Papalote Mexican Grill

San Francisco’s great contribution to lowbrow cuisine

Maybe 40 percent of my takeout meals, and a similar share of my meals in total, consist of veggie burritos from Taqueria Cancún. So I could no more write a critical appraisal of Taqueria Cancún than I could review my mother’s cooking: my feelings about the food are too bound up with love and gratitude and, to be honest, unconscious conflict and feelings of abandonment. What’s more, any other burrito place I address will, like the shiksa girlfriends of Jewish men everywhere, feel like it’s perpetually in competition with an unshakeable rival.

But I can’t write a column on take-out and not address the burrito: it’s San Francisco’s great contribution to lowbrow cuisine. In New York, apparently, there are places that advertise “Mission-style burritos.” I’m reliably informed that they suck.

Recently, a couple of people have been talking up Papalote, on 24th off Valencia. They describe it as “that fancy burrito place” and as “really good.” These are often people who don’t eat as many burritos as me, but if I only listened to people who eat more burritos than me I would probably have to learn Spanish.

Papalote is big on what the food doesn’t contain: a sign above the counter promises no lard, no MSG, vegan beans and rice. The target demographic, then, appears to be people who for some reason have a negative response to the idea of lard. I suspect that these people do a lot of yoga and pay more attention to the way their bodies feel after eating a burrito than to how the burrito actually tastes. I wish they would remember that yoga is supposed to be about living in the present; then they might try to enjoy the act of eating instead of constantly anticipating the physiological outcome. But I can sympathize with them, to some extent. I can see the point of a burrito that doesn’t make you feel like Jabba the Hutt an hour later.

But here’s the problem with life: You can’t get something without giving something up. If you take the lard and grease out of a burrito, you might feel better after eating it. You might even live longer. But what you give up, besides an extra four or five bucks (lard-removal fees, presumably), is some measurable part of the burrito’s deliciousness. 

I got the fish burrito, prompted by the guy at the counter and by a sign claiming it contains white snapper “cooked in butter and white whine.” (Ha ha! It’s fun to make fun of typos! Try it at home—especially when you’re feeling insecure about yourself!)

The chips and salsa were promising. The salsa, made with roasted tomatoes, is creamy and mild and slightly sweet, a bit like very thick cream of tomato soup. Someone has worked to invent this, and I’m glad.

But here’s the verdict on the burrito: A strong effort, well-executed, but misconceived.

That butter and white wine give the snapper an upscale flavor: almost all of the fishy taste is subsumed in the butteriness. It’s pleasant, but it’s kind of boring. The beans and rice are bland, flavorless—probably thanks to the absence of lard. About halfway through I realized that I didn’t want to finish it—whereas with a good burrito I’m racing to get this ridiculous amount of food into my stomach before my fullness reflex kicks in and shuts down the party.

What I want from a burrito is ... well, what I want is the veggie burrito at Cancún, obviously, but let me try to explain what that signifies. The point of a burrito is that it encapsulates and compresses your entire meal—protein, carbs, condiments—for maximum flavor-density. What I want from a burrito is something like the glossal equivalent of a jazz orchestra or a fireworks display. Cheese! Beans! Wow—a spicy pepper! What next?

Whereas this fish, while tasty, does not belong in a burrito. It should be sitting on a plate, perhaps covered in some kind of fancy mango salsa and accompanied by, I don’t know, a vegetable or something. This fish doesn’t want to be part of the foil-wrapped vertical integration that is a burrito. It wants to be eaten horizontally. In a burrito it feels like it’s slumming.

I suspect that behind Papalote there’s a talented chef who could do good work in a more upmarket idiom. But that burrito made me think of the classical composers who tried writing jazz in the 1930s, and the jazz players who turned to rock in the 1970s. They assumed that, with their highbrow pedigrees and music-theory chops, they could trounce the untutored rubes working in demotic idioms. They failed to see that beneath the rough surfaces of jazz and rock there was not just intelligence but a new kind of intelligence—that populist music requires different ways of thinking and feeling. So does populist food.

And you know what? I still felt like Jabba the Hutt an hour later.