Shit Gets Highbrow

And now we take a moment to understand the history of the burrito and its role in San Francisco history.

CYLINDRICAL GOD
by John Roemer
originally published May 5, 1993, in SF Weekly 

Like the Christian bundle of joy himself, the burrito was born in exile. But a century later it has found its Jerusalem in the Mission District, where thousands worship daily at taqueria temples.

Striding on-stage in full dominatrix leathers, performance artist Nao Bustamante demanded that guilt-ridden Anglo men in the audience join her at the microphone. Half a dozen complied. Strapping a fresh vegetarian burrito into her dildo harness, she ordered them to fall to their knees, confess their sins and expiate 500 years of crimes against her people.

To shouts of “Amen” from the Theater Artaud crowd, they did so. “I’m white. I’m male. I’m sorry,” muttered one man. Then, like goofy communicants scarfing a bean-stuffed Eucharist, they all bit her burrito. The bizarre moment had something to do with last year’s Columbus Day quincentennial: purging centuries of oppression and replacing it with a mouthful of the Mission District’s fiery best.

Worship of the burrito doesn’t have to be staged these days. The long noontime lines of burrito seekers that snake daily out the ever-growing number of taquerias along Valencia and Mission streets suggest a religious phenomenon in the making. These converts, young and old, white, Latino and black, crowd the temples of beans and rice and take in the heady incense of roasting carne asada before genuflecting in worshipful high-calorie gluttony.

For the record, the burrito was first elevated to the status of a deity one hot summer’s day in the mid-1980s, when three white boys found themselves ravenous after a day at Baker Beach. Where to eat? As they gazed toward the Pacific horizon the answer came to one of them from the unconscious depths of oceanic profundity, the wellspring of all religious impulse. “It’s time,” he announced, “for the cylindrical god.” That moment of epiphany sent the three rushing off on a pilgrimage, not unlike that of the Magi to the manger, toward where the divine one—cloaked not in swaddling clothes but in a 12-inch tortilla—was found.

Clearly, these hordes flocking to the Mission are looking for more than just cheap eats. The cylindrical god emerged onto the mainstram menu out of a Chicano culture that has wrapped desire for assimilation around a deep sense of exile. Carried north by 19th-century miners from the Mexican state of Sonora, the burrito has logically found its spiritual capital here in a city of outcasts and outsiders. The little burro that can bear any burden, long ignored by orthodox theology, has at last found its apotheosis.

"I lived in L.A. and I was bummed by the burritos," said Puerto Rico native Lisa Pagán "Here they’re so much better."

Both meal and metaphor, burritos are mother food to the dispossessed. They function for the homesick the way spaghetti transports Italians and chow mein soothes Chinese. In a metropolis of immigrants, of the banished, of spiritual lost souls, the burrito nurtures fathomless hankerings that transcend mere hunger.

At Pancho Villa, worshiper Jan Michalecko—a carpenter by trade—polished off his carne asada super burrito and looked up with a grin. “Full?” he said, shaking his head. “No, I’m always hungry. I could eat another one right now.”

To write the definitive burrito breviary, SF Weekly’s exhaustive and all-too-fulfilling investigation sought to answer a vexing question often pondered by the lay eater. From what Olympian heights did the burrito descend? And, for the bean counters among us, just how many of the damn things are consumed in the Mission every day?

Frequently it was necessary to interrupt preparation of the quacamole-stained manuscript to join yet again in the prayerful procession to another taqueria temple. There it was soon discovered that, in the sort of paradox beloved by the jesuitical mind, consumption of the burrito tends to induce a kind of walking trance that inhibits coherent thought about the burrito.

Like a miracle sent from heaven, we found Professor José Cuellar, the world’s foremost (and perhaps only) authority on the cylindrical god, to answer our questions. Says Cuellar, chair of San Francisco State’s La Raza Studies department, “I probably know more about the burrito than any man alive. San Francisco must have more burrito shops per square mile than anywhere on earth, and I’ve been to most of ‘em.”

Up to the rarefied heights of his ivory tower Professor Burrito has hoisted his weighty subject. There he has unwrapped the tinfoil of ignorance. He has probed and dissected the fillings of fact and fancy. He has savored the flavors of uncommon knowledge, and with a small academic belch he has brought forth the Truth.

To wit: In the rich culinary tradition of Mexico, the maize tortilla has from time immemorial been an essential basic, the small ocher disk on which an entire cuisine was erected. But alas, Mexican émigrés venturing toward El Norte encountered an alien agriculture woefully short on corn. The result, in the dusty villages of the borderlands, was the birth of the wheat flour tortilla.

To many the thing looked all wrong and lacked the toothsome taste of cornmeal. But Chicano culture is nothing if not inventive, and it soon became apparent that wheat has something that corn lacks. This is the elastic substance called gluten, an ingredient that allowed border dwellers more than a century ago in the hinterlands of the Sonora-Arizona region to pull and stretch their flour tortillas to great new dimensions. Corn tortillas enlarged to such a size would have cracked and crumbled, which is why you scarcely find burritos in Mexico.

The gigantic flour tortilla proved ideal as a leakproof wrapper—a veritable suitcase—for hungry Sonoran miners to carry their rice and beans to the mineral finds in the Southern California desert, then north with the rest of the ‘49ers. From the dross of cornless cookery, the burrito emerged like a nugget of gold.

For the next hundred years, however, this brave new food languished in the wilderness where it was considered strictly a Chicano convenience item, handy for rough on-the-go field workers but hardly fit for citified menus. To the stoop laborers in the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley the burrito made the day, recalls restaurant consultant Peter Garin, who worked with the farm crews as a kid in the 1960’s:

"Freezing cold five AM mornings, the best time to pick lettuce, owners needed a very good cook to attract the best fast crews," he recalls. "We’d get huevos rancheros at five, sweet strong hot coffee with a shot of brandy at seven, then full spicy killer burritos at around 10:30, keep you going till afternoon. I remember the texture of the shredded beef, the heat of the green peppers, and the proper proportion of rice and beans. They were so spicy you didn’t need salsa—but you needed that protein and fiber, couldn’t survive without it."

A lapse in scholarship here leaves open the question of how exactly the burrito journeyed from Salinas to the Mission District in San Francisco. What’s left is the quest for the mother church, the ground zero where the cylindrical god first manifested itself locally. The search turned up a variety of leads and a case or two of heartburn before locating Charlene Aguilar, assistant director of the Center for Chicano Research at Stanford. She remembers growing up in San Francisco and happily eating burritos with her grandfather, Antonio Aguilar.

She phoned the 85-year-old enthusiast for details and announced that his earliest burrito recollection dated from the late ’60s, when burritos were served in a deli at the rear of Mi Rancho market on 20th Street. Today the market, which has been a Mission fixture since 1940, has a meat department where the deli once was. Manager George Rodríguez well recalls the woman named Juanita Villalobos who served burritos from behind the counter there.

"She made good ones, starting around 1965," he says. "But she was not the first." The trail led one block east to the corner of 20th and Folsom, where Febronio Ontiveros’ El Faro is by several accounts the Bethlehem of the cylindrical god.

"He had ‘em before we did," Rodríguez acknowledges. "In fact, I recall he got aggravated when Juanita started selling them. Didn’t like the competition.

The first retail burrito in San Francisco, it can be stated with some confidence, was made and sold on September 26, 1961, exactly one day after Ontiveros and his wife opened a corner grocery store at 2399 Folsom Street. Today his original El Faro—”the lighthouse”—beacons across a burrito empire with outposts as far off as Concord and Belmont and a new million-dollar taqueria near Moscone Center.

Ontiveros said that on the first day he was open, a group of firemen from a station down the street came in wanting sandwiches. He didn’t have any, but the industrious businessman wouldn’t disappoint them twice. The next day he was ready with burritos. Soon he made them a staple of the store’s growing takeout trade. There were no big tortillas commercially available in those days, so to make the super burrito he overlapped three six-inchers and charged a dollar. Today his Acapulco Burrito, made with crab and jumbo shrimp, costs $7.55.

From its strictly Latino roots, the burrito is constantly undergoing transformations much like the culture that invented it. Burrito professor José Cuellar says that these days he sometimes treats himself to a homemade peanut butter and jelly burrito. “I’m just a Chicano, doing what we do, adapting,” he laughs. “Chicanos can blend, synthesize and fuse anything within our skins, and the burrito is the perfect metaphor for that.

In his own skin, when he descends from that ivory tower, Cuellar transmutes himself into Dr. Loco, leader of the Rockin Jalapeño Band. “We play at Slim’s May 8,” he says, plugging shamelessly. “We take North American ingredients and Mexican know-how—like the way Carlos Santana combines salsa with the psychedelics of Jerry Garcia and the blues of B.B. King. Musical burrito!”

My interview with the Talking Burrito—a source that redefines the meaning of “deep throat”—opened on a somber note.

"Oh, I’m so sad," the Talking Burrito said.

"Why’s that?"

"My brother fell into the fryer and became a chimichanga."

Then the Talking Burrito had a theological question for me. “What do you get when you sprinkle holy water on a bean burrito?”

I gave up. “A religious movement,” he said.

Rim shot. When the Talking Burrito puts on a human face, it’s that of Reneé Yañez, the cultural curator of the Mexican Museum at Fort Mason. Along with others, Yañez developed the comedy troupe Culture Clash in the mid-80’s. He claims to have been the first to actually put a mike in front of a burrito onstage an supply one-liner wit from behind a curtain. Audiences loved it, he said, even when the jokes weren’t so great.

Additional spicy humor was furnished by a singer named Cindy Rae, who wrote and performed a torch song titled “I Want a Hot Burrito” while she illustrated her meaning in assorted lewd ways. As she cradled her burrito to her bosom, Yañez quipped, “Olé! Fish burrito!”

The burrito as art—its new mainstream fame was also recently celebrated with a burrito-on-a-stick lampoon at Galería de la Raza—reflects its importance to the neighborhood where it was first rolled out. “Burritos unite the Mission,” proclaims Ricardo Noguera, assistant director of the Mission Economic Development Association. “They tried to put a Subway franchise in here and it didn’t last six months.”

The burrito also diversifies the Mission, bringing into its busy and sometimes dangerous streets Anglo suit-and-tie types and slackers looking for a cheap hearty meal. “They’re an attraction, a real plus,” Noguera says. “Burritos provide good jobs for unskilled recent immigrants, too.”

Al Ribaya, president of the Mission Merchants Association, cites a 1991 study which revealed there are 150 eating and drinking establishments along the Mission District corridor, which includes streets in the vicinity of the main drag. About 100 of the eating establishments are “Hispanic,” Ribaya says, and almost all of those serve burritos.

They range form El Faro, where Gebronio Onteveros says around 2,000 burritos get dished up daily, to tiny hole-in-the-wall takeouts, where owners say their sales are about a tenth of that. If 90 of the 100 Mission taquerias are 200-a-day places, and if the busier taquerias like Taco Loco, El Toro and La Cumbre account for at least another 6,000, that makes a grand total of about 25,000 burritos consumed daily

"The burrito is clearly the food of the Mission," Ribaya says. "A lot of students live off ‘em."

Even beyond the Mission, the burrito is rapidly coming to rival the pizza and the burger as the king of fast food. According to a national restaurant reporting service in Illinois called Re-Count, the number of Mexican restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area increased from 834 in 1991 to 945 in 1992—a jump of some 13 percent, twice the national growth rate for Mexican places, while Bay Area restaurants of all other types grew at a rate below one percent. “All across the country I’ve been seeing a lot more places with taqueria and burrito in their name,” Re-Count project manager Millie Lemajich said.

Lupe Torres at the Mission Economic cultural Association finds the rapid proliferation of burrito joints overwhelming and longs for Latino businessmen to try another line of work. “It would be nice to have a health food café with good coffee” on Mission Street, he says wistfully. “It’d be nice to have a Copymat.”

Not every Mexican restaurant serves burritos, of course. At Guaymas, the swank waterfront place in Tiburon, host Robert Romero sniffs, “We have no burritos, no tacos on our menu. They’re a little too downscale for us.”

So who is that buxom, bandaleroed bandita adorning the wall at La Cumbre on Valencia, reputed to be San Francisco’s oldest taqueria? She proves to be the legendary Adelita, Pancho Villa’s fiery mistress, says owner Raul Duran.

La Cumbre epitomizes the traditional taqueria, featuring a dark wooden interior, images of the old country everywhere, and spicy but simple burritos. Duran opened the place in September 1969, and as a confirmed traditionalist he’s seen little reason to branch out with yuppie-style burritos for the weight-conscious.

"In Mexico you get only one kind of meat at a taqueria," he insists. "Here, I want to keep things the way they are. Look around—there’s enough business for all the taquerias."

So what makes a great burrito? “It’s the rice and beans,” says Duran. The secret to his success: Boil the pinto beans and add salt. Fry the rice in oil, then boil in water with tomatoes and spices. Some secret!

"The salsa isn’t that important," he adds dismissively.

Right around the corner on 16th Street, Pancho Villa clearly is no old-school bastion for rice-and-bean purists. As owner of this light, high-ceilinged, spotless temple of the tubal deity, Gary Espinoza says, “I try to keep up with the market, do something different.” Gesturing to a steaming kettle of soy cubes in red sauce he proudly announces, “Tofu burrito! As of a year ago the first in the Mission.”

"The secret is in the details," says Espinoza, who studied marketing at San Francisco State and in 1982 made Pancho Villa his first venture. There and at El Toro, his second taqueria, he employs 45 workers. Espinoza and the other ascended masters of the burrito keep experienced cooks, often out of sight in back rooms, busy all day roasting top-quality chicken, beef and pork and alchemically brewing chili peppers into potent red and green salsas.

For all its wonders, salsa is not without peril. San Francisco writer Chloe Levy recalls ruefully how an erotic interlude grew hotter than she intended after a meal at La Taqueria because the salsa residue on her fingers nearly blistered the tender skin on her boyfriend’s private burrito.

Pancho Villa is famous for its salsa. Espinoza thinks salsa is so vital to the burrito that he features four separate types: red and green on every table; hot and mild behind the counter. The counter salsas, spooned generously into every burrito, are uncooked assemblages of finely chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, green jalapeño and salt. The bright-green table sauce is a blend of cilantro, jalapeño and tomatillo. The red table sauce is a potent brew that is actually a molten orange-gold color. It is the only one of the four that Espinoza cooks.

"It’s a little more complicated than the counter sauces," he says, but more he will not reveal. "Everybody tries to copy me; that’s why I try to keep it secret."

Salsa aside, Espinoza’s goal is a burrito that balances freshness, moist texture and superior roasted-meat flavor into a handy meal whose sizzle on the taste buds transfigures the notion of fast food. Asked about the McDonald’s and Burger King on the next corner, he is unconcerned. “Nothing in here is ever frozen or greasy,” he says.

Mark Steinlizht, a construction worker from Bend, Oregon, thinks that Pancho Villa Taqueria sums up the burrito. Seated at the rear of the restaurant, he gestures happily at the Mexican tapestries on the walls and at the carne asada super burrito on his plate. “These are incredible,” he says, indicating both the wall art and the food. “If you know anything about weaving, and if you know anything about burritos, you see that they are offering up the best of their culture to us here.”

A pale imitation of the Mission District burrito is available in Bend, says Steinlizht, who relishes the occasional jobs here that let him investigate the differences. “Smell the smells. Hear the talk. Feel the energy. Look at this,” he says, pointing to the giant jugs nestled in ice and filled with the freshly rendered juices of cantaloupe, watermelon, lemon-lime and horchata (a milky cinnamon-flavored rice water).

Applying a generous dollop of cilantro-laden green salsa to his rapidly disappearing burrito, Steinlizht ponders the question of the burrito’s soul. “It’s like trying to describe the meaning of life.”