11 March 2009

The San Francisco Burrito

In food movies such as Big Night and Like Water for Chocolate, the preparation and consumption of food can symbolize everything from personal emotions to societal concerns such as class, ethnicity and gender issues. In real life, the foods consumed by a certain demographic or region can be meaningful as well. In the Mission District of San Francisco, the burrito is symbolic of the struggle of Latin American immigrants to maintain their traditional culture while fitting in to a new society and the sacrifice it takes to immigrate to a new country and work hard for a better life. Huh? Maybe a little background will help.

The San Francisco burrito is not traditional Mexican fare contrary to popular belief. Though small tortillas wrapped around meat and beans were served in Mexico as the first burrito, only in San Francisco did the burrito evolve into what most Americans recognize today. The defining features of a San Francisco burrito are an over-sized flour tortilla, stuffed with rice, beans, cheese, meat, salsa, and sometimes avocado, salsa, sour cream, onions, tomato, cilantro, etc. This basic concept has taken off in popularity and it is now standard to find a similar entree everywhere from Chipotle to Chevys.

The San Francisco burrito got its start when farmers in the Central Valley of California needed a cheap filling meal to give their immigrant workers on their lunch break. Most of these workers came from Mexico and Central America. The giant tortillas stuffed with hot, filling ingredients was just the right fuel to keep the workers going all day.

The rice and beans, are at the foundation of this. Rice and beans have long served as sustenance in the Latin American and Carribean cultures. The combination of the two are not only tasty but more importantly are incredibly dense in nutrtitional value, with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and when combined, form a perfect protein. This makes it the perfect basis for a filling and nutritious meal. When combined with meat, cheese and flavorful salsa, it is the perfect meal to fill you up and provide a tremendous amount of energy.

The burrito came to San Francisco as waves of Latin American immigrants came into the Mission District, replacing the Polish and Irish cultures that were dominant at the time with their own. The Latin American culture is still dominant today. With their taquerias and bakeries and churches and colorful murals splashed throughout the neighborhood, the Mission now has a strong Latin American influence. But stepping into the neighborhood isn't exactly like stepping off an airplane onto Mexican soil. It represents a fusion of the different cultures of Latin America all coming together in a diverse urban city. Likewise, the burrito is not a traditional dish from any one Latin American country, but it uses popular staple ingredients from the Americas, wraps them up in an all-encompassing tortilla, and serves them up to anyone and everyone.

To experience this cultural fusion, my Eating San Francisco class met in the Mission District last Wednesday at Balmy Alley, one of the premiere mural spots in the neighborhood. Murals and street art have been used in the Mission for decades to express political and social concerns of the Latin@ culture.

From there we headed to a taqueria just around the corner. I've probably been to at least 10 taquerias in the Mission, and I swear I've barely scratched the surface. This one, called Taqueria Vallarta, was new to me and I was excited!

The inside was kind of funky. There were murals all over the wall, and although done in the realistic style of Diego Rivera and other Latin American muralists, they incorporated modern imagery of local landmarks and athletes. Not exactly the kind of political message murals usually incorporate, but fun and colorful nonetheless.

The food was delicious, and they were extremely accommodating of our large group! Most of the group went with some form of burrito or chimichanga, but many also enjoyed the taco bar. I got my usual vegetarian burrito. I get this at almost every taqueria I step foot in, which may seem boring, but also gives me a standard unit of measurement for how much I enjoy each place. This one was excellent, with perfect ratios of beans, cheese and rice, all well seasoned.

After a wonderfully filling meal, the 18 of us migrated from 24th & Balmy to Mission Pie at 25th & Mission. Mission Pie is a place I had heard a lot about but never gotten around to visiting. It is a fabulous concept incorporating locally grown produce at Pie Ranch with students at Mission High who all work together to grow the food and cook the pies at Mission Pie.

Mission Pie is a cozy spot that I look forward to coming back to. Though I don't reccomend going with a group of 18 people, they managed to accomodate us and one of the Mission High students even came and told us about the ranch and the shop. Then we enjoyed our delicious pie... and mmm it was good.

All in all another successful ESF outing, full of good people, good food, and good learning.

Check out my Yelp reviews for more specific descriptions of the food and overall experience at Taqueria Vallarta and Mission Pie.


Anonymous said...

Great post Laura!

Nancy Tracy said...

So, now I'm really hungry for a burrito. Great writing as usual!!

Anonymous said...

This was really interesting to read- the history of the burrito. I had no idea that one of my favorite foods has such political roots.