Most nights of the week, you can find your way to El Farolito without ever looking at a street sign. Just head down Mission St. until you bump into a line jutting out from this ever-popular taqueria, where customers of every stripe come for their cheap, bulging burritos. San Francisco is, after all, mostly known for its burritos, as evidenced by El Farolito’s menu, which offers ten types of burritos and only two categories of taco (“regular” and “crispy”). Sure enough, when I’m handed a basket of two carne asada and carnitas tacos, I understand immediately: they’re made by burrito guys!
When making a burrito, one spoons any number of ingredients onto a large flour tortilla, then folds it closed and secures it with butcher paper or aluminum foil. With tacos, however, the proportion of the fillings must never preclude the tortilla from being gripped and held to one’s mouth. (Once you can no longer pick it up, the taco has ventured into the land of the sope.)
Beyond the fact that their asada is flavorless and their carnitas aren't sufficiently crispy, El Farolito piles their meats too high on too flimsy tortillas, invariably resulting in a pool of taco detritus swimming in the basket. The free sides of tortilla chips would be a welcome tool for recovering the fallen bits, if only they were worth the effort.
La Corneta Taqueria
Down the street from El Farolito, La Corneta’s vast space espouses more of a coastal vibe, with wide skylights illuminating a tile floor and muralled walls depicting lakes and a terra cotta townscape.
La Corneta Taqueria
Once again I order carne asada and carnitas, and once again receive what can only be called two “mounds,” so far removed from the grab-and-go origins of the taco. The asada tasted good at first, until I realized it was oversalted and required upwards of 20 chews before I could attempt to swallow.
The carnitas, however, were textbook—soft in some parts, burnt brown in others, and rimmed by ribbons of melting fat. Unfortunately these tacos were so unwieldy I literally could not grasp them in my hands. After a brief period of head-scratching, I was reduced to picking at the meat, beans, and salsa with a plastic fork and still couldn’t finish it all off. Looking over the soggy remains, I wondered if I’d accidentally ordered the world’s flimsiest boudin bowl.
Papalote Mexican Grill
Just up 24th Street at Valencia, Papalote starts to frustrate me as soon as I arrive. Skewing toward the artisanal end of the taco spectrum (Note: every patron was speaking American English), Papalote offers items like chicken mole, marinated tofu and vegan soyrizo. Sadly they pooh-pooh my attempts to pick-and-choose one of each, insisting on a minimum order of two. I decide to stick with the carne asada, vaguely remembering that they won some award for their steak in years past.
Papalote Mexican Grill
While the meat was indeed tasty, the corn tortillas that surrounded it were an abomination—so dry and tasteless I wondered if anyone had bothered to throw them on the grill. To top it off, they had covered the steak in lettuce and pico de gallo that reminded me of the dreck that West Coat chain La Salsa puts on pretty much everything they serve. I had no choice but to flee the scene of the crime.
It seemed that my taco quest was doomed as I walked back to Mission Street and into La Taqueria. All I wanted was some soft cabeza, but I demurred and ordered my last two carnitas and asada tacos.
Several minutes later, they called my order (“Number 1!”) and I picked up the basket. It was an undeniable moment of revelation: butcher paper. In one simple move, the cooks at La Taqueria had tamed the beast, swaddling their tacos in a distinctly diaper-like wrapping.
And unlike my previous stops on the tour, rather than being overwhelmed by the meat's taste and texture, here I could savor each ingredient equally in every bite. The beans and pico de gallo were simple and fresh; the tortillas were soft but held tight; and the meats were calibrated to taste exactly of their specific flavor and nothing more.
This was when I came to understand that the San Francisco taco is not about noise, screaming with flavor and heat as they do back in Texas. Like the climate and the pervading social mode here, the San Francisco taco is fundamentally mellow. It’s bigger, more even-tempered, and sits a little heavier in the stomach, which is all to say that the only dessert I could sanction after this tour was a long siesta.