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Arts & Culture
The Burritoeater's last slab
Charles Hodgkins and I are walking with several other burrito-eaters through the Mission District. He’s clearly the boss, though. It’s not just the T-shirt he’s wearing that says ‘Burrito Expert’ in Comic Sans. It’s that he’s earned that title by reviewing 999 burritos at his website burritoeater.com. He is the Burritoeater. And today he will review his final slab.
I ask him what he’s been thinking about as he approaches the end of an era.
“Blank thoughts,” he says. “I’ve been thinking it’s been a long road. Eleven years. We’re walking down 25th? That’s as deep as it goes.”
We walk past several taquerias that Charles did not choose for his landmark 1,000th burrito. For example, one that’s simply called La Taqueria.
“Awesome tacos,” he says. “Substandard burritos.”
I ask him why he didn’t choose Papalote.
“I’m a major fan of Papalote,” he says, “But it hasn’t done so great the last few times I’ve been there.”
The Burritoeater has reviewed Papalote 21 times.
“Been a little bit disappointed,” he says.
We approach Taqueria San Jose.
“Yes!” he exclaims. “Taqueria San Jose is solid. Low 8 mustache range.”
Charles grades taquerias on a 10 mustache scale. The more mustaches, the better. Taqueria San Jose has earned an average of 8.18 mustaches from the Burritoeater over the course of seven visits.
We turn onto 24th Street. I ask him if he’s reviewed Taqueria El Farolito.
“I visited there a month or two ago,” Charles says. “Never been completely outstanding.”
El Taco Loco?
“I’ve been there many times.”
I ask him how many taquerias he can name off the top of his head.
“La Iguana Azul. Taqueria Guadalajara. Menudo. La Corneta. Taqueria San Francisco. La Espiga. El Gran Taco Loco. El Cumbre. El Toro. Tacko, with a K. T A C K O. Is that good enough?” he asks.
We pass boutique stores selling trendy tee-shirts. Bodegas with bins full of fruit on the sidewalk. Mayan dancers performing on a street corner. Many people in the Mission District have been complaining about gentrification. I ask Charles if changing demographics have affected taquerias.
“Prices haven’t changed extraordinarily,” he says. “Things haven’t changed much. The clientele is pretty much the same. There are just as many taquerias here along 24th Street as there used to be. They’re still popular with all walks of life.”
He points at a restaurant across the street.
“This one used to be El Toyanense, and now it’s a Jewish deli,” he says. “$11.50 sandwiches. It’s a pretty good sandwich. But $11.50 is a lot.”
We reach our destination: a tortilla factory and taqueria called La Espiga de Oro. We walk in.
The last slab
The restaurant is narrow, clean, and painted in warm colors. It’s pleasant and uncrowded. Charles steps up to the counter.
“Hello!” he says to the cashier. “How are you? I’d like to get a super carne asada burrito. Refried beans. Extra spicy. No sour cream. And a large horchata.”
I ask him if he’s learned a lot of Spanish over the 11 years that he’s been reviewing burritos.
“No,” he replies. “I have a hard time with English.”
We sit down. He gets out his scoresheet.
“When you have 1,000 burritos,” he says, “you don’t remember all the details.”
But his website does. And it’s more than just a statistical repository.
The entrance page shows a pop-art painting from a random taqueria. Inside, you can sort his reviews by name, neighborhood, rating, or number of visits. This is his 10th trip to La Espiga de Oro.
The store manager, Raul Moran, drops by to say hello and offer a tub of specialty spices that he’s been working on. I ask him if he knows the Burritoeater.
“Yeah, I know him,” he says.
I tell him that Charles chose La Espiga for his final review.
“Oh, man, that is an honor,” Raul says. “There are many choices where he could have gone.”
Charles estimates San Francisco is home to about 160 taquerias. He’s reviewed them all. Raul hasn’t read any of the reviews, but some of his customers have.
“People come in and say they have to try it to see what all the fuss is about,” he says.
The burritos arrive, and Charles gets down to business.
He bites. He chews. He mulls. He repeats. After he pops the last bite in his mouth, he centers himself over his scoresheet.
“Here it comes,” he says. “The tally. Couple 10s. Got a 10 on spiciness. This one is pretty easy to rate because it was so good.”
He gives the burrito eight mustaches for size. Ten for the tortilla. There are twelve categories, plus intangibles.
“This is one of the highest rated burritos I’ve ever had,” he marvels. “9.25. Good! Speaks for itself. Lot of 10s on there.”
I’ve heard plenty of people say something is ‘the best they’ve ever had.’ It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. But when Charles says that, it’s different. He ate his favorite burrito at the Little Chihuahua on Divisadero Street. A fajita pollo asado worth 9.42 mustaches. It was September 23rd, 2009. You can read about it.
You can also read about his least favorite burritos. Like the one that got two mustaches.
“There was unmelted American Cheese food in the burrito,” he says.
Calculations finished, Charles sits back and reflects.
“Here’s what I’m looking forward to,” he says. “Eating burritos just for the sake of having burritos. That might make it sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I’ve earned my keep.”
We get up and walk outside. I ask him for his final thoughts, now that he’s retired.
“That was a really good burrito,” he says.
Does he feel any different than when he walked into the taqueria?
He says, “I feel quite full.”
To listen to this story, please click on the audio link above.