Burritos are pregnant with meaning. They are pregnant with lots of things, and some are even called pregnant by name, but others tell tales between the sheets of tortilla. El Porvenir’s carnitas burrito contains a San Diego origin story; the wet burrito at Berkeley’s La Burrita knows how stupid I act drunk; the Manuel Special at East Los’ El Tepeyac represents both the heart of a champion and the agony of defeat; and the Chile Relleno burrito at any Campos Tacos location holds the key to my childhood.
Ask a chef when they fell in love with food, and the chef will probably know the exact moment. I can’t cook worth a damn, but I have a response to the question all the same, and I found the answer inside a burrito in Los Feliz eight years ago. Standing over the trunk of my eighty-nine Camry in a liquor store parking lot, I wolfed down a handheld meal of doughy tortilla, sumptuous beans, Yucateco brand hot sauce and a style of pork that at the time was completely foreign to me: cochinita pibil. That burrito whispered a secret to me, and since then the word “Yucatecan” has been my favorite adjective in the English language.
But this isn’t a story about burritos. It’s a story about life without burritos, and how a story without burritos can end happily, too, thanks to a burrito.
The story begins in Russia, because in Moscow I learned two very important things about myself: I need Mexican food and I like alcohol. Then I learned, after eating a burrito in Russia made of lavash, tomato sauce, cubed meat and bell peppers, maybe I needed alcohol, too.
In the Richmond District of San Francisco, when you a see white person walk down the street, chances are that person has either a Russian or Irish accent. If you see a person that isn’t white walk down the street, chances are that person is all manner of ethnicity aside from the one that comprised most of my neighbors growing up in LA. If I want a quick burrito for lunch, my options are limited to the Gordo Taqueria on Geary, or the Gordo Taqueria on Clement. If I want a good burrito, my options are buses away. In terms of Taqueria culture, I might as well be living by Gorky Park again.
In terms of cantinas, however, the Richmond might actually be a viable destination for the Bay Area as a whole. The two contenders for the burrito-and-booze crown are Tia Margarita and Tommy’s Restaurant, two sit-down restaurantes with neighborhood history, iconic storefronts, cherished bars, and Mexican wait staffs that are used to dealing with the unforgivable whiteness of San Francisco’s upper middle class. Both remind me of similar Santa Monica establishments Casablanca, La Cabana and Lula’s, where the prices of platas eclipse the ten dollar limit and pitchers of margaritas inflate tabs to triple digits.
Both can function independently as a bar, but in the case of tequila, Tommy’s is head honcho. Six stools by the kitchen bask at the feet of an almost religious collection of mezcal. Sommeliers in French restaurants fail to match the selectiveness of Tommy Bermejo, and bartenders and regulars alike are permanent clinics in the difference between highland and lowland flavors. Likewise, the margaritas are the best I’ve had, simple drinks made the simplest way, with fresh squeezed limes and good tequila.
But ultimately it isn’t alcohol that keeps me coming back to Tommy’s Restaurant; it’s the word “Yucatecan” on the menu.
Tommy’s menu looks like a lot of family-style Mexican restaurants, with combination plates, chile verde dinners and chile relleno ala carte, but a small section titled “From Our Yucatecan Cuisine,” including seven items, is the difference between a decent meal and the highlight of my week. If I pair the house margarita with Poc Chuc or Chuleta, it just might be the highlight of the month.
Cochinita pibil is pulled pork that is usually marinated with sour orange juice, peppercorns, garlic and cumin. Yucatecan-style chuleta (pork chop) has nearly the same preparation. The chuleta is instead broiled like a steak and might loosely be defined as carne asada made with pork instead of beef. The flavor profile, though, is more similar to everyone’s favorite orange-colored pork, pastor. Like the best of those rotisserie wonders, enough tropical flavor seeps into each slice of Tommy’s chuleta that a tiny nibble is not lacking for bold flavor.
Sitting at Tommy’s bar, watching baseball on a tiny television, sipping a margarita and eating Yucatecan food is a $25 treat to myself. But therein lies the problem. Living in the Richmond, if I want good Mexican food, I probably have to spend too much money to have dinner at a place that is little more than an above average family restaurant. Underrated is the side of beans and refreshing is the simple iceberg, radish and tomato salad that preludes each entrée, but who am I kidding? Finding burritos used to be so much easier.
Buses away from the Richmond district, burritos are part of the cultural landscape. The birthplace of the Mission-style burrito is an ever-evolving sector of San Francisco where the upscale nightlife of Castro and the industrial wasteland of Portrero Hill invade a dissipating barrio from two sides. Still mostly intact is Mission Blvd itself, a strip of taquerias, produce trucks and discount clothing stores where local-bred families shop and snack by day and purveyors of the Mission nightlife drunkenly seek burritos by night.
By the corner of Eighteenth and Mission is a taqueria that looks grungy even next to Mission Blvd’s other options. The definitive hole-in-the-wall taco shop is a tunnel with bright yellow walls and a low ceiling. It could be under fifty degrees outside, but it’s always ninety degrees inside Yucatasia, as if the seating area were the kitchen’s sole exhaust system. Middle-aged senoras cook up a variety of dishes in back, from pavo en escabeche to empanizado de pescado, and handwritten menus next to Yucatan tourist posters boast dishes I’ve never encountered, like ponucho, mondogo and salbute.
There’s one thing missing from the menu: burritos. But if there’s one thing that Yuca’s Hut taught me eight years ago, it’s to never pass up any place that served food and had the word “Yucatecan” on the awning.
I don’t pretend to know anything about the Yucatan or the peninsula’s comida. I have an educated and internet-driven guess that it’s kind of a combination between inland Mexican food and Caribbean cuisines ala Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. However, if there’s one thing personal experience has taught me about Yucatecan cuisine, it’s that pork plays a tasty role, and even though I’ve yet to try Yucatasia’s cochinita pibil, I’ve had the poc chuc enough times to keep coming back. The tough, lean, deliciously chewable chunks of heavily seasoned pork wouldn’t be the best filler for a meaningful burrito, but it goes wonderfully with tacos and tortas.
Poc chuc is Yucatecan-style barbecued pork. Yucatasia’s version doesn’t match up with Tommy’s, but the cost is dramatically less, and in sandwiches and tacos, Yucatasia’s poc chuc is more than good enough. Topped with pickled, sweet onions and shredded lettuce, there is something about the torta de poc chuc that reminds me of Banh Mi, and not only because a Vietnamese man is sometimes manning the register. Like some lesser Banh Mi sandwiches, though, Yucatasia’s torta is in danger of disobeying optimum bread-to-filling ratios. On multiple trips to Yucatasia, I’ve been served the torta with different brands of bread, and each has made a significant difference.
The taco, and by extension the poc chuc plate, suffers no such shortcoming. Each taco is twice the size of a Tijuana street taquito and packed with meal-sized portions of poc chuc, onions, avocado, cilantro and salsa. Each taco is priced at 2.50, and when two is more than enough for one person, I have to wonder: Each time I drop $25 at Tommy’s, is the cost of comfort, convenience and alcohol really worth a 500% price hike? Then again, that’s life in the Richmond, and really, who am I to complain? Even if buses are involved, getting to choose between more than one Yucatecan meal is the kind of privilege that Russians are still fighting for.
That’s what they’re fighting for, right? I mean, come on – they have to know how bad their burritos are.
|Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant
5929 Geary Blvd
San Francisco, CA 94121
San Francisco, CA 94101