I’ve just finished PICU, which shut down all chance at maintaining any sort of normal life. With night shifts that start at 4:30pm and day shifts that start at 5:30am and non-stop “Can you take a call from?” requests on Vocera (I actually didn’t know there was a button that allowed you to reject the incoming call…and even after I found out about it I never felt brave enough to press it), PICU induces a tiredness that I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from. Now that it’s over, I’m hoping to resume some of the things that I’ve horribly neglected in the past month–in no particular order–correspondence with friends, personal hygiene, daily nutrition, and this blog. Just ignore the fact that I haven’t posted in nine months, and pretend that it’s only been last month that I’ve failed to update you on (in reverse chronological order), the state fair, Los Angeles/Disneyland, the French Laundry, Spain and France, and Thanksgiving 2013.
First I wanted to talk about the one important current event that I’ve managed to keep up with during my time on PICU, the FiveThirtyEight Burrito Bracket. From the selection committee to the history of burritos, I’ve enjoyed reading about the aspects that make for a quality burrito (especially the distribution of ingredients…time and again I have expressed my dislike for Chipotle’s burritos because none of the ingredients ever mix in. One inevitably ends up with a gigantic glom of not-quite-cooked rice, a bulge of unmelted cheese shreds, and a pool of super salty salsa. Somewhere buried in there is the highly touted antibiotic free meat that they totally skimp on. The bowl format only partly solves these issues). Inevitably, after every new post I would feel the uncontrollable urge to go out and consume a burrito.
I was excited that the 538 crew decided to take this on, and they did get some heavy hitters to weigh in on the selection committee, but let’s be real here…we all knew it was gonna come down to California and the Mission-style burrito. In most parts of the US, if you were to ask someone to picture a burrito, the prototypical example that would come to mind is the Mission burrito, or at least something large and cylindrical wrapped in foil. If you were to cut that mental burrito open, it would be unlikely to contain potatoes/french fries unless you were from San Diego.
I was pretty confident going into the first round that one of the California-based burritos would score the highest, having eaten at 3 out of 4 of the number one seeds in El Farolito, Frontier, and Bell Street burritos. However, I did take issue with the California seeding. The VORB metric, which I honestly didn’t read into too much because PICU (<- I still really don’t understand how to use the because-noun thing…was that right?) shows how trying to glean something resembling “data” from Yelp reviews proves troublesome and ultimately futile. I don’t think I need to once again go into detail about how I feel Yelp is pretty lousy for actual reviews, as the 538 BSC aka David Chang did a fine job of that as well. As much as Nate Silver tried to Nate Silver (yeah I verb’ed him) Yelp ratings to create VORB, adjusting for region, urban area, volume of reviews etc. etc., there are some confounding factors in the California “data” that were not adjusted for which ultimately led to El Farolito’s VORB inflation:
1. Proximity to BART station entrance: La Taqueria is just down the block from El Farolito, but El Farolito is right there at 24th and Mission BART entrance/exit. The dominance of El Farolito on Yelp may have something to do with this, which brings me to my next point…
2. Drunken recall: I’m not sure if you could put a percentage on it, but I’d guess that >75% of El Farolito burritos are eaten in an intoxicated state (100% if you sampled the author of this blog). Looking at the hours of the powerhouse burrito establishments in the mission reveals that El Farolito is open until at least 2:30am every night (3:30 on Fri/Sat). La Taqueria closes at 9pm. That’s at least 5.5 hours for people to get progressively drunker and have El Farolito to turn to when La Taqueria is closed. When you’re drunk and starving between the hours of 9pm and 3:30am, El Farolito serves the greatest burrito on earth. Need that rice to soak up the alcohol because that’s just how science works.
3. What if a place has pretty damn good burritos, but phenomenal not-burrito? This question is my way of saying, WHY WASN’T PAPALOTE IN THE BRACKET?! It has good reviews on Yelp. Maybe because the salsa is really the star of the show there. It’s so good that you could put it on a Del Taco bean and cheese burrito and that would probably blow many other burritos from across the country out of the water.
In any case, I would say El Farolito’s Yelp dominance and therefore high VORB score are due to factors that have nothing to do with the food, but the same can be said about any Yelp rating. And what was the result? El Farolito posted a relatively embarrassing 86.
I was happy to see Chando’s Tacos in the bracket. It’s the first taco place that I visited after moving to Sacramento and the only reason it isn’t my go-to is that the location is inconvenient for a quick “New burrito bracket post just went up and dammit I really want a burrito now” run (For that, it’s the al pastor burrito at La Fiesta Taqueria on Alhambra). I’ve never had a burrito at Chando’s, but since the meats are so delicious I can’t imagine a burrito wouldn’t be good, and the very respectable score of 91 reflects that. The nachos are legit, and I appreciate that they use the super fake liquidy queso ez-melt cheese. That congealed block of cheese that happens when places try to get fancy and use real cheese in their nachos is the worst. One time I was eating lunch there and a homeless guy came up and asked me for a bite of my taco, which really caught me off guard. Was he not hungry enough for an entire taco? Did he want to sample it before he committed to a whole taco? Did he think it would be more polite to just ask for one bite even though it would’ve been way less gross to ask for the whole taco?
So what can we take away from El Farolito’s top overall seed, highest VORB, and quick exit from the bracket? Other than the fact that any bracket system/seeding is flawed in general, I think we can say that Yelp can provide some useful information, but contains very little useful information about an establishment’s food quality, and that expert opinion often has little effect on our behavior, which holds especially true when it comes to science and healthcare, but that’s a topic for another time.
So who is the burrito bracket for? Why am I so invested in something that will have no effect on my behavior? Despite not knowing who the eventual victor will be, the reaction will be predictable: A proportion will be of the “Knew it all along, I’ve always said that place was the best…excuse me while I go delete my one star Yelp review.” There will be a “What the fuck do they think they know? I’M the expert. I have Yelp elite status 3 years running to prove it. Excuse me while I go delete my one star Yelp review.” The other proportion will say “fuck, I wish I lived in California…let’s go to Chipotle.”
Taqueria Cancun may see an uptick in business, but I doubt that the burrito bracket will sway people’s Mission burrito loyalties all that much. Perhaps the most interesting storyline will be whether Al and Bea’s will take the crown. Not only is it located in Southern California, it’s a non-Mission and non-California style burrito and will add fuel to the Northern vs. Southern California rivalry which Southern Californians quite adorably perpetuate in order to make themselves feel better about the 16 hours a day they spend sitting in traffic.
I suppose there is the scenario in which regional pride could be on the line, in the unlikely scenario that a contender from a non-California region claims victory, but those regions are so expansive that again, there would unlikely be any sort of behavioral change or lasting business impact. New Yorkers aren’t going to travel to Boston to get a burrito, nor does it seem likely Arizonans will travel to New Mexico to get a burrito…with red or green sauce. I leave out the South because it has no chance (No offense Atlanta! I love you and miss you like crazy, and Bell Street was pretty good but it never stood a chance. We here in California will trade you 3 great Mexican restaurants for just one Waffle House. Deal?)
Not that the 538 people have stated their Burrito Bracket serves any sort of purpose. It’s all supposed to be in good fun, but in that case why bother with the attempt to make it seem like there’s any sort of statistical data to back their choices up? Why even choose a best burrito? Perhaps it’s easy to say, living in California, but there’s great burritos all over the place, and you can have specific burrito joints for specific situations. I’ve now lived in a few different regions and there’s always been a burrito place available:
Lafayette, CA: The formative burrito years. I think the first mission burrito that I remember eating was actually in Oakland. I distinctly remember trying cilantro for the first time in a burrito during our lunch break on the set of the movie I was in. I also remember going to a burrito place after dentist visits, when my dad used to take me to a Korean dentist…I don’ t remember which of those came first. However, High Tech Burrito then started expanding the mission style burrito to multiple northern California locations, and I even remember they used to hand out cards with instructions on how to properly peel away the foil as you eat so that was my go-to in junior high. High school was spent at Casa Gourmet Burrito. I’m sure each new generation of Acalanes student discovers this place, meets Dave the chef/owner, and starts putting Thai sweet chili sauce on their burritos. My sophomore year of high school, Dave was driving a used mustard yellow VW golf. By the time I graduated he was in a BMW 3 series.
Amherst, MA: Bueno y Sano was the burrito place in town. Burritos were short and plump and heavy on beans, but were pretty good. I seem to recall they always had way too much liquid that would spill out onto the little silver plate they were housed on…or all over my shirt if I got them to go.
Atlanta, GA: Bell street is good but there are other more interesting things to eat in the Sweet Auburn curb market. Raging Burrito I remember more for their Sierra Nevada pitcher specials than their food, but Willy’s was always a good option. One time my buddy Dan and I were sitting down enjoying our burritos, when a woman walked in and had to get the guy behind the counter to explain to her what a burrito was. He patiently took about 5 minutes to explain the concept, which apparently worked as she was midway through the order when we hear a “Oh wait. The beans and meat go INSIDE the tortilla?” More explanation, then she continued with her order, and busts out in an appropriate accent and with a suitable amount of flair: “I would like some PICO DE GALLO.” How does one know how to pronounce pico de gallo correctly but not know what a burrito is? As we left, she was seen eating her burrito which she had flattened down and was holding with two hands like a sandwich.
Current day California – Please refer to the following decision trees:
In the end, America’s best burrito is the one that’s sitting in front of you, ready to be consumed. If there’s one thing that I hope comes out of the burrito bracket, it’s that there really shouldn’t be a need to ever go to Chipotle…ever.