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The FiveThirtyEight Does Burritos

There's a great article on the 538 on the best burrito in America (Yes, I know, another poorly researched article displaying vast ignorance).
For those of you who aren't familiar with Nate Silver and the 538, he writes incredibly insightful articles on politics and sports (mostly) using very careful statistical analyses. In this article, he turns the same techniques on burritos.

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/i...

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  1. Garbage in, garbage out. According to Silver's analysis of Yelp data, the four burrito-selling establishments in Northern California that rank in the top 20 nationally are all in San Francisco: El Farolito, La Taqueria, Taqueria Cancún, and HRD Coffee Shop.

    I tried an HRD spicy pork kimchi burrito. Not very good. Mediocre ingredients added up to less than the sum of its parts.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      The Yelp ratings are there to guide the committee, but they are allowed to contribute ones not on the list.

      If they do stick to El Farolito, La Taqueria, Taqueria Cancún, and HRD Coffee Shop, San Francisco will likely lose. La Taqueria's limp burrito won't make it past the first round, and taqueria Cancun and Farolito will be undone by their inconsistency. HRD is good, but not as good as Cancun and Farolito at their finer moments.

      1. re: hyperbowler

        Ordered the carne asada burrito without beans from La Taquaria the other day. It costs $1.25 extra for no beans because they add more meat.

        That was easily the most tender, juicy and flavorful carne asada I have had from a taquaria in quite some time. The accompanying pico de gallo was also fresh, and the spicy salsa verde put the whole thing over the top.

        Everyone has there favorite, but for me La Taquaria is unbeatable.

        1. re: Civil Bear

          No beans would solve a bunch of problems. Their carne asada is awesome in the tacos, and is strongly flavored enough to compete with the beans in the regular burrito. I'll have to revisit it for full on meat.

          1. re: Civil Bear

            La Taqueria will grill a prepared burrito as a special request according to this article about their "secret menu":

            http://blogs.sfweekly.com/foodie/2014...

          2. re: hyperbowler

            And, yelp is based in SF. We created that monster ourselves, we should be hoist by our own petard.

          3. re: Robert Lauriston

            Agree about the HRD burrito and most all of their stuff really, using super low quality and fatty meats. The kimchi burrito is just greasy and actually pretty gross.

            1. re: TVHilton

              Yup...good stuff. Mission burrito vs. LA burrito all over again:

              "so, what's the best way to troll California out of its goddamn mind?"

              1. re: ML8000

                Northern California & SoCal should be at least two of the 4 brackets. Maybe three, but I'm not sure how you'd split it up.

                1. re: TVHilton

                  I dunno, I suspect they're pretty good in Texas and New Mexico too. They at least deserve a peek.

                    1. re: dunstable

                      There is fantastic Mexican food in New Mexico (and I imagine Texas), but it's very different from what we know, and burritos aren't really part of it. So sure, there are probably some very good burritos there, but nothing like the culture of burritos that exists in California.

              2. Bill Addison and Gustavo Arellano are on the committee, so that could have added a lot of Bay Area credibility.

                But it didn't. The four SF places they chose are the same four that were generated by putting Yelp statistics through Silver's formula. Why not drop HRD to make room for El Castillito? Many of the reviews for HRD aren't even about the burrito.

                They did drop the doughnut shop with the bacon, egg, and hash browns burrito.

                http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/t...

                http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/t...

                1 Reply
                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  The Doughnut Shop's contains bacon, egg and hash browns? By that definition, it would be the "true" Breakfast Burrito.

                2. And the western states are seeded:

                  http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/w...

                  and a short article on the cultural significance of the burrito:

                  http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/ou...

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: kungful

                    I feel like this is rigged against SF. We have only Yelp-score picks in the running, including the obvious loser HRD. Southern California has a bunch of expert substitutions. The western states have five Yelp picks vs. 15 experts'.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      I think in order to get enough picks to make the brackets, they are having to put a large effort into the non-California regions.
                      They could have easily swamped the initial brackets with just the bay area, but had to make it look like a fair contest with the rest of the country. Perhaps they should have acted on their idea to make the four regions NorCal, SoCal, East and West (or North and South).

                      Simply by the nature of the contest (all regions on an even footed start), they are eliminating many of the better burritos. If there are a heavy concentration of quality burritos in one area, why not have more from that region ? (the answer is: because it makes for a better article if the brackets are pretty).

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        They didn't come close to the best spots here in lalaland. But we're more a taco town anyways. But we do have this

                         
                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          If I was going to be fair, I'd also say that, in my travels, burritos elsewhere in the country are pretty good these days. Mexicans established themselves everywhere that construction and gardeners were in need, so strong burritos in many municipalities.

                          This 538 thing is pretty poor though. Shows that Silver's mechanism of using "expert adjusted data" can fall down, with poor expert pruning.

                          1. re: bbulkow

                            It's just a fun statistical approach to something different if you ask me.

                      2. Okay, now that I've read several 538 pieces on the matter...

                        This entire idea, which even he admits is "crazy," is fundamentally flawed. Silver's primary skill is crunching data and projecting conclusions. It's basically straight math: I have this pool of data X, therefore conclusion Y. Both are flimsy in the burrito example.

                        First of all, the data pool is already suspect. There are a million reasons for this, but the short version is that his system is too reliant on the highly suspect assessments of random Yelp users. Having a professional burrito eater winnow the pool does not help: her subjective tastes will inherently color the results, making the final result less about "best burrito" and more about "the best burrito according to my buddies." Using a VORB formula doesn't help either; as Robert said, you are manipulating bad data to begin with.

                        Secondly, no such conclusion can readily be drawn from the data given. In both sports and politics, Silver is projecting a result among a narrow set of contestants in a specific contest -- e.g., either Obama or Romney will win this presidential election, or either the Rangers or Kings will win the NHL Finals. For both, the data utilized can be closely tied to the specific result he is projecting (e.g., "teams with longer puck possession tend to win games", "minorities tend to vote Democrat").

                        This cannot be said about the burrito makers. There is no statistical measure from which we can draw this conclusion -- e.g., we cannot say, "Oh, Taqueria Dondequiera is probably the best because their ratio of meat to bean is higher than everyone else's." The number of contestants only compounds the problem: projecting elections and games is a mutually exclusive scenario: e.g., voting for Obama inherently means you are not voting for Romney. This is obviously not the case with the burritos -- a person is allowed to like more than one burrito, and hasn't even tried 1% of all the burritos out there.

                        Honestly, I like Silver, but I suspect he is doing this for the same reason everyone else is doing it: this sort of thing generates hits. Probably he just thinks it's fun too, which is understandable, but surely he doesn't expect this to present an accurate result. What would have been more convincing is if he had first tried this method with Wicker Park, to see if the results were as he expected.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: dunstable

                          Yes, the whole exercise is whimsical and crazy. But I think it is an interesting foil for examining the merits of his Bayesian approach. If you read through his handling of the Yelp data, he recognizes the flaws in the data and uses multiple independent measures to refine it. He also uses his domain knowledge to then drill into anomalies in his results to refine the method to improve the outcome. The Yelp analysis is pretty straight up Bayesian data mining. To me, its unfortunate that the statistical modeling only has Yelp data to work with, and ends with the bracket selections. It would be more interesting if he was able to layer in other data sets, or apply some level of metrics to the bracket scoring.

                          Ultimately, maybe it is just clickbait. There is certainly nothing definitive about it, by his own admission. But it is intrinsically more interesting than the standard best-of lists. Maybe we'll see him apply the same methodology to another dish - biscuits & gravy? croissants? fried chicken? Maybe he'll add new independent data sources to future analyses - Chow would do well to make their regional boards and DOTM threads available to him, for instance.

                          1. When Nate Silver first rose to prominence, I remember reading about his early work on burritos. I think it's fun that he has returned to the burrito brackets, work in progress though it may be.

                            The LA 'hounds are taking a whack at this too.
                            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/978041

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                              I agree I find the posts fun, and the debates interesting. It will likely be of more use in areas where there isn't already a very well explored, reviewed and rated burrito scene (as here). But even in the SF Bay Area, it's nice to challenge our own assumptions (though it looks like 538 will not be doing that challenge).

                            2. La Taqueria comes in with a near perfect score:
                              http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/s...

                              That is an exquisite looking burrito.

                              A few weeks ago, I followed sfweekly's advice to get a La Taqueria burrito served grilled. Something about heating the wet ingredients, including sour cream, made the entire carne asada burrito taste like tuna salad. Either 538 made the right choice by not getting it grilled, or I should stop eating at taquerias just before closing.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: hyperbowler

                                "Anna Maria Barry-Jester is FiveThirtyEight’s burrito correspondent."

                                A glance at her archive content suggests that this is not some impish joke, but they have genuinely hired this woman to be Burrito Correspondent (if business cards could have a scratch-and-sniff surface, surely the Burrito Correspondent should demand such.). That's quite a gig, eh. Somewhere, the Burritoeater scoffs.

                                1. re: hyperbowler

                                  After several years of avoidance I decided to give the La Taqueria burrito another try a few weeks ago. It was small and limp from steaming, so small in fact that I had to get a taco from Taqueria San Jose just to fill me up afterward - I problem I've never had with any other burrito in the city. I'm a regular burrito guy though, I don't like sour cream and guac in it and they didn't put anything extra to make up for the extra space these items usually take up inside. I also find it annoying that there is no containers to get any of that green sauce to go nor do they give any chips with the (relatively) expensive and small burrito.

                                  I know, I know, people say why get a burrito at a place called "La Taqueria", but when you essentially only have three items on a menu - burrito, taco and quesadilla, you should be able to get them right.

                                  1. re: sunnyside

                                    You can get the spicy salsa verde sauce to go, or have them add it to the burrito when they make it.

                                2. After La Taqueria kicked butt, 538 head to three other SF places. Beating a place in Sacramento, the al pastor burrito at Taqueria Cancún advanced to the next round.

                                  538 ate at El Farolito during peak hours and it failed to make even the Top 25% of burritos in the US. Same fate for HRD. Has EF gone downhill or do they just suck during dinnertime?

                                  http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/t...

                                  8 Replies
                                  1. re: hyperbowler

                                    Glad to see Cancun make it. The al pastor there has been my go to since college, when it was called La Parrilla Suiza. Jesus christ I'm old. Any way, one point of contention...who puts crema on an al pastor burrito? It just dilutes the taste or dumbs it down.

                                    1. re: hyperbowler

                                      I've never quite understood the hype of El Farlito. My burrito experiences there have always been mediocre ingredients slopped together. I suppose it is a good value if on a budget.

                                      1. re: Civil Bear

                                        I haven't been to the one in SF in years but El Farolito is head of the class for indoor taqueria fare in Oakland.

                                        Lately I'm fond of the quesadilla suiza over the burrito.

                                        1. re: Civil Bear

                                          Agree with this, its got the heft but not the quality.

                                          1. re: Civil Bear

                                            Value + super late hours (3 a.m.) = drunk food. I always remember the bottom of the take-out bag getting soaked with grease within minutes.

                                          2. re: hyperbowler

                                            "failed to make even the Top 25% of burritos in the US"

                                            The problem with EF is their lack of consistency. I've had great burritos there but I've had burritos I couldnt stomach. If they went to EF 5-10 times, I think on average they would no doubt make the Top 25% of burritos in the US.

                                            1. re: hyperbowler

                                              HRD shouldn't even have been on the list. I think it gets overrated on Yelp due to the novelty factor.

                                              1. re: hyperbowler

                                                "...it failed to make even the Top 25% of burritos in the US"

                                                Or rather, failed to make the top 25% of the 64 'top' burritos in the US.

                                                And not even that, strictly speaking, because it was in a tougher bracket than most. I imagine that if, at the end of all this, you ranked all 64 by their initial score you'd find 86 is certainly in the top 25%.

                                              2. Nice writeup of El Castillito. Interestingly they like the Mission location, despite it not doing so well on Burritoeater's list.

                                                http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/ou...

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: ajyi2012

                                                  Yeah, like I said, why didn't they drop HRD to make room?

                                                  1. re: ajyi2012

                                                    Tangential question...is there any relationship between the El Castillito taquerias and the Taquerias Castillo? Was wondering because the description sounds a lot like burritos I got at Castillo B.

                                                  2. Skinny limp burrito lovers rejoice!! Your king has been crowned.

                                                    http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/...

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: sunnyside

                                                      http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/a...

                                                      The carnitas burrito at La Taqueria. Has that post really been up for a month already?

                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        IMO they certainly got it right. La Taqueria carnitas burrito. It is amazing.

                                                      2. re: sunnyside

                                                        Wow. I don't get it. I've only tried the carnitas burrito once at La Taqueria and what I had was fairly good but there just wasn't enough filling to put it anywhere anywhere near the same league as Cancun or even La Espiga. I guess the silver lining is my favorite places won't get mobbed with tourists...

                                                        1. re: ajyi2012

                                                          I get it with avocado and cheese. It's expensive and if what you're looking for is a huge cheap he-man sized burrito it's not the one. But I don't really care how huge my burrito is, if I'm hungry I'm happy to add on a taco. IMO it's in a league of its own.

                                                          The strawberry drink is great too.

                                                      3. Not a fan of La Taqueria but that's personal preference. They are one of the original SF taquerias and purveyor of the Mission burrito...and SF won on this. Now when you get in the LA v. Mission burrito argument (I know LA is taco land) you can say the Mission burrito is no 1 in the country with a semi-straight face.

                                                        10 Replies
                                                        1. re: ML8000

                                                          Except the classic Mission burrito (as invented by Febronio Ontiveros at El Faro in 1961) has rice and is much bigger. La Taqueria won by doing its own thing.

                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                            The lack of rice is a big plus for me.

                                                            1. re: wally

                                                              Me too. I frequently ask elsewhere for no- or low-rice burritos and I find it usually improves them.

                                                              My latest thing at places that have al pastor is to get half al pastor, half carnitas. So good.

                                                              1. re: ML8000

                                                                Anyone who wants to argue that SF burritos in general better than LA burritos. La Taqueria won by ignoring the local tradition in favor of the no-rice style that's more associated with LA.

                                                                Personally I prefer the Sonoran style with chile verde in a fresh, handmade flour tortilla, no rice or beans.

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  Who cares. I don't and I know it's a silly bit of polling.

                                                                  1. re: ML8000

                                                                    It's not a poll. One person traveled around the country eating a frightening number of burritos.

                                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                      Whatever it is doesn't make it more significant or less silly.

                                                                      1. re: ML8000

                                                                        I'm impressed that one person compared that many burritos that rigorously. The original Yahoo-influenced selection was deeply flawed, as shown by the 95 points she gave to El Castillito, which would have tied for third if Gustavo Arellano had vetoed HRD's glop roll.

                                                                        http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/ou...

                                                            2. re: ML8000

                                                              Lets go down this weekend and pick some fights ML8000. But then as you note, they'd throw tacos at us and we'd have to run home with our tails between our legs.

                                                            3. The one thing I found in this whole exercise is that brackets are a great way of promoting mediocrity.
                                                              While La Taqueria may have been a good choice for the overall winner, the inclusion of some of the other finalists, and the elimination of some of the mission street places in earlier rounds just shows that pitting mediocre burritos (or teams) against other mediocre burritos promotes mediocrity and allows it into final rounds.

                                                              1. Cutting burritos lengthwise and spreading them open sure produces some disgusting photos. They bring autopsies to mind.

                                                                2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: Pius Avocado III

                                                                    Wait, what? You mean you don't do this? How else are you able to quantify your enjoyment of a burrito, if you do not supplement your statistical analyses of gustatory pleasure with "the most data-rich visual image of a burrito"?

                                                                  2. While we might dispute whether La Taqueria is the 'best' burrito in America, I'm sure we can achieve consensus on the proposition that Matt Yglesias is an idiot: http://www.vox.com/2014/9/10/6131095/...

                                                                    7 Replies
                                                                    1. re: TVHilton

                                                                      I dunno. I'm OK with his basic point - that Chipotle is ubiquitous and acceptible. My kids have ventured to the East Coast for college and they definitely miss SF burritos. For them, Chipotle gives them the dual satisfaction of smug superiority of knowing the burrito does not measure up while also being made from reasonable quality, fresh ingredients. It gets them through the night, so to speak.

                                                                      As for the "doesn't scale" point, La Taqueria did try to open a 2nd location in downtown San Jose. It was great. Very close to the original, with the owner himself there (and even recognizing me) the two times I went there. But it did not survive. Not sure why. But it does suggest that Matt Y has a point. Just not sure what that point has to do wtih the pursuit of good burritos.

                                                                      Another contrary perspective on Yglesias' point is that no fast food chain has managed to turn burrito construction into a low-skill, any minimum-wage-kid-can-do-it engineered fast food. Like quality BBQ or any number of comfort foods I can think of, to do it right you need some knowledge, some culture. Soul food without the soul is... just fast food. Chiptole is fast food.

                                                                      1. re: BernalKC

                                                                        I thought the point was La Taquaria is too slow and therefore flawed. Even if Chipotle were an acceptable alternative (which I do not believe to be the case), La Taquaria is not slow, particularly when you consider the amount of business is gets. In fact I have marveled at its efficiency.

                                                                        Now Yglesias could argue that La Taquaria is flawed because it does to much business, but that would be almost as silly.

                                                                        1. re: BernalKC

                                                                          Well, even if we accept this argument that speed should be a factor in determining "best burrito" (which I do not), just how much time are we talking here? It's been a while since I've specifically had a La Taqueria burrito, but certainly the average Mission burrito does not take very long to make -- does it even take 5 minutes at most places? Using his own logic, we then have to declare supermarket frozen burritos superior to Chipotle, since hey, sometimes we only have 30 seconds, instead of 5 minutes.

                                                                          And even if we completely accept his logic, it is a far reach then to claim that La Taqueria is "fatally flawed" (his words) or inconvenient (a suggestion he repeatedly makes), just because it doesn't meet his absurd requirement for speed.

                                                                          Why exactly is this guy in such a rush, anyway? He appears to be a professional writer.

                                                                          1. re: dunstable

                                                                            Nobody goes to La Taqueria anymore, it's too crowded.

                                                                            1. re: MRich

                                                                              Ha, that's quite true. I passed by last night and the line was out the door.

                                                                              I walked by again at lunchtime today and the line was 20' down the sidewalk! Then I strolled up to Cancun where there was no line at all and got a super carne asada, which I would score 97 on the 538's VORB meter. Works for me.

                                                                          2. re: BernalKC

                                                                            I do subscribe to the basic approach of if you can't have the food you love, love the food you have. And if he had just said Chipotle is an adequate substitute if you can't get anything better, I wouldn't have argued. (I would, of course, question his choice of living in some godforsaken hellhole 2,000 miles from the nearest decent burrito.)

                                                                            But the 'slow' point is nonsense, and the scalability point is questionable given that the number of taquerias in the Bay Area that are *almost* as good as La Taqueria (and vastly superior to Chipotle).

                                                                          3. re: TVHilton

                                                                            Matt Yglesias is an economist (or an economic writer); his articles say more about economics than they do about food:
                                                                            http://www.slate.com/articles/busines...