Poc Chuc, Tres Chic

by Zach Mann on May 6, 2011 · 15 comments

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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.

Tommy's Restaurant - San Francisco, CA
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.

Chuletas - Tommy's Restaurant - San Francisco, CA Chuletas - Tommy's Restaurant - San Francisco, CA
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.

Yucatasia - San Francisco, CA
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.

Poc Chuc Taco - Yucatasia - San Francisco, CA Poc Chuc Torta - Yucatasia - San Francisco, CA
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
2164 Mission
San Francisco, CA 94101
Foodie-in-Tehran May 7, 2011 at 2:50 am

This post makes me want to spill the beans (heh) on all that is terrible about Tehran’s Mexican Scene. There is NONE.

Actually, honestly, I think your best choice is to go anywhere that has a burrito. You CAN choose to eat at Yucatasia for the price but ehhh if I were you I would tell ’em straight up they need to put burritos on the menu cause then you’ll be spending your $15 on them rather than on Tommys (which btw is just not Mexican enough of a name…Tommys- sounds like a place you’d steak and fries than burritos).

The best Burrito I can get in this country is in my own kitchen- I make the tortillas, fill em up with black beans, good spanish homemade rice, onions, tomatillos, peppers, and beef (again, the beef is no skirt steak chopped up- it’s stew meat tenderized with some golden onions and spices for hooooouurrrssss).

You know, I would kill right now for some of that in those pictures.

Even though, there is a restaurant with a REAL Mexican Senora who cooks in it in Tehran and sometime this week I plan on getting there. But I know I’ll be slightly disappointed- always am when it comes to Burritos in this side of the world.

Thanks for th epost

David Farris May 7, 2011 at 4:57 am

the cochinita pibil and the turkey at yucatasia are quite nice too. i prefer all in salbute form rather than as a taco, fwiw.

James Boo May 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Stories like this give me a real reason for missing California’s Mexican food. Too many people move to New York and bitch about not having the burrito they grew up with, all the while ignoring the fact that Queens and Brooklyn offer incredible antojitos and sandwiches, among plenty of other Mexican staples. But every time I return to California, a friend takes me to a new regional Mexican joint that fundamentally broadens my definition of Mexican food (which admittedly is not very broad to begin with).

Mr. Micro May 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I’d be very interested in hearing your burrito recommendations for San Francisco. I’ll be visiting this Summer and want to show my wife that Chipotle isn’t the end all be all Mission-style burrito.

Zach May 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm

The unwritten story of this post is that, yes, in 2003, my friends and I went on a burrito tour of Los Angeles that ended with me falling in love with cochinita pibil; but in 2004, my friends and I went on a taco tour of Los Angeles that ended with me deciding: in the world of Mexican cuisine, burritos are pretty low in the hierarchy.

That isn’t to say that I don’t order burritos every now and then, or that I don’t crave a burrito when it’s been too long (or when I’m too drunk), but I chalk that up to nostalgia (and alcohol). Foodie-in-Tehran, I would probably be burrito-crazy in your position, too, but now I almost always order plates (tacos deconstructed) and tacos now. Though, I will most definitely be trying the salbute route soon (thanks David). And in New York, I would be eager to heed James’s suggestions of ntojitos and sandwiches.

Now that I’m living in SF, though, I feel obligated to try out burritos again, and to take them seriously again (and not treat them solely as a teenager’s favorite food). However, for geographic reasons, and because I’ve had a surprising amount of bad burritos here so far, I have to apologize, Mr. Micro, because I have 0 burrito recommendations thus far. This is not San Francisco’s fault. This is mine. Maybe by this summer, this will change. It’s sounds like a worthy mission.

Get it?

David Farris May 9, 2011 at 4:42 pm

So, I’ve always thought burritos are for suckers and field workers. Not that a burrito can’t be nice, but wouldn’t you rather have several types of tacos and maybe a few other things than have that extra filling take up precious stomach real estate? And you can’t get a burrito at Taqueria Vallarta (or maybe you can if you order at the counter, but that clearly seems like the wrong thing to do there).

When there are other constraints (you want a portable meal of less than 12 cubic inches), burritos have their place.

jerry trail May 9, 2011 at 6:13 pm

great post,i found it interesting and informative.if you really want authentic mexican food and you happen to be in the orlando fl. area,try the bee line restrurant.i know it’s a strange name for mexican foodbut yhe name doesn’t matter,the food is fantastic.

James Boo May 10, 2011 at 12:17 am

I’ve always considered my favorite Bay area burritos (Ojo De Agua and La Taqueria come to mind, but almost anything that isn’t Gordo’s will do) to be underscored by a matter-of-fact admission of laziness. A burrito is not something you order to sit and savor. It’s what you eat on the way to work, with one hand on the wheel. It’s what you and your college buddies pick up with a case of Modelo so you can eat and watch DVDs simultaneously without making a scene.

And honestly, when I order a burrito, it’s because I fucking love rice and/or beans in almost form. That’s why places like Alberto’s/Roberto’s/Cotixan’s in Orange County and San Diego will always have a place in my life. A burrito is comfort food.

David Farris May 10, 2011 at 4:30 am

James: fair enough. have you written about Alberto’s/Roberto’s/Cotixan’s (specifically, what to get there)? none are familiar to me.

James Boo May 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm

David – Zach has definitely written about San Diego’s Roberto’s in all of its forms as part of his “Vaya Con Diego” series. Cotixan’s California burrito was my introduction to fried potato in burritos, though Zach can surely recommend a superior California burrito in SD.

I’ve wanted to do a story about Alberto’s in Orange County (which, like Roberto’s, is a the fast-food-Mex equivalent of Tommy’s Burgers) for a while — I like their pastor burrito, which consists of grilled pork, refried beans and salsa verde in a grilled tortilla. The price is low, portions huge, and pastor far from traditional… definitely not destination food, but a great late night or on-the-go meal.

The conchinita pibil burrito at Yuca’s is probably one of my all-time favorites at the end of the day.

David Farris May 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm

thanks! i’ll dig up the posts, and try some of those when i’m next in OC!

Zach May 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm

Jerry, Bee Line Restaurant sounds like a great name for a Mexican place. (And on that note, if “Tommy’s” doesn’t sound Mexican to you, you’ve probably never lived in California. Though it ain’t quite as Mexican-American sounding as “Danny”, which is second only to “Juan”.)

My burrito experience in SF so far as been fail. I think the only place of note (read: oft-reviewed) I’ve been to is Taqueria Cancun, which is probably more on par with Berkeley’s La Burrita in that its value can only be obtained drunk at one in the morning. Ojo De Agua (Fruitvale?) is added to my list and I really am due for a return visit to La Taqueria.

‘Bertos: http://theeatenpath.com/2010/02/18/robertos-san-diego-ca/
Though once I became more keen to what San Diego has to offer, Mexican food wise, I don’t think I ever stepped back into a ‘Bertos. Before 11pm, that is.

David Farris May 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm

The quality of the meat at La Burrita is hideously bad (the worst chicken I’ve had in my life, I had at the northside one), and at Cancun (the Mission and 19th one, anyhow) it’s fine. Unless they put something bizarre in their burritos, there’s no comparison. (And their tacos are decent. I’ll happily eat there under appropriate circumstances. If I don’t have time to walk to Farolito or Vallarta and Yamo and Yucatasia are closed, say).

James Boo May 11, 2011 at 9:49 am

Oh, David — if you do find yourself in OC, then the first place I would recommend going is Carnitas Los Reyes in Orange. And don’t get a burrito there, but do try the chorizo, pastor, and whatever else sounds good that day!

David Farris May 12, 2011 at 4:37 am

Cool, thanks, I will!

And I’m from Santa Ana, so I find myself in OC quite a lot. (Though I rarely go outside SA for Mexican. In fact, since my folks live walking distance from El Gallo Giro, my Mexican meals are very localized.)

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