Tacos Are The New Burritos!

Taco, San Francisco StyleI know, that statement is sacrilege and should never be uttered in San Francisco, but I have been noticing a new trend where people are moving away from their first love of burritos and trying tacos again. Not the Taco Bell style fast food garbage, but real, California Style Tacos.

I’m not really surprised by any of this as the burrito as we of the San Francisco Bay Area know it is monstrous. Even the smallest burrito is size of a baby’s leg. The only way to get something smaller is to pick up one of the gigantic bean and cheese pre-packed things at 7-11 which, let’s get serious, to San Franciscans that isn’t really a burrito.

The burrito as we know it in San Francisco started when the migrant farm workers needed a serious meal to take with them when they were harvesting all the fresh produce we all know and love in California. They started out simple and then expanded to be more than just beans and rice with some meat to include cheese, avocados [or guacamole] and sour cream [if you want to be on point it’s called crema agria or angry cream].

If you were working hard all day pulling crops then you need an extreme form of energy supplying food. We in the San Francisco Bay Area today don’t need that much food any more since even the hardest working person in San Francisco is usually sitting behind a desk most of the day [I will tip my hat to construction workers even though most of the time they only look like they’re directing traffic]. There are a few of us who living on a budget will eat toast and coffee for breakfast and then grab a burrito for lunch which in our minds will hold us over through dinner. I’ve been there and done that. Currently, if I get a burrito I tend to eat only half of it and then have the other half the next day.

Super Taco Al PastorEnter the taco. I have a couple of taquerias I frequent and know the people who work there and asked them, How come you don’t make a pequeño, but you make a super? Every time the answer was the same…If you want pequeño order a taco!

So Wife and I started ordering tacos. I grew up on tacos, but they weren’t what most people today would get in San Francisco. They were crispy, fried with just meat and you’d add in some white people stuff. American cheese, head lettuce and if you were lucky some jarred salsa. Nothing like what you get today.

Today when Wife and I go to a taqueria regardless of where it is in San Francisco and don’t want to down 3lbs in one sitting we order tacos…usually super tacos and while the price is only a little bit cheaper than a burrito it’s still far worth the price. Tacos aren’t anywhere near the size of a burrito, but you’ve got lots of fully customizable choices: Street Taco, with just meat and onions, peppers and cilantro, the Standard Taco with rice and beans and maybe a bit of lettuce and then the Super Taco which is everything mentioned that is dumped into a burrito only it’s more like a small open faced burrito [see photos above].

If you’re a little on the big side it’s a good snack or at least make a lunch that you don’t need to go into a food coma after eating it to recover. Like burritos, pretty much every where you go in San Francisco you can get a pretty good taco. Yes, some people will disagree with that statement, but if you’re not from San Francisco you won’t be able to understand the subtleties.

Currently there are several bars in the City that are hosting Taco Tuesdays where the tacos are cheap. Usually between $2-$4 when you’re buying drinks which sounds like a pretty good reason to buy a couple of tacos. Now I am seeing articles popping up of people analyzing and dissecting the quality of tacos around San Francisco just as they did with burritos and that’s probably because I am seeing burritos approaching the $15 range in some parts of the City which is ridiculous.

The time has come to give the taco its due, so dig in and enjoy. The above food porn taco photos were taken by yours truly at Taqueria San Jose, currently one of my favorite places to grab an Al Pastor Super Taco, because it’s a Taqueria, not a Burritoria.

Things I’ve Learned About San Francisco: The Mission

The Mission DistrictThe Mission was a place I called home about 25 years ago and back then it was nothing like it is today. Back then there was hardly anything to do except get a burrito or go to the El Rio bar because it wasn’t really a spot for nightlife for the non-Hispanic community.

Today, the Mission has changed and the people who have moved there have ended up turning the place into something that almost doesn’t belong as a part of San Francisco anymore and let me explain. The people of the Mission today, stay in the Mission. They really don’t know about anything outside the Mission other than if they have to make a trip downtown to go to a work related meeting. Nothing else exists for them.

For New Mission residents today they don’t seem to understand that you don’t have to wait in line for over an hour to get an ice cream cone or that you can get a slice of pizza for under $10. Most of the time when I’m driving through the Mission to give people a ride you can tell the people who live there. It’s never more than an $8 ride because that’s pretty much how much it costs to go from one end of the Mission to the other even though most of them stay within the area of 16th Street and 24th Street and usually between Dolores and maybe Bryant.

These aren’t the residents from 10-15 years ago or even the residents for 20-30 years ago, but the new techies that everyone complains about because it’s their fault that the rents are going up. I might be wrong here, but last time I checked I never heard a renter who said, no that’s really far to little for me to pay every month to live here, let me give you more. I sincerely believe that it is the landlords who are raising the prices on the real estate here more than the techies. Most who I meet are living with 3-5 other roommates when renting a house or at least more people than there are naturally occurring bedrooms. They have to cram themselves in to be able to afford the rents out there that they didn’t set in the first place.

Because of this it gets pretty crowded. Weekends can be extremely ridiculous because you have not only the Mission street residents, but also people from all over San Francisco that now have a reason to go there on a weekend evening other than to buy drugs. [Remember I lived there 25 years ago. It was way easy to buy drugs without having to walk more than a block.]

Buying a burrito will take you a long time now even though there are many taquerias there because there’s even more people drawn there. On a weekend night the crowds from the restaurants and bars are spilling over into the streets on Valencia and it is not a street to try and drive down. My old roommate and I used to split a two bedroom house with a full living room, dining room [which would be two other bedrooms now] and kitchen for $800 a month. We had the chance to buy the house for $209,000 and thought it was too much in 1995. Guess what…it sold for less and would now sell for around a million dollars. That’s a pretty good increase in value and yes, I’m still kicking myself about that today.

Something I learned about the area that I hadn’t noticed at first is that there are a lot of homes and apartments that have been gutted and rebuilt. Because they have done this and it is after 1979 these places aren’t linked to rent control so anyone renting them doesn’t have any protection. In my book this is wrong. Even the places that aren’t being rebuilt have been pulled off the market so that they could come back at a vastly increased price.

The techies moving into the Mission aren’t millionaires. The largest bracket for income is in the $35k-75k range pretty much like every other area in San Francisco [except for SoMA in the 94105 zip code which is the richest]. There really isn’t much reason to raise the prices so high that someone has to spend $30k/year just on their portion of the rent, but seriously, these new residents don’t know any better. The insiders say things like, well I don’t stand in line for ice cream at the Bi-Rite. I go across the street and buy a pint. OK, buy you’re spending $6-$8 for a pint of ice cream. Wife and I happened to be in the area during the week when everyone was gone and there was no line. We stopped in at the Bi-Rite and I have to say we loved the ice cream.  It was worth the $3 cone…no everyday, but once in awhile and it certainly wouldn’t have been worth it if he had to wait an hour and half for it. To be fair, Mitchell’s ice cream is just as good, but the same rules apply. Just go when no one is in line or buy some at a grocery store that carries it. We also stopped in at a taqueria and there was no line during the week. The prices were pretty fair, but if we had to wait in line we would have fixed something to eat at home that would have been close enough for about a fifth of the cost.

Seriously though, if anyone from the Mission who’s a new resident reads this can I suggest you check out the ice cream from a couple of friends of mine called Ben & Jerry. It’s a little cheaper and you can get it at pretty much any grocery store in the City. Hell, liquor stores even have it. There’s also some things called tortillas and Mexican cheese you can get at those same stores and toss in a pan for an instant quesadilla. I won’t tell everyone that you like to put Sriracha sauce on your quesadillas though. No really I won’t.


The Burrito Wars

After posting Friday’s article I received some feedback that leads me to believe there is a burrito war brewing. The so called California Burrito which is indigenous to San Diego does not represent the California burrito in an way. The California burrito that San Diego lays claim to started around 1995 actually originating in Las Vegas before moving to San Diego. It generally consists of meat, guacamole or avocado, sour cream and french fries [the original Vegas version used tater tots].

If you look back farther as I mentioned in my Friday article the original burrito made in California for public consumption started life in 1961 at El Faro, but that was made with corn tortillas. The actually Mission style burrito using a flour tortilla originated in 1969 at La Cumbre and is representative of the size of your forearm or bigger things that we know as burritos today.

Prior to all of this the burrito originally got its start in Tuscon, Arizona in the 20’s from a man who carried his food on a donkey [el burro] because they resembled the rolled sacks that donkey’s carried on their sides he called them burritos [little donkeys]. There wasn’t much to them except a tortilla and some meat. Nothing like we expect to find today. Making it’s way farther West the immigrant farm workers in the central valley would pack there lunches in a similar way adding a few other things to the meat such as salsa, beans, rice maybe an avocado slice that they picked and pocketed.

As the farm workers moved north they hit the San Francisco Bay Area where many of them settled in the Mission district and never lost their love for the food that gave them energy when they were out in the fields. This is where the San Francisco or Mission style burrito originated. I do remember back in my youth in the 70’s that if you wanted real Mexican food you had to go to Mission District. The prepackaged burritos you would find at a 7-11 had chopped up beef [usually beef heart] and some beans. This was more like what you might find in Mexico than here in the Mission District.

Now here is where the war part comes in. I always knew growing up that SF had a rivalry with LA. Apparently now that all the party animals have left LA for Vegas San Diego wants in on the game. In doing some research over the weekend I found that San Diego claims to have the best burritos giving it the right to the name California Style burrito. Apparently no one informed us or any of the foodie people who write for magazines about this. As it turns out the french fries in a burrito isn’t a uniform thing in San Diego as well. There are several places in San Diego that serve California Style burritos, but not all of them. Some San Diegans moved up to our territory and opened Taqueria Los Coyotes which serves the California Style burrito. I wrote an article on them previously. For some reason people in San Diego are appalled at the size of our burritos which is odd because theirs are about the same size as ours. They also don’t seem to like all the crap we put in our burritos. I guess they never thought of asking to hold the rice, etc.

I will still stand by my statement that a California Style burrito refers to those made in San Francisco that are attempted to be copied around the world. On my one trip to Mexico they even had a taqueria offering California Style burritos that were made in the same way they were made in San Francisco, no french fries. If you go to any taqueria in California and order a burrito it’s more like what you find in San Francisco where it started. Perhaps I should just let the whole California Style thing go by the wayside because if you’re into burritos you know that San Francisco has the best.

Young, Broke & Beautiful Burritos

Sorry I’ve been out of it this week, but I threw my back out and have been for the most part, well on my back with a heating pad to try and not act like a 70 year old man when I walk.

My wife pointed out a show in the IFC called Young, Broke and Beautiful that is done by a guy I have met and been featured on his website — Broke Ass Stuart. I met him at the SF Weekly Webby Awards because he is generally in San Francisco, or New York, but now with his show he travels around a lot. Not too bad for being a broke ass. Today’s subject though was a minor part of his show in San Diego where he made that comment, a California Burrito has to have french fries. [cue record scratch]. No that is not correct. A San Diego, CA Burrito may need french fries, but not a California burrito and I am going to go into the history of burritos in California because they’ve gotten a claim to fame in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In Mexico a burrito is usually only beans and meat wrapped in a flour tortilla. It’s a simple hand held meal that’s easy to deal with. Not a balanced meal for the most part, but it’s a meal. When California transferred it’s ownership from Spain to the United States things changed a bit. California is a very agricultural state and we have lots of other things that the Mexican’s who now where American’s could add to the simple burrito. Cheese, Guacamole [probably from the tree in So Cal that was the birth of the Haas avocado], salsa, rice sometimes lettuce [which should never really be put in a burrito]. California being the green state greened up the burrito and that then was referred to in Mexico as the California burrito. Never was there any mention of putting french fries in a burrito. I did write an article about a place in SF that was making what they called the California burrito with french fries, but they got the idea from San Diego. El Burrito Express makes a BajaCal burrito with fries and we know that Baja California is down south so that would make sense since it’s closer to San Diego. Here in San Francisco you can even find the occasional peas, carrots or corn added into your burrito, but I shudder to think of that and just stick with the beans, meat, cheese guacamole and sour cream [I don’t like rice in my burritos].

If I further need to make my point the California burrito was invented in San Francisco in 1961 at El Faro and was first referred to as the Mission Style burrito and then the California burrito. The San Diego with french fries was first documented in 1995. San Francisco started the size of your calf style burrito as most of them before you could get one hand around with some extra room. It almost became comical when you could get a super burrito in some places that was bigger around than a kid’s thigh. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that San Francisco also came up with the Super Burrito as well.

Apparently the San Francisco Bay Area seems to also have the least expensive burritos in the world. Someone who’s name I couldn’t find who writes for SFGate.com seeks out burritos around the world and found awful burritos in Scotland at $15 each [does the burrito come with Haggis?] To the $10 tasteless burritos in Australia. I’m happy to say that I can get a regular cheese burrito for under $4 [when I’m in a broke kind of way] or with meat for under $5. If you like burritos, you need to come to San Francisco to try the best. Hell, you can even get vegan burritos here.

Shout out to Phil at @ebxsf!

Trying to Wrap My Head Around Mission Hipsters

So I’ve been spending the better part of the week in the Mission District as many of you can probably figure out by by talking about my trips on the 48 Quintara. I actually did live there for about six years 16 years ago and I have to say that not too much has changed except that you see more white people now, but it’s still the best place to find a good selection of Hispanic foods.

That being said, I can’t wrap my head around why the Mission Hipsters™ have wanted to call this place their home. The place isn’t the cleanest still, the building are old and while nice to look at when you get inside some of them can be a little disgusting. The crime has dropped significantly from when I was there [no I was not the cause of the high crime rate], but there are still gangs running around and a flying bullet doesn’t care if your a Norteño or Sureño.

I have noticed that the Mission has tried to gentrify itself a bit which is a nice way of saying people with money come in and buy up poor people’s places pushing them out to make room for more people with money. The look is kind of odd when you walk past Rosamunde that’s right in between two run down stores that look like they haven’t seen a fresh coat of paint in over 50 years.

With that being said, I know there’s still good in the Mission, because I wouldn’t have lived there for six years if there wasn’t. The people are friendly and by that I mean the pre-hipster people. It’s got great weather most of the time and even when it doesn’t it’s still not that bad. If you want to experience the real Mission you have to go to anywhere around 24th and Mission. That’s still the place where you hear the salsa music blasting all day and some of the best places to buy Mexican food. If you get a chance stop by the Mission Panaderia that’s there. They make the best Mexican pastries in my book.

I think, but I’m not sure that the Mission Hipsters™ are located more down around 18th and Mission because you’ll suddenly hear less Spanish and more English and the crowd turns decidedly more Caucasian and Asian. You still will find a few Mexican food places, but there aren’t the same. The Mission kind of loses it’s feel here due to it being more affected by the gentrification and is kind of, in my mind a Disney version of the Mission.

I can see the Mission Hipsters™ wanting to live and work cheap, but the gentrification takes time and most of the start ups come and go quickly that are around here. They’re kind of an unwashed version of the Marina crowd with less money. I know I’m sounding mean, but I can’t help it. While you do have BART serving the area, you still have to go downtown to get to BART or take a slow bus to get there. This is probably why people out in the avenues are kind of isolated from the Mission District and vice versa. There’s no way to get there from here and vice versa.

That’s part of the reason I don’t get the concept of the Mission Hipster™. They try to be alternative fashion conscious, but I don’t get when being hip and cool meant that you have to step over excrement and homeless people when you walked out the door of your antique apartment that probably needs some major maintenance work. Note: I lived in the outer Mission in a full five room house built in 1924 that was always well maintained, but that was back in the early 90’s which was pre-Mission Hipster™ period.

I guess I don’t get Mission Hipsters™ because I’m a Westside Hipster™. Now we can let the hipster gang wars begin. There’s probably an app for that.


Mobile Foods/Mobile Phones

I stopped working downtown too soon. It wasn’t my choice, but I missed the first rush of the new sensation that’s sweeping San Francisco and everyone’s smartphone — food trucks. I’m not talking the old beat up taco trucks that you used to see in Oakland, but these are upscale trucks serving upscale food and the best way to find out about where they are in on you smartphone.

Here’s how it works. You pull out your mobile phone and download a Twitter app. Then you find and follow all the trucks around San Francisco. They really are more SF and the peninsula than just SF, but they seem to be focused around San Francisco at least a couple of days a week.

If you want to be an über-cool techie hipster geek you’ll get Eat Street which gives you a map that’s based on their GPS so you can see where they are when you want to get food. I use both because I like to talk back to the people to try and get them out to the Sunset and Richmond on sunny weekends [WHICH WE DO HAVE!!!!]

You can find more than just tacos and burritos now. We’ve got BBQ places that are cooking up some smoky goodness. Curry Up Now that  does burritos with an Indian twist [aweeesome!], Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches left and right. Pretty much if you can think of a food there’s someone out there in a truck that will sell it to you.

One of the best places to try and fill your food truck craving is Off The Grid that’s held in many places around San Francisco, but Fort Mason [5pm-10pm Fridays] seems to be what everyone is talking about because that hosts the most trucks [up to 30] and tents. I was down at Fort Mason one night and happened to see a huge amount of trucks out there with an even huger amount of people wandering around. The smell of all the different trucks wafting up through the open window just pulled me towards the trucks during a break. I think I ended up spending a little over $20 getting the small sampler plates as I call them from several of the trucks.

This was definitely some good food and I wish that we could get more of them to try coming out to Ocean Beach because on a sunny day there isn’t anything going on there to feed people. The biggest problem is that we usually know about a sunny day out here with about 15 minutes in advance. Most of the trucks have websites where you can check where they’re going to be that week if you don’t have a smartphone.

Food trucks are gaining more ground in San Francisco now that the city has made it easier for them to do business. Because they don’t have to pay rent it’s cheaper for them to operate which is bad for brick and mortar businesses, but good for you and me because they can produce the food cheaper. Check them out NOW!

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The Trans-Continental Burrito Express

Following yesterday’s review of El Burrito Express I found this article about a supposed trans-continental burrito shipment tunnel that would deliver a California style burrito to those in Weehauken, NJ in 42 minutes. I had to share this.

Who can imagine New York City without the Mission burrito? Like the Yankees, the Brooklyn Bridge or the bagel, the oversize burritos have become a New York institution. And yet it wasn’t long ago that it was impossible to find a good burrito of any kind in the city. As the 30th anniversary of the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel approaches, it’s worth taking a look at the remarkable sequence of events that takes place between the time we click “deliver” on the burrito.nyc.us.gov website and the moment that our hot El Farolito burrito arrives in the lunchroom with its satisfying pneumatic hiss.

The story begins in any of the three dozen taquerias supplying the Bay Area Feeder Network, an expansive spiderweb of tubes running through San Francisco’s Mission district as far south as the “Burrito Bordeaux” region of Palo Alto and Mountain View. Electronic displays in each taqueria light up in real time with orders placed on the East Coast, and within minutes a fresh burrito has been assembled, rolled in foil, marked and dropped down one of the small vertical tubes that rise like organ pipes in restaurant kitchens throughout the city.

Once in the tubes, it’s a quick dash for the burritos across San Francisco Bay. Propelled by powerful bursts of compressed air, the burritos speed along the same tunnel as the BART commuter train, whose passengers remain oblivious to the hundreds of delicious cylinders whizzing along overhead. Within twelve minutes, even the remotest burrito has arrived at its final destination, the Alameda Transfer Station, where it will be prepared for its transcontinental journey.

Ever since Isaac Newton first described the laws of gravity in 1687, scientists have known that the quickest route between two points is along a straight line through the Earth’s interior. Through the magic of gravity, any object dropped into such a “chord tunnel” at one end will emerge exactly 42 minutes later at the other end, no matter the distance. But for hundreds of years, the technical challenges of building such a tunnel were so daunting that it remained a theoretical curiosity. Only at the start of the 20th century did the idea become technically feasible, and to this day the tunnel linking the East Bay with New Jersey remains the only structure of its kind in the world.

From the outside, the Alameda facility looks like any other industrial building. Behind a chain link razor wire fence sits a windowless white hangar some three stories tall, surrounded by a strip of green lawn. If you could see underground, however, you’d see that the building sits at the center of a converging nexus of burrito pipes. High pressure pneumatic tubes from all over the Bay Area emerge in the center of the facility, spilling silvery burritos onto a high-speed sorting line. The metal-jacketed burritos look like oversize bullets, and the conveyor belts that move them through the facility resemble giant belts of delicious ammunition. Within a few seconds of arrival the burritos have been bar coded, checked for balance and round on a precision lathe, and then flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen.

The mouth of the tunnel is a small concrete arch in the side of a nearby hill, about as glamorous as an abandoned railway tunnel. Yet if you could open the airlocks and stare down its length with a telescope, you would see airplanes on final approach to Newark Airport, three thousand miles away! To reduce drag on the burritos to a minimum, the tunnel must be kept in near-vacuum with powerful pumps. At the tunnel’s deepest point the burritos will be traveling nearly two kilometers a second – even the faintest whiff of air would quickly drag them to a stop.

The launch tube for the burritos lies just under the tunnel mouth and looks like what it is: an enormous gun. Every four seconds a ‘slug’ of ten burritos, white with frost, ratchets into the breech. A moment later it flies into the tunnel with a loud hiss of compressed gas, and the lights dim briefly as banks of powerful electromagnets accelerate the burritos to over two hundred miles an hour. By the time they pass Stockton three minutes later the burritos will be traveling faster than the Concorde, floating on an invisible magnetic cushion as they plunge into the lithosphere.

No one who built the Alameda-Weehawken tunnel had quite this future in mind for it. The tunnel had its origins in the early 1900’s as an ambitious project for speeding mail delivery between New York City and the booming Pacific port of San Francisco. The telegraph and railroad had linked the city to the East Coast, but transferring documents, currency, securities and diplomatic correspondence across the country was still a slow affair fraught with danger. In 1911, the celebrated British civil engineer Basil Mott approached the plutocrat Andrew W. Mellon with an audacious plan to build a straight-line tunnel 2500 miles long connecting New York City with San Francisco, allowing packages to be sent between the two cities using only compressed air and gravity. The tunnel would resemble the pneumatic tube systems that had served New York City and Paris so well for mail delivery, but on an incomparably vaster scale. Cylinders containing up to sixteen pounds of mail would be able to make the continental transit in less than an hour.

Construction on the tunnel began in 1913, and it quickly grew into the largest public works project in the young nation’s history. Not until the Eisenhower Interstate system in the 1950’s would there be a bigger or more costly civil engineering project. Drilling the tunnel required over 19 years of continuous effort by thousands of miners, often working in conditions of intolerable confinement and heat. Over 22 million tons of rock had to be removed, much of it from unprecedented depths, all while keeping the tunnel perfectly straight over thousands of miles. Just keeping the tunnels cool required more water each day than flows over Niagara Falls.

The tunnel opened to great fanfare in 1933, with a congratulatory message in Morse Code flashed by powerful searchlight from the San Francisco end to waiting dignitaries on the New Jersey side. It was already obsolete. The first regular mail shipments sent from San Francisco in the spring of 1934 had to compete with the sophisticated air mail system that had grown up during the tunnel’s long construction. To make matters worse, breakdowns in the tunnel were frequent, especially in the central “hot zone” where temperatures could exceed 900 degrees Centigrade. Mail would frequently arrive singed or deformed from the intense heat and pressure. While they could never beat the speed of the tunnel, airplanes could deliver documents at far lower price and risk in just a few dozen hours more. In 1936, at the height of the Depression, the tunnel ceased operation less than three years after it had opened.

In the years to come all kinds of schemes would be floated for how to put the tunnel to use. For a brief time after Pearl Harbor there was serious thought given to using it as an enormous gun barrel that could fire artillery shells across the Pacific at Japan (the risk to life in San Francisco if a charge went off prematurely was deemed too great). In the early days of the Cold War, both ends of the tunnel, along with the Chicago and Cedar Rapids access shafts, were considered as enormous fallout shelters. The low point in the tunnel’s fortunes came with a 1971 proposal (mercifully never enacted) to use the Weehawken side of the tunnel as the world’s deepest garbage chute. On the San Francisco end, meanwhile, squatters from the thriving San Francisco countercultural scene had begun using the tunnel as an easy place to take shelter.

By the early 1970’s the tunnel was a derelict, a mostly forgotten relic of a more adventurous time. The turning point came when Robert Cavanaugh, a New York financier with a serious taste for Mexican food, happened to come across a mention of the tunnel in a zoning proposal. The globetrotting Cavanaugh was a fanatic of the recently-invented Mission burrito but bemoaned being unable to get it anywhere outside of San Francisco. Examining blueprints of the defunct mail tunnel on a flight home to New York, Cavanaugh became intrigued by the coincidence in size between a foil-wrapped burrito and the diameter of the old transcontinental mail tubes. By the time the plane landed, he had come up with an audacious plan.

Cavanaugh realized that the intense heat of the transit that had so beleaguered mail service would actually work to his advantage in a burrito tunnel. The burritos could be stored frozen on the Western end and arrive fully heated through in New Jersey. Furthermore, advances in electrical engineering meant that containers would no longer have to be propelled by compressed gas. The burritos already came conveniently wrapped in aluminum foil – it would be trivial to accelerate them with powerful magnets.

Encouraged by his back-of-the-envelope calculations, Cavanaugh formed a consortium and, in a stroke of genius, convinced the Carter Administration to subsidize the tunnel’s operation in exchange for access to the geothermal heat it would produce. Convincing skeptical businessmen to buy into the plan proved more of a challenge – it took six months to persuade suspicious taqueria owners to switch to a salsa with lower magnetic permittivity. Finally, in July of 1979, all the pieces were in place. After a successful July 2 dry run with a sawdust mock burrito, the tunnel ceremoniously opened on Independence Day. The inaugural burrito (carnitas with lettuce, salsa and avocado, no beans) was loaded into the breech at the Alameda terminus at 10:05 AM and was served to a beaming Cavanaugh, Vice President Walter Mondale and New York mayor Ed Koch in Weehawken 64 minutes later. Two hundred burritos followed that same day; by the end of the decade the tunnel would be delivering over two thousand burritos an hour.

In the early days of the burrito tunnel workers on the Alameda side would sometimes use it to send small packages or letters, inking the code words sin carne on the wrapper to alert those on the other end that the ’burrito’ required special handling. This changed after September 11, when strict security measures went into force. Homeland Security officials have been quick to recognize the unique threat of a tunnel that could give terrorists unimpeded access to the entire underside of the nation. They’ve also been alert to the danger a “dirty burrito” could pose if it made it into the New York food supply. Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff would not comment on specific measures his department has taken to protect the tunnel, but he said his office does take the potential threat very seriously. “We’ve known since the first World Trade Center bombing that New York is a top target. We’re taking appropriate measures to make sure the tunnel and the burritos that pass through it remain safe and secure.”

The greatest risks to the tunnel, however, are likely to come from Mother Nature herself. During the 1989 Loma Prieta quake the tube misaligned by over four inches, requiring extensive redrilling, and experts estimate that an earthquake of magnitude 6 or greater on the Hayward Fault could put it out of commission for months. An ambitious expansion plan to begin next year will address some of the seismic hazards while also widening it enough to allow super burritos to make the transit for the first time ever.

Burritos speeding through the tunnel fight a constant battle against friction. At the start and end of their journey they hover in a powerful magnetic field, seldom touching the sides of the tunnel. Past the Colorado border, however, the temperature of the surrounding rock exceeds the Curie point of iron and the burritos must slide on their bellies in their nearly frictionless Teflon sleeve, kept from charring by pork fat that slowly seeps out of the burritos as they thaw. By the time the burritos reach Cedar Rapids (traveling well over a mile a second) they are heated through, and anyone who managed to penetrate into the tunnel through the Cleveland access shafts would find them ready to eat.

Remarkably, people do descend into even the deepest sections of the tunnel, though with a far more serious goal in mind than lunch. Geologists from around the globe have been flocking to the tunnel for five decades. “People in our profession get excited about new road cuts,” says Adam Rifkin, Dean of the Geology Department at the University of Nebraska. “You can imagine what it’s been like for us to explore the world’s deepest tunnel.” Indeed, the Alameda tunnel is the only place in the world where scientists can directly study the aesthenosphere, the boundary layer separating the earth’s crust from the hot mantle. The trip down through the access shafts is harrowing – the descent takes the better part of a day, and temperatures can rise to nearly a thousand degrees Centigrade. Most of the work at the depth of the tunnel is done by robots, but geologists must occasionally descend in person to make repairs or to do work that is too difficult to automate. “It’s a lot like standing in an oven,” Rifkin says. “At the lowest point we’re nearly as far from the surface as the Space Shuttle, and in many ways it’s a less forgiving environment.” Still, he adds, “I wouldn’t give it up for the world. This is probably one of the dullest places, geologically speaking, in the whole country. Under our feet are five miles of silt from the Rockies before you even get to the first rock. Thanks to the tunnel, though, we can punch right through that. It’s like a time machine through the planet’s history.”

“Are you ever tempted to sneak a burrito while down there?” I ask Dr. Rifkin, and he laughs. “At the speed those things are going it would probably take your hand off. But really for us this is serious business – we’re fine not having access to great Mexican food as long as we can do the geology. The tunnel has been an absolute godsend.”

Not everyone is as delighted with the tunnel as the geologists. Old-time San Franciscans will be quick to point out that the comestibles in the tunnel flow strictly one way. “In the old days you’d go to a place like Pancho Villa and get yourself a steak burrito in five minutes, maybe ten if it was near lunchtime,” says lifelong Mission resident Howard Washington. “Now the line is out the door even in the morning. And some of those places down in the South Bay won’t even take customers anymore. If you want a burrito in the daytime you have to get it first thing, or else you go to one of the places that isn’t hooked up to the tunnel.”

Taqueria owners have tried hard to cope with the additional demand, but even they admit that it can get hectic. “The New York metro area has fifteen million people,” explains Javier Corrientes, manager of Cancun Burrito on Valencia Street. “San Francisco is barely a tenth of that size. You got all those people out drinking on a Friday night who want a burrito at ten o’clock, just when the dinner rush is starting here, there’s no way we can keep up.” The secret, he says, is to order tacos. “It’s the same fillings, except it’s quicker to put together and you can’t put it through the tunnel.”

The raw economics of the burrito trade suggest San Franciscans won’t be getting quicker service any time soon. Even before tolls and taxes, a burrito sold in New York brings in ten times the profit of one sold over the counter. John Laplace chairs the Northern California Burrito and Burro Council, an industry group representing Bay Area taquerias. “The tunnel is an incredible economic engine for the region,” he says. “Every burrito that goes through the tunnel represents over two dollars in direct tax revenue and over four dollars in indirect revenue through job creation, research stimulus and geothermal energy. I can understand why people get frustrated, but that tunnel has given us far more than it’s taken.”

Of course, it would be best if the tunnel could give back in a more tangible way. Over the years there have been numerous attempts to send New York staples in the reverse direction – operators have tried sending knishes, bagels, pickles and even Brooklyn-style pizza. None have proven as resilient as the humble burrito, and in the end the two cities have bowed to the inevitable. Both tunnel tubes now carry only burritos.

By the time they reach Cleveland the burritos are fully heated through and traveling uphill at about twice the speed of sound. A series of induction coils spaced through central Pennsylvania repeats the magnetic process in reverse, draining momentum from the burritos and turning it into electrical power (though Weehawken residents still recall the great blackout of 2002, when computers running the braking coils shut down and for four hours burritos traced graceful arcs into the East River, glowing like faint red sparks in the night).

At the tunnel exit, a final puff of air slows the burritos to a stop and they are placed in insulated bags. These are whisked to a fleet of waiting trucks, which pass through the Holland Tunnel (this time at a more stately thirty-five miles per hour) and then onward to restaurants and cafeterias throughout the five boroughs.

Is it worth it? Enrique Alnazar, burrito sommelier for Nobu Fifty-Seven, smiles at the very question. The restaurant recently installed a dedicated high-speed pneumatic line to the Weehawken facility, shortening the arrival time for its prize Los Charros burritos from just over two hours to under fifty minutes. Alnazar won’t say how much the new line cost (estimates run into the millions of dollars), but he insists it was worth every penny. “We’ve had people come in and order a magnum of 1978 Château Margaux on the strength of our burritos. They know that we’re phoning in their order to Mountain View the moment they walk in the door, and they know we’ve done everything in our power to keep them from waiting. A lot of restaurants are happy racking up a few days’ supply in the burrito cellar, but that’s not the same as getting a fresh burrito straight from the tunnel – you can taste the difference. The only way to get a fresher burrito than at Nobu is to fly to California, and our customers appreciate that.”

The success of the burrito tunnel has encouraged no end of imitators – whether the Reagan-era attempt to construct an intracoastal barbeque pipeline, the perennial political deadlock over allowing tomatoes in the Northeastern Chowder Viaduct, or the recent fiasco of high-speed BagelRail. But as Chairman Laplace argues, it’s unlikely such a project could succeed anywhere else. “We really have a unique situation here – a population of fifteen million people without access to high-quality Mexican food. There’s no place else in the country like it, and that makes the economics of a transport tunnel from the country’s finest burrito region workable. On top of this you have the burrito itself, which is a really marvelous food — resilient to overheating, isotropic, compact, able to tolerate high G forces.” Here Laplace smiles. “And delicious. Who would want to live in a New York City without it?”

The following is from idlewords.com. I cannot verify the authenticity of this article, nor who the author was, but it was just so damn funny I had to repost it.


El Burrito Express: A San Francisco Secret

Thirty years ago when they opened, El Burrito Express was a god send to me. I was a broke college kid with a girlfriend who had a daughter and EBX was half a block away from her house. We would walk down and get a bean and cheese burrito for $3.65 and it would feed the three of us. And oh what a burrito it was. I’ve had burrito’s all over the city and yes, I will sound a bit sacralegious to folks out in El Mission, but I have never had a better burrito than here.

I had to laugh when they said a few years ago that due to the rising cost of supplies they would have to raise their price. The same burrito thirty years later is now $3.95. I can’t knock them for that. What changes they’ve undergone in that time period. Most places will usually trim down their menu to only what is essential. EBX, they’ve expanded it to the point they don’t have room to put up anymore signs and have to use paper attached to the front of their case to advertise their new El Gigante burrito in honor of  the Giants winning the World Series [note, the picture was from last night and they’ve re-arranged things and have done away with the paper signs]. Apparently they’ve also learned a lot about our new technologies and finally have their own website set up, will deliver, they are present on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. That’s pretty impressive for a little burrito shop in the Sunset. I’ve found that calling in my orders works best here as they always seem to be crowded.

Enough about technology. Let’s talk about their food! As you can tell burritos are their main focus, but they have tacos, enchiladas, tamales, tortas as well. They’ve just added something called asada fries that’s kind of like their nachos except using french fries instead of their hand made tortilla chips. That’s more California than the place in the mission that makes a “California Burrito” I’ve spoken about before that’s a burrito with fries added into the mix. I’m going to start with the burritos because they are the best deal you’ll get. You’ve got a choice between the Regular and Bronco to start. The difference is that the regular has guacamole as an extra and the bronco has no rice and sliced avocado [my choice]. If you want a bigger version you ask for the Super burrito or Super Bronco. If you want even bigger than that you have to move up to the Expresso Burrito. This is one HUGE burrito. Two tortillas filled with cheese, beans, rice, meat rolled up and then covered in guacamole, their “special sauce”, more salsa and more cheese. This is the wet style [burrito mojado] and they seem to sell a lot of them.

Now I have at times been a big eater, but lately not so much so I’ve found I can cut one in half and get two days out of it. There was a time that I believe I was able to eat an entire burrito by myself, but I’m not sure. I’ve had their nachos, enchiladas, tostadas & tamales and they’re all good, but it’s the burrito’s that really shine. A personal tip if you’re someone that’s low on cash and needs a quick snack you can get their corn quesadilla’s for 90¢. They also have homemade aqua fresca’s and they also seem to be moving towards a more healthy way of serving their food with in store tips like, “hold the sour creme and add a whole wheat tortilla.” I like the fact that they are being socially responsible and not filling their customers up with tons of lard. They also have advertisements they’ve put on their Burrito TV youtube site that shows they have an interest in giving back to their community and taking care of it as well. See the video below. Note they also have a card you can get where you buy nine burrito’s and the tenth is free.

All in all, there’s little bad I can say against this place. Actually, there’s nothing bad I can say about this place except the front door that is a little hard to open, but that’s nothing. If you want a good burrito, go to the Sunset district. 🙂


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Tommy’s Restaurant: Tommy has Died

As you probably know from my writings I have a thing for Mexican food. There was a place I used to like to frequent that was an old school Mexican restaurant and it  wasn’t in the Mission District, it was in the Richmond District. It was Tommy’s. A working man’s type of place where the food was good and the cocktails would knock you on your ass. I suppose it was because they were not too far from Trader Sam’s where professional’s go to drink.

Tommy Bermejo who started the place in 1965 has died and it’s a sad day in Tequila history. While Tommy’s didn’t invent the Margarita, they sure perfected it. In margarita history there are several people making the claim to being the inventor and I think it was a guy who owned a joint called Tommy’s Place that got the origination transferred over to Tommy’s.

Tommy’s was all about tequila. They had more types on their wall than you could probably find in one place in Mexico. They serve only 100% agave tequila, that means no mixing “neutral spirits” with it. This is the real Mexico hombre. Their website has a list of the over 100 tequila’s they have on hand from blanco, to reposado to añejo to extra añejo. They even have a page to educate you on the finer points of tequila intake. I always hated tequila until I got a chance to try an añejo which is aged like a fine brandy. You don’t make tequila jello shots with this or margaritas. These are fine sipping tequilas that you enjoy slowly.

Tommy and his wife Elmy where from the Yucatan and the food they served showed that. Sure, they had the guacamole and nachos or “white people mexican food” as I call it, but they had other dishes that were pure Yucatan such as the camarones al mojo de ajo and the pork culetas, but they had kind of California-ized over the years mixing in some of the more Americanized tastes in Mexican food. Still, it was a great place to eat and it was inexpensive to eat there. Always good when you dropping a deuce on some fine aged blue agave.

I never got to meet Tommy himself, or if I did I never knew it was him, but I’m glad to see that the place will live on after him. I think this weekend will be a good day to drop in and have a few shots of  Alcatraz Añejo. Diga a dios que dije hola, Tommy!


The California Burrito is not a California Burrito

As I woke up this morning bleary eyed and slightly incoherent I noticed an article on our local sfgate.com about the “California Burrito.” WTF?!?! I guess I’m getting old, but when the burrito came north from Mexico it was  beans and rice with a little mystery meat and maybe a little cheese. Californians and Californian-Mexicans wanted a little more since our state has an abundance of produce so they took beans, rice, cheese, guacamole, salsa, sour cream plus the meat of your choice and sometimes a few more veggies [El Toro Taqueria adds peas and carrots to their burrito which is just wrong to me, but I don’t want to get off track]. This became known as the California Burrito.

Now some foodie terrorists in San Diego have infiltrated San Francisco and introduced what they call the “California Burrito.” It got carne asada [steak for you gringos], guacamole, sour cream and FRENCH FRIES! French fries in a burrito?! I’m sorry, that’s just wrong. It’s like a Mexican version of Primante’s in Philadelphia that puts fries on their sandwiches for the truck drivers to eat on the go. In San Francisco, the burrito is like ambrosia any taqueria you go into sells more burritos than tacos first off and the clientele covers just about every race we have in the city. We know burritos. San Diego which probably has a larger hispanic population than SF apparently does not. What’s next? Hot dog burritos? The culprit here is a place called Taqueria Los Coyotes. I suspect it will start showing up in more places just like the baja fish taco did. Fish tacos I don’t have a problem with since they started in Baja and moved here pretty much unchanged. But fries in a burrito I’m not so sure about.

Now I’ll have to eat my words and try one before I condemn it fully. I still have to say though that the best burrito is found outside the Mission District. [Ducks and runs for cover]