For 11 years, DPaul and I lived on Dolores Park, a hop, skip and a jump from some of the best taquerias in the Mission. Over the years, we must have spent several thousand dollars at El Toro, the smaller, saner sister to big boy Taqueria Pancho Villa. But when we moved over the hill to Noe Valley, it sort of forced us to refocus our attention on the lower half of the Mission. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I think that some of the best — and most underrated — food in the area exists in this part of town.
But it’s disconcerting to have to develop loyalty to a new place, and the sheer enormity of the number of taquerias in the Mission, not to mention the fervency with which each burrito buff extolls the virtue of their own favorite spot, can be overwhelming.
We first went to Papalote well before we had moved to Noe, and at first I admit I was not a fan. It was only after further experimentation that I came to realize Papalote’s greatness. The secret? Meat.
You see, at El Toro, my regular order was the Veggie #D. (Interestingly, D is evidently a number in Mexico.) That was beans, rice, lettuce, tomato, avocado and salsa. It was like a salad in a wrap, with big, meaty slices of avocado.
My first vegetarian burrito at Papalote was lackluster. Uninspired. I didn’t know that Papalote’s whole schtick, their raison d’être, was freshly grilled meats made-to-order for each burrito. As they say, knowledge is power.
The first thing you need to know about Papalote is that their salsa roja rocks. I don’t know exactly what they do to thicken it, but however they do it, it makes for a great mouthfeel and helps it stick to chips better. It’s got a mild burn, just enough to compel you to keep eating. And you can buy it by the jar. Which we did.
Today, much to even my own surprise, I ordered the carne asada burrito. Surprising because, well, I don’t like beef. Seriously. But this time, I wanted to try something different, and I had a yen for something smoky and substantial. DPaul had the chicken mole burrito, also a departure for him.
Mmm, that’s a thing of beauty. I love the way the tortilla on a grilled burrito goes all flaky. And that little dollop of citrus-apple-chayote salsa in the corner of the plate? All I can say is that I am always mad there’s not a whole lot more of that.
And now, the second revelation, yet one more thing you maybe didn’t know about me: I don’t eat burritos like a normal person. I’m not content to start at one end and work toward the other. No, rather, I perform open-burrito surgery, and eat the innards like a salad.
Why? Well, I can rarely eat an entire burrito, and I’d rather fill up on the good stuff in the middle than on the tortilla itself. Once I’ve finished feasting on the guts, if I’m still peckish, I’ll tear at the tortilla wrapper and dip the bits in salsa. That’s good eating.
Speaking of good eating, the carne asada did not disappoint. A thinly pounded piece of beef grilled to perfection, done but not tough, rubbery or stringy. Redolent with smoky goodness, and cut into bite-size pieces. Guaranteed to satisfy the beefeating urge in anyone. Even me.
(For the record, DPaul’s mole was good, though the mole sauce itself was tomato-ier than I’m used to. And I can speak from repeated past orders that the grilled chicken and chile verde burritos are both completely worth the price of admission.)
3409 24th St (at Valencia)