In a city far, far away there’s a neighborhood called the Mission where the burritos are perfect.
The warmth and structure of the tortilla. The flavors of the rice and the meat. The ratio of meat-to-beans-to-rice-to-cheese-to-everything else. All of these things combine to make something more than the sum of its parts — and make San Francisco the standard-bearer of excellence for the Mexican-inspired hand-held meal.
(For proof to back up that claim, just look to FiveThirtyEight, which analyzed data on 67,391 restaurants across the U.S. and then physically tested 64 top choices in rigorous detail over the course of three months. The resulting “gran campeón” was a shop in the Mission called La Taqueria, something any Bay Area resident could probably have told the numbers-focused news org at the start.)
So how does Philly measure up in the burrito game?
To find out, we compiled a list of eight potential local winners and tasted each one, paying special attention to the following criteria:
- Tortilla (structure — warm? substantial enough to hold all the goodies inside? — and taste)
- Meat (flavor)
- Beans (consistency)
- Crunch (is there textural interest?)
- Value (bang for your buck)
The hard-fought results, from lowest score to best:
Unlike the always-phenomenal quesadillas at this Northern Liberties Tex-Mex joint, most of the burritos here fall somewhat short. The brisket option consists of two small roll-ups of meat, onion and guacamole, which get overwhelmed by tortilla when you bite in. Where’s the rice? The beans? Is this an enchilada in flour-tortilla disguise? Unless you order the “Gringo Burrito,” which comes with rice, cheese, tomato and lettuce, you’re probably not getting the kind of burrito you’re looking for — and definitely not Mission-style ($8-$13; 1040 N. 2nd St., 215-925-1110).
Final score: 1.4
This Fishtown dive bar with a taco fetish offers a variety of meat and non-meat burrito choices, making it ideal for vegetarians. The spinach and seitan version is $9, which nabs you a hefty amount of food that bursts from its seams — juices begin to drip through the foil wrapper almost immediately. Mouthfuls are dominated by mushy rice and refried beans, but when you do get some, the lightly-seasoned seitan is pleasant ($9-$11.50; 2401 E. Norris St., 267-886-8061)
Final score: 2.6
Choices abound in this spare-yet-festive dining room in Kensington, but good bets are the al pastor (spit-roasted pork with pineapple) or carnitas (spicy lard-braised pork). Sour cream and shredded oaxaca cheese are added as toppings, and the lettuce, tomato and avocado come on the side, so these burritos are easiest to eat with a knife and fork. If you do decide to go handheld anyway, the tortilla does hold up against the weight of the insides, which are heartily stuffed with rice ($8-$12; 1356 N. 2nd St., 215-203-0404).
Final score: 2.9
A cozy taqueria on the corner of 13th and Ellsworth in South Philadelphia, El Jarocho boasts low-key charm and family recipes — all sauces and marinades are made in-house, per server Maria Mozo. The $9 “Burrito Jarocho” is comprised of “spicy” shrimp (actually a bit bland) in a house chipotle sauce, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, sour cream, rice and refried beans cooked with tomato and onion. The more standard chicken burrito includes lettuce, pico, de gallo, rice, beans, sour cream and cheese. Sturdy tortillas do a good job of staying intact, though sauce runoff does make them slightly soggy near the end. The lettuce does a bit to offset the softness, but the refried beans bog the whole thing down ($7-$9; 1138 S. 13th St., 215- 463-2020).
Final score: 3
This deep South Philly joint gives its burritos a boost by gracing each one with two kinds of cheese — oaxaca and cotija. The pairing works great in the chorizo option, balancing out the spicy meat. The rice is a standout too, with great flavor on its own. Take note: Peppers, tomato crema and avocado come on top, so prepare for messy hands or just eat with a fork…and a knife, since you’ll need one to cut through the extra-sturdy tortilla ($8.50; 951 Wolf St., 215-551-1245).
Final score: 3
The lettuce-onion-tomato-avocado-stuffed burritos at this Italian Market staple maintain good column-like structure, although they can be tough to get a grasp on due to excess grease and seasonings. (Ask for them wrapped in foil as if you were getting them to-go and you’ll be just fine. In fact, a foil wrapper is an essential part of a Mission-style burrito, per many SF experts.) Of the tinga de pollo filling — shredded chicken with chipotle seasoning — Veracuzana cook Hector Hernandez says: “They make it like home.” Bonus: Each of these could really serve two people, with around five ounces of marinated meat, plus all the fixings ($7-$9; 908 Washington Ave., 215-465-1440).
Final score: 3.2
This East Passyunk margarita haven does a goat burrito that scored the No. 15 spot on the 2015 Daily Meal 35 Best Burritos in America ranking, and the national listicle purveyor isn’t wrong. The burrito itself is giant, perhaps the size of a small baby (or rather, a very large meal). Inside, the pulled goat is tender and full of earthy flavor — a great outside-the-box option. Another standout: Black beans instead of refried beans, which gives each bite more texture. All that comes with a $10 price tag, but it’s worth every penny ($8-$10; 1651 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-755-3550).
Final score: 3.7
Last summer, this longtime UCity taco cart went brick and mortar, and a visit to the South Street storefront proves Nora’s doesn’t mess around. The simple chicken option is hands down the closest thing to a Mission burrito in Philly. The sturdy tortilla is nicely grilled before it’s folded, and the meat is spicy and tender. The rice has the perfect texture and doesn’t overwhelm, and black beans are an optional swap. Best of all, the ratio of ingredients are just right — and so is the price ($7-$8; 248 South St., 267-758-2413)
Final score: 4.75