One man's journey to find the best burrito in SF

Charles Hodgkins, the "Burritoeater." Photo by Ben Trefny.

This year, with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders out of the football mix, KALW has decided to cover a different competition. Call it “The Super Bowl ... of burritos.”

First, a little backstory. KALW’s Ben Trefny interviewed one of San Francisco’s must respected burrito reviewers in 2009.

CHARLES HODGKINS: I’m Charles Hodgkins. I’m the author of burritoeater.com. San Francisco’s top resource for burritos and mustaches.

BEN TREFNY: How do you know?

HODGKINS: How do I know that I’m the top resource? Well, if you’re the only resource, you must be the top one, right.

TREFNY: (laughs) I guess that’s true. But also the bottom one.

HODGKINS: (laughs) True. I prefer to look at it the other way.

TREFNY: (laughs) That’s nice.

Yes, over the past decade, Charles Hodgkins has been written up in the San Francisco Chronicle, the L.A. and New York Times and, most recently, the February edition of 7X7 Magazine. As “the Burritoeater”, he just completed a bi-annual contest aimed at determining San Francisco’s very best burrito. Ben Trefny has our story.

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BEN TREFNY: The Burritoeater is taking me out to lunch.

CHARLES HODGKINS: We are going to El Burrito Express for lunch. A lunch of burritos. It’s going to be delicious.

There’s a reason we’re going to El Burrito Express. It’s a contestant in a competition that Charles has held every two years since 2004. It’s called “The Slab Scrum.”

HODGKINS: And it’s when I bring together all my favorite taquerias in town over the last couple years. And it’s basically like a tournament.

TREFNY: Like a playoffs.

HODGKINS: Exactly. But I think the name Slab Scrum is a little bit more effective. And a little bit more unique.

TREFNY: Than the "Burrito Playoffs."

HODGKINS: (laughs) Exactly.

This year, “The Slab Scrum” consists of 12 taquerias. For Charles, it’s an eat-down with sudden death consequences. The best burritos carry on in the contest. The others are left behind. So far, in just over three weeks, Hodgkins has been to 11 burrito joints.

HODGKINS: This is the last quarterfinal visit. Then the semifinals. And then the finals.

It’s a stiff competition. The quarterfinals have featured three nine-mustache burritos, which, at first blush, may not sound so appetizing.

HODGKINS: That’s the thing about burritoeater. A lot of it is sort of in code.

The more mustaches the better.

HODGKINS: You can make of it what you will, but right now I’m going to turn left on Divisadero.

TREFNY: So the code involves mustaches as part of the grading scale?

HODGKINS: Exactly. It’s a 10-mustache scale that I use. Hey, there’s our taqueria. And, you know, when I started the site all those years ago, I figured it would be a little bit more unique than points or stars or, you know, beards.

So the taquerias that showed up with nine-mustache burritos:

HODGKINS: La Laguna Taqueria in the Bayview. La Espiga De Oro on 24th Street in the Mission. And Taqueria Reina’s in Crocker Amazon.

Those made the semifinals. The top two seeds going into the competition were Gordo Taqueria on Clement and Papalote on Fulton.

HODGKINS: Gordo and Papalote are tied for fourth right now.

So the slab Charles eats here at El Burrito Express could knock the favorites out of the “Scrum.”

We go inside. And the contest begins.

HODGKINS: Hi, I’d like to get a super bronco burrito with grilled chicken. I’d also like rice in it. Refried beans...

The Burritoeater orders a chicken burrito with rice and refried beans. I get one with sweet potatoes and black beans. A few minutes later, we’re sitting at a small table unwrapping our lunches.

HODGKINS: Oh that first bite was real good, Ben.

And there are many more to follow.

HODGKINS: That’s some avocado. Mmm.

The average San Francisco-style burrito weighs well over a pound. So it takes a lot of bites to eat it.

HODGKINS: Now we’re getting into some spice, Ben. I’ve hit a spicy pocket.

But as Charles bites, chews and mulls, he grows a little dubious.

HODGKINS: I’m a little worried about the ingredient mix. The rice is a little bit kind of off on its own...

And that’s important, because Charles grades each burrito on a host of criteria – including meat, rice, beans and cheese. As well as how well the slab holds together – what he calls “burstage abatement.”

HODGKINS: It was a well-built burrito, Ben.

And “sauciness.” Charles takes a minute to tally up the total for El Burrito Express. And then.

HODGKINS: Well. Pretty damn good. But I don’t think it’s going to be good enough to make it to the semifinals.

As we step outside, he checks the overall results. Going into today, Gordo and Papalote had each scored 8.59 in their quarterfinal heats. El Burrito Express scored 8.58.

HODGKINS: I am taking five taquerias to the semifinal round, and this came in at number six. Just missed by 9/100 of a mustache.

TREFNY: That’s close. So if it had been just a little saucier…

HODGKINS: Yeah, then it would have been a three-way tie and then I probably would have taken six taquerias to the next level, but it’s only going to be five.

Charles eats five more burritos in the next two-and-a-half weeks. He eliminates three taquerias, bringing the competition for best burrito in San Francisco down to two. One finalist is Papalote. Its claim to fame: roasted tomato salsa. It’s a perennial Burritoeater favorite, carrying an 8.73 rating into the competition.

HODGKINS: And they actually racked up a 9.33-mustache burrito, which is the third highest-rated burrito ever on burritoeater record.

And Papalote’s opponent? La Espiga De Oro. And that’s where we agree to have our next meeting.

HODGKINS: We are on 24th Street between, what, Florida and Alabama. We are about to go into La Espiga De Oro, which was one of my favorite taquerias in San Francisco this year, and I’m very excited about it, needless to say.

La Espiga De Oro – which translates to a husk of corn – averages 8.72 mustaches on the Burritoeater’s scale. Its secret weapon? Outstanding tortillas. We go inside.

HODGKINS: Uh, I’d like to get two super burritos.

He orders for both of us.

HODGKINS: With carnitas. No sour cream, please.

Charles doesn’t like sour cream on his burritos.

HODGKINS: Uh, yes. Refried beans.

He thinks refried beans taste best.

HODGKINS: And we’d like them extra spicy.

The Burritoeater grades taquerias on the spiciness of their slabs as well.

HODGKINS: $14.21. Now that’s a bargain. For lunch in San Francisco? Very reasonable.

A few minutes later, we’re eating.

HODGKINS: It’s very porky.

TREFNY: This burrito’s so solid, it can stand up on its hind quarters after one bite.

HODGKINS: It’s all grown up. It can walk around and everything.

I like the burrito. But not so much the salsa. And Charles agrees.

HODGKINS: Probably not their strong suit.

But there are a lot of other categories to judge.

HODGKINS: I’ve got a lot of melted cheese over here. That’s nice. The carnitas is pretty good. It could be more crisp, in my opinion. It’s flavorful, but it doesn’t have that signature carnitas texture. Which is crisp on the outside. A little juicy on the inside.

TREFNY: Like a marshmallow.

HODGKINS: That’s a scary thought.

Scary but true. Anyway, Charles and I finish our carnitas, and he sets to the judging.

HODGKINS: Okay, here we go. Nine mustaches for size. Ten mustaches for the tortilla. Eight mustaches for the meat. Seven mustaches for the rice. Eight mustaches for the beans. Nine mustaches for the cheese. Nine mustaches for the vegetables. Six mustaches for the sauciness. Seven mustaches for the spiciness. Nine mustaches for the ingredient mix. Nine mustaches for the temperature. Ten mustaches for burstage abatement. And two bonus mustaches for intangibility. And now the English major needs to do a little math.

So, 10 + 8 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 9 + 6 + 7 + 9 + 9 + 10 + 2 equals...

HODGKINS: ...103 total mustaches. Divide that by 12 ... 8.58 mustaches.

TREFNY: Solid.

HODGKINS: Solid. Very good, actually. But I think Papalote may have a golden opportunity here, next week.

A week goes by. And then I get a message on our tipline. It’s the Burritoeater.

HODGKINS: Hey Ben, it’s Charles from Burritoeater Towers. Just wanted to let you know that Papalote steamhammered its way through the Scrum finals, yesterday, with a 9.17 mustache masterpiece. With that kind of showing La Espiga de Oro never had a chance. Clearly the place just lapped the field.

I want to talk over the results, so I invite him to a burrito joint in the Outer Sunset to have a horchata. La Playa Taqueria: 8.35 mustaches. Sadly, as it turns out, no horchata.

TREFNY: So Papalote won.

HODGKINS: Papalote won. And it wasn’t even really close, to be honest. They kind of ran away with it.

TREFNY: What is it about Papalote that makes it so good in your estimation?

HODGKINS: It’s kind of the whole package, for the most part. They’ve always had really fresh ingredients. They do the right things with those ingredients as well.

TREFNY: What did you learn about burritos, this year, and what did you learn about yourself?

HODGKINS: I learned that there are better burritos than ever in San Francisco, and I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now. And as for what I learned about myself? I learned that I’m still not tired of eating those burritos.

Charles Hodgkins has reviewed more than 800 burritos at burritoeater.com.

HODGKINS: You know, hopefully I’ll try to make it to 1,000 reviews in the next couple years. After that all bets are off. But, you know, we’ll see how things go.

TREFNY: Where will you have your thousandth burrito? Do you think, if you could have one burrito, what’s it going to be?

HODGKINS: Uh, who knows? Maybe Papalote. Maybe Taqueria San Francisco. Maybe El Castallito. Maybe Faralito. Maybe El Burrito Express. The list goes on and on. There are a lot of taquerias in this city.

TREFNY: And you’ve been to all of them.

HODGKINS: Well, probably. I don’t know. Maybe there’s another place out there I haven’t uncovered yet. But, I’d like to think that I’ve covered it pretty thoroughly. You know, it is San Francisco’s top resource for taquerias and mustaches, after all.

TREFNY: Or the bottom resource.

HODGKINS: (laughs) San Francisco’s bottom resource for taquerias and mustaches. Bastard. (laughs)

And with that, Charles Hodgkins gets up off his stool and leaves the taqueria. But he’ll be back. He’s the Burritoeater.

In San Francisco, I’m Ben Trefny for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on February 1, 2011.