Burrito obscuro

An aficionado ferrets out the city's most unusual taquerias, from the Mission to the car wash.

By Charles Hodgkins

AT FIRST GLANCE, Showplace Square Car Wash doesn't seem so unique in its field. Several of the requisite elements for an urban car wash are in place: cherried-out sedans and SUVs, sternum-rattling bass thump, wheezing car vacs, cell-toting car owners decked out in team jerseys and street-camo fatigues. It's a slightly chaotic scene between all the noise and scurrying about – not to mention the machismo that comes with physically imposing men obsessing over their shiny investments – but surely similar to any given car wash between Miami and Seattle.

What sets Showplace Square apart, however, is its full-service taqueria.

San Francisco's taqueria density, at over three per square mile, knows few rivals. So is it any surprise that you can eat a burrito prepared on-premise while you watch your vehicle get worked over by a small squadron of hose- and chamois-wielding detailers?

For years San Francisco has been known as much for its super burritos as it has for chowder in a sourdough bowl – or, for that matter, its sourdough. Give credit for the rise in the cylindrifood's visibility to high-profile Mission spots such as El Farolito, Pancho Villa, Can-Cun, and La Taqueria. These locally famous burrito shops continue to be exalted by everyone from Bay Guardian Best of the Bay voters, Zagat readers, and Chowhound.com users, to nationally touring musicians passing through San Francisco.

But for all their popularity, the Mission's heaviest hitters tend to overshadow many less traditionally located burrito retailers scattered about town. Among the 150-plus places where you can score a giant slab in San Francisco, some of the most compelling don't operate from conventional storefronts. Two are catering trucks parked off the beaten path. There's a walk-up window and a hardscrabble barra, both off heavily trafficked Mission corridors. Another is doomed to a life trapped inside a FutureMall food court.

There's also the one at the car wash.

Super sudsy asada, hold the sour cream

Taqueria El Balazo's foil-wrapped empire spreads from the Upper Haight out as far as Danville, yet its most unusual location – perhaps any taqueria's most unusual location – is its outlet at Showplace Square Car Wash in industrial/retail-heavy Bayshore, just across the 101 freeway from the Mission and Bernal Heights. Although a billboard now advertises the obscure taqueria at the entrance to the car wash, it's still not the kind of place you just stumble upon.

In a business sense, El Balazo's taqueria at the car wash is a sharp capitalization on convenience. Anyone with an appetite, 15 minutes, and the willingness to shell out for a professional car wash isn't likely to blanch at kicking down an extra few bucks for a burrito or a pair of tacos. With McDonald's a noisy five-minute walk away, alongside Bayshore's heavy traffic, it's a simple case of passive entrapment.

That's not to say a car wash isn't a strange place to eat lunch, because it is. Sure, there's an anteroom to the right of El Balazo's ordering counter, with a few dining tables offering front row seats of Showplace Square's auto-hygiene spectacle. Step away from your table for a few moments, though, and the resident, brazen pigeons may descend upon your plate. And if some wayward carnauba wax splashes your way, you're on your own. It's awkward moments like these that push El Balazo's dangerously innovative concept far beyond how banking corporations shoehorn branches into supermarkets.

Still, Balazo-at-Wash churns out some highly coveted fish tacos, as well as a respectable super burrito. At $4.90, their slender blimp is priced significantly less than at its siblings on Haight Street and Mint Street. Within the grilled tortilla, the carnitas may be a bit too soft, tender, and fatty for their own good, but the delectably melted cheese and flavorful onion/pico de gallo fusion packs a fierce one-two punch. The overly pasty refried beans and confounding internal mashiness, however, are purely for the birds.

Deals on wheels

Tacos El Molcajete produces and sells its menu items in San Francisco's Oceanview neighborhood, a burrito's toss from the Daly City line. The burrito purveyor is usually located on the west side of Plymouth Avenue near the Sagamore Street intersection, across from the Chevron. Sometimes it's a few feet further up Plymouth, away from Sagamore. Plate tectonics aren't involved in its occasional movement. Tacos El Molcajete is merely a mobile catering truck – one of nearly a dozen such burrito wagons in San Francisco.

El Molcajete is the city's southernmost taqueria and certainly one of its best, while possibly also the least visible, given its comparatively equatorial location. A journey to the truck – you'll know it by the caricature, painted on its street-facing side, of a little man with a comically disproportionate mustache – rewards a burrito pilgrim with a slab so expertly crafted that thoughts of commandeering the vehicle and bringing it home (complete with onboard crew and ingredients) aren't so farfetched. At $4.75, El Molcajete's habañero-scorched super carne asada burrito is one of the fieriest bargains in town, and they even include a complimentary flimsy paper plate in the deal. Chocolate bars are also available.

Back across town, less than a mile southeast from El Balazo at Showplace Square, Tacos Santana does a brisk business along the busy stretch of Jerrold Avenue that links Bayshore Boulevard with Third Street. The truck's solid if unspectacular burritos ($5.00 for a super) seem to be a Bayview neighborhood secret among produce district workers on lunch break, and perhaps the occasional city bureaucrat visiting the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant right across the road. The total absence of refried beans here may turn off anyone craving that internal adhesion, but Santana meets the needs of a burrito designed to be eaten elsewhere by delivering a fa ultlessly constructed, foolproof slab.

Windows and bars

Doubling back to the Mission, the extensive menu at El Cachanilla preys upon any poor soul who awakens to an unquenchable hankering for an ojo or buche taco. The underside of the walk-up window's awning lists a butcher's dozen of centerpieces for your lunch or dinner, but less desirable options aside, this offshoot of the small, eponymous restaurant next door maintains a devout following among burrito enthusiasts who live or work near it. El Cachanilla may be the hardest-core taqueria in San Francisco, given its shockingly traditional menu, basement-level prices ($1.25 for a taco; $4.50 for a gargantuan, delicious super burrito), and periodic window sign that reads, "No tenemos tenedores" ("We don't have forks").

Four blocks south and a few beers east, the corner tavern Puerto Alegré sauces up burritos and patrons alike. The raucous joint – not to be confused with the popular sit-down restaurant of the same name on Valencia Street – features a food counter that serves a limited menu. Although their production process may be less than efficient (a 20-minute wait isn't unlikely), it affords the opportunity to sit at the bar, suck on a Negra Modelo, and absorb the less-than-sober scene swirling about the room. But once the burrito ($6) arrives, it's all downhill – expect stark blandness, remarkably deflavored steak, aggressive bean insurgency, ingredient segregation, and, if they're really off their game in the kitchen, a globby sour cream coda. Unsubstantiated reports of Puerto Alegré burritos yielding a "mild soap taste" have even surfaced on occasion.

Courting success

Orange Julius notwithstanding, aren't food-court retailers responsible for foisting some of the most heinous bilge of all time upon the American public? And don't some of San Francisco's most disrespectable burritos come from food courts? Well, yes, and absolutely – until Luna Azul enters the discussion.

In theory Luna Azul sounds like the worst taqueria idea ever hatched. Start each burrito with a run-of-the-grill tortilla. Ensure criminally wee sizing by the time it's wrapped and ready to serve. Charge $6.49 for it. Not grim enough? Make it available only to fools willing to endure the Metreon's sense-bludgeoning overload.

Yet aside from these woes and all the accompanying Sony Style malarkey, Luna Azul's burrito is virtually without flaw. To affix their "large steak" burrito with the Best Food Court Burrito tag would be a direct kick to the little taqueria's shins, considering some of its witless competition (360 Degree Gourmet Burritos, Taqueria Viva Zapata). No, Luna Azul's delectable sauciness, extraordinary steak, top refried beans, and gun-toting spice make its burrito one of the best in town.

A burrito from a Mexican joint at Bryant and 25th Streets gets its beans kicked in by a similar variant made at the Metreon food court? Unbelievable but true. Of course, if you want a burrito and your car needs vacuuming, there's a place in town that can serve you on both counts.

Charles Hodgkins is the founder/chief of Burritoeater.com.

El Balazo (at Showplace Square Car Wash) 2560 Marin near Bayshore, SF. (415) 282-7130.

Tacos El Molcajete Plymouth near Sagamore, SF. No phone.

Tacos Santana Jerrold at Phelps, SF. No phone.

El Cachanilla, 2948 21st St. near Treat, SF. (415) 550-9410.

Puerto Alegré 2950 25th St. at Bryant, SF. (415) 285-1783.

Luna Azul 101 Fourth St. at Mission (inside the Metreon), SF. (415) 369-6067.