538's months-long Burrito Bracket project is completed and the winner (spoilers!) is La Taqueria in San Francisco. This made me happy, because even though I haven't put in any legwork into national burrito quality, when I got into a dispute about Chipotle a couple of years back with Bay Area Burrito Snob Mat Honan, he ended up taking me to … La Taqueria in San Franciso to show me what real burrito goodness is all about. So now that a more rigorous data-based project is also singing the praises of La Taqueria, I feel comfortable explaining what's wrong with it and why Chipotle is so amazing.
The key is to understand what's genuinely great about La Taqueria. As Anna Marie Jester-Barry put it for 538, their burrito is "a technical marvel with a monumental first bite worthy of a national title."
Its components are good, but the nature of the burrito game is that it's a cheap food. They aren't doing anything in this regard that blows the competition out of the water. But they are assembling a burrito that is much more pleasing than Chipotle. It is both better wrapped and better mixed to create a structurally sound foodstuff that is jam-packed with flavor. It's amazing.
But it's also slow.
And there's just no way around this. Plopping ingredients down and then folding them up à la Chipotle allows a less-skilled worker to make a burrito faster than is possible with La Taqueria's more artisanal approach. That lets Chipotle obtain two crucial qualities — speed of service, and ubiquity. As my Vox colleague (and former San Franciscan) Brad Plumer put it to me, "If someone wanted to build a La Taqueria in DC, I'd go. In the absence of that, Chipotle is fine."
Indeed. But I would take the point further. There's a Chipotle two blocks from my house. And another one two blocks from my office. If either were next door to La Taqueria, they wouldn't stand a chance. Unless, that is, I was in a rush. Which, actually, I often am — at least when I'm in the mood for a burrito, which isn't exactly a high-class leisurely meal.
Convenience counts in life. La Taqueria's "technical marvel" of a burrito — though quite genuinely delicious — fatally undermines it on the convenience count. It's slow, and it's not scalable. The best burrito is the burrito you actually want to have in real life, a burrito that is both tasty and available. In other words, a Chipotle burrito.