Purists will tell you that only the decades-old and established eateries like La Cumbre or La Taqueria are able to capture the true essence of the San Francisco burrito; places where employees scoop steaming beans and greasy meat into a tortilla, and diners sit in cracked plastic booths under lighting that gives them dark circles under their eyes, as they slowly peel off layers of aluminum and tackle their burritos like wolves.
My favorite burrito place is Papalote, a relative newcomer in the burrito world, a pioneer in the salsa arena, and a totally different animal from the more traditional eateries. I must confess that my devotion to Papalote is not purely due to a love of its food; the owner, Victor Escobedo, was my middle school Spanish teacher.
At MPMS, my liberal middle school nestled in Larkspur, Victor was universally beloved for his constant wisecracks and boundless energy; most of the time he seemed more like a favorite uncle than a teacher. In his classroom, the rules were totally different; students danced to the chime of the cuckoo clock, would yell over one another in an attempt to outwit the rest, and would, not infrequently, come to Victor for help with personal problems.
I’m a little nervous that in the eight or nine years I haven’t seen him, he may have shed his goofiness and stepped into the role of a serious restaurant owner, no longer amused by people calling him ”Your Mexcellency.” Turns out, I have no reason to be alarmed.
When I walk into the cozy Mission location of Papalote, with its familiar bright red and blue interior and vibrant butterflies hung overhead, I see Victor right away. He is talking to a couple sitting at a table, standing and gesticulating wildly while they laugh loudly in response. Upon seeing me he darts over and wraps me in a bear hug before saying “give me just a second,” and runs back over to clasp his arm around the man who is still chuckling.
A few minutes later, we sit down to dig into our burritos, and he gives me the dirt on how he and his brother Miguel (co-owner) made Papalote so popular. “Your classmate’s dad gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten,” Victor declared. “He told me to always market to yourself. You never start a business and say, you know, I’m going to open a tapas place for forty-year-old lesbians, or I’m going to start a beer bar for nineteen-year-old Filipino kids. Because if you’re not a forty-year-old lesbian or a nineteen-year-old Filipino kid, how will you know what they like? Open the place, sell what you love, decorate it the way you like it, and people will go to it at a certain point because they’ll want something exactly like that.”
It turns out that many people involved with Papalote are Victor’s friends or family. Papalote’s first few years were rough. “I was just ready to die,” remembers Victor, shaking his head. “We got into fights in there. Miguel freaked out and started throwing rice all over the place one day, and I had to tackle him and say, you know what, it’s over. We really put each other to the test. And then it took off.”
Boy, did it ever. The SF Weekly has rated it “Best Burrito” every year since 2007, the SF Bay Guardian has awarded it “Best Mexican Restaurant” in 2010 and “Best Burrito” in 2010 and 2011, and in February of last year, Victor was awarded “Champion Burrito” after teeing off against Bobby Flay on the TV show Throwdown! With Bobby Flay. To what do the Escobedo brothers owe their overwhelming success? “Honestly, it’s nothing that we did, other than staying true to the food we like.”
My two perpetual favorites at Papalote are the pollo burrito (best served with heaping dollops of guacamole and black beans) and the camarones burrito (filled with shrimp sautéed in white wine and butter). And every time I eat one of their veggie burritos, I’m almost ready to swear off meat. At most places, a veggie burrito is a poor man’s version of its meat contender, providing the unsatisfying combo of lettuce, rice, beans, and maybe some salsa and guac. Papalote’s veggie burrito boasts potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms, and the grilled veggie burrito has zucchini and eggplant.
Papalote’s claim to fame – and what really makes it special – is its house salsa: a spicy, smoky, flavorful sauce that I could happily eat straight with a spoon as a meal. Trust me, you haven’t tasted anything like it.
“For 10 years people told me to sell my salsa in stores, and I kept saying no, no I can’t. But then the Bobby Flay thing happened.” Well, thank god for Bobby Flay, because now you can buy Papalote Roasted Tomato Salsa not only at smaller markets like Rainbow Grocery or Ikeda’s, but also at Whole Foods around northern California. The salsa has a simple list of ingredients: roasted tomato, cooked onion and garlic, and a blend of chili, cilantro, and oil.
The salsa is based on a recipe that Miguel used when he worked at his uncle’s restaurant. According to Victor, he suggested some modifications, to which his uncle responded, “When you have your own place, you can make your own salsa. For now, do it my way.” Miguel did exactly that. Victor tells me, “People kept asking, can we have the recipe for that? And I’d say, for $300,000 you can. Really, our recipe is on the label, right there on the jar.”
But it’s not a cost-effective salsa. “We use real tomato, onion, and garlic, instead of tomato paste and garlic and onion powder. It makes all the difference.” And it does. Don’t believe me? Get yourself to a Whole Foods, or better yet, one of the Papalote locations, and try some for yourself. You won’t get creepy lighting or crumbling décor, but I’ll guarantee you’ll be tempted to howl in wolfish delight as you lick the remaining drops off your plate.
“Many cultures have a mother sauce; something that’s basic and essential,” Victor instructs me, in a tone that brings back memories of conjugating irregular verbs. “Papalote salsa is the first Mexican mother sauce you can buy out there, and when you’re cooking with it, you should use it that way.”
What does this mean? Victor recommends that you take a little bit of salsa, mix it with some ground beef, and make some juicy hamburger patties. Put a little bit more salsa in, let the meat simmer for a bit on the stove, and you’ve got some excellent taco meat. Add even more sauce, throw in some vegetables and beans, and you’ve got a chili. Not into meat? Combine salsa with beans, cook them up in the oven, you’ve got a bean dip. Melt a whole bunch of cheese over that, and you’ve got a queso dip.