one carnitas. The beef was probably slightly better at PV but the carnitas here were delicious (chewy, crispy, moist) and the tacos overall superior. Across the street at La Taqueria the $3.50 tacos were somewhat less traditional. (Overly) large and stuffed, the carnitas had a very pure, clean pork flavor, but without the crispy edges of San Jose. No salsa bar and lackluster salsa threw my vote across the street, though JP gave it the slight edge. We both agreed that a trip back for the insanely large, golden-bubbly-crisped quesadilla was the way to go.

Overall, I was glad not to have been leading a group of out-of-towners for “awesome” Mission food. And it was a good exercise to readjust my yardstick. Though I’ve never been proud of being a snob about PDX Mexican (and Chinese) food, it had never occured to me it was misplaced snobbishness.

So did I come home disappointed and unsated? Or did I perhaps have an ace in the hole? Was there some secret spot, some unexpected venue, that had kept my illusions of The Perfect Burrito alive all these years?

Call out the trumpets. Cue the fanfare. Saddle up the white horse…

Marin delivered where the Mission failed.

san-francisco-2009-029Um, excuse me, what did you say? Marin County? Home of hot tubbing yogi-wannabes, mountain-biking cell phone talkers, and formerly liberal multi-millionaire lawyers?

The very one. Nestled under the 101 freeway in San Rafael shines a burrito beacon in the form of Taqueria San Jose (no relation, I don’t think, to the Mission’s San Jose). $5.50 brought forth the burrito of my dreams. The size of a small child, with a thin layer of cheese fused to the steamed tortilla, carnitas simultaneously crisp, clean, flavorful and porky, perfect proportions (aka not too much) pintos and rice, and fresh lettuce, salsa fresca, guac and sour cream oozing forth. Two meals, easy, one if you’re making up for some indignity suffered in your youth. Though carnitas was the clear winner, the carne asada was deemed worthy of a gold star as well. The salsa bar, though fewer choices than the other SJ, had the two I crave, fresca and tomatillo, and the chips were warm and fresh.

Ahhh. Finally. Sweet release, though not in the “Mission-ary” position I’d expected. Yona was on the mend, and though my assumptions had been rocked a little bit, I could now face the 11-hour drive home with a smile on my face and a half a burrito belted into the passenger seat.

01
June 29th, 2009 11:15 am

You must try the nopalitos quesadilla at Autentica (once again open for lunch) in PDX. Their tacos also rock, with tortillas scooped and pressed before your eyes by obviously knowledgable hands. Let’s go!

02
July 5th, 2009 10:49 am

Sorry to hear that Pancho Villa has hit the skids!

On the other hand, what th-??? No El Toro, El Farolito, Taco Loco or even (fer chrissakes) Cancun?

Aye-yi-yi … I may have to schedule my own trip back to the Holy Land to finish up the review. :)

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