Nosh Box: On a Roll in May


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Mission-style burrito, showing rice, meat, and beans.

Swift Benjamin

We begin May’s celebrations with May Day, a holiday with an international following, but not much domestically. So don’t be looking for a May Day song, dance, libation, food—or a day off work.

Moving on, usually in the same week, up pops Cinco de Mayo festivities. In Mexico this holiday is primarily historical, celebrating the military victory over the powerful army of the French. In the United States, we use the date to celebrate all of Mexican culture. According to National Public Radio’s Dan Pashman, “Cinco de Mayo, which has followed a similar path as St. Patrick's Day: Started by activists to celebrate Mexican culture; embraced by people just looking for a good time.”

In areas with a prominent Mexican population, like California and the Bay Area, the celebration wouldn’t be complete without the cuisine of the culture, be it old-world or Tex-Mex.

This provides the perfect segue to a local food favorite, the cylindrical assembly of one or more flour tortillas wrapped or folded around a variety of fillings. It’s called a burrito, the Spanish word for little burro.

The first burrito probably originated in Mexican border towns in the early 20th century. The exact time is difficult to pinpoint. Because the ingredients were readily available, and the assembly was simple, the popularity spread. Like pasties, piedinis and other food wraps, the burrito suited the lifestyles of folks on the go, including farmworkers, ranchers, and herdsmen who were forced to move around as they toiled.

At the risk of stirring trans-bay culinary rivalry, in other areas of the nation, as well as across the bay, the most popular variety is called the Mission burrito, referring to San Francisco’s Mission district.

And according to the online food news resource, Food Republic, the origin of the Mission burrito is not so hard to pin down.  “…to be precise, [they’ve been around] since Sept. 26, 1961, when the first burrito now known as the San Francisco burrito was served up at El Faro, a taqueria in the city’s heavily Latin [sic] Mission District.”

There are three unique characteristics of this kind of burrito. First is the use of Sonora-style tortillas. These are wheat-flour tortillas, without leavening, making them slightly chewy, and sturdier for wrapping large fillings. Sonora tortillas also are big, a foot or larger in diameter.

Second, they are used not only singly, but often two or three abreast, to produce massive burritos. These range from football-sized to bigger-than-a-breadbox, with some weighing a kilo or more.

And third, they are equally an East Bay tradition, with underpinnings and quality indigenous to Oakland and Berkeley that match or exceed their west-bay counterparts.

As a prime example, boomers and oldsters bemoan the demise of the Taqueria Morelia, in Oakland on the cusp of the Fruitvale and Melrose districts, at 55th Avenue and East 14th Street, as it was called then—and should be now. The customer line snaked out the door, with factory workers in coveralls, cops in uniform, folks in business suits, and Hells Angels in their colors.

To order adult beverages, taqueria patrons passed through a doorway in the wall separating Jessie’s Talk of the Town next door. Back then it could have qualified as a dive bar with only slight improvements to the lighting and hygiene. But the burritos were killer: good enough to earn repeat visits from both food critics from the San Francisco Chronicle. Stan Sesser awarded three stars; Patty Unterman simply wrote, “…the best in the Bay Area.” Similar contemporary spots range from food trucks, to pop-ups, to brick-and-mortar establishments around the East Bay.

So what else happens this month in America? No one-trick-pony, there are lesser and not-so-lesser secular celebrations in May. Sharing May 5 honors with Cinco de Mayo is National Explosive Ordinance Disposal Day. Next up, on the second Sunday—thanks to a 1914 presidential proclamation by Woodrow Wilson—is Mother’s Day. Locally, May 22 is Harvey Milk Day. Finally Memorial Day wraps up the festivities on Monday, May 28.

And speaking of wraps, what better way to celebrate the remainder of May’s holidays than a plump, savory burrito at some place like Otaez in both Oakland and Alameda, or La Mission in West Berkeley, or the Tacos Mi Rancho truck on 1st Avenue near Lake Merrit downtown?

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