Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Taqueria Pancho Villa: Building a Better Burrito

I know that I come off as a lover of all things food. There's a good reason for that, of course - I am a lover of all things food. But as much as I claim to love all food equally, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, few things on the culinary spectrum wow me as much as the humble (or not so humble) burrito.

One of my favorite places in the Bay Area to get a really satisfying burrito - possibly my favorite, actually - is Taqueria Pancho Villa, located on South B Street (Burrito Alley) in Downtown San Mateo. Although there is a Pancho Villa location in San Francisco's Mission District (and until recently, one in the Embarcadero), I've eaten at the San Mateo location much more frequently. And although, of the many standout taquerias along this several-block stretch, Pancho Villa is likely my favorite, I didn't always feel this way.

When Pancho Villa opened in 1997, I was completely unprepared for the tremendous selection of choices on the menu. Forget about tacos, tortas, fajitas and platos de carnitas and pollo asado - I'm just talking about the burritos! From different types of tortillas to different types of beans, salsas and hot sauces of varying intensities and, of course, a wide selection of meats (fourteen at last count!), Pancho Villa was hardly the ideal restaurant for twenty-one year-old me, a constantly on-the-go kind of guy who liked to walk up to a taqueria counter, order a super burrito with carne asada, sit down and eat it (or more frequently, take it to go). There was simply too much to process.

One thing, however, was certain: Pancho Villa made a damn fine burrito, and it didn't take long for them to win my heart. A couple visits in, I had decided on a standard order: A super burrito on a flour tortilla (although their red chile tortilla has always intrigued me - perhaps next time), with refried pinto beans, hot salsa, and as for meat, well, I allowed myself to get a bit creative there, though if I strayed from my usual carne asada, it was usually for their chile verde chicken.

Pancho Villa is in many ways a typical taqueria. Customers stand along a broad counter, watching employees assembling burritos and other dishes. The mouth-watering scents of cilantro and grilling meat permeate the air. It's usually packed; the tables are small and diners sit on backless stools or at a counter. There is no soda fountain; available beverages include canned or bottled sodas, horchata, Arizona iced tea and the like. A very impressive and well-stocked salsa bar stands in the rear of the restaurant, although chips are cheerfully handed out by employees on request.

One thing that makes Pancho Villa an atypical taqueria, however, is the food. Although I am pretty easy to please when it comes to taquerias - all I ask is that they be able to serve a tasty Mission-style burrito - I do know the difference between an average taqueria and one that is stellar; I can honestly say that I have never eaten a bad burrito at Pancho Villa. Even on that overwhelming first visit almost twelve years ago, I was served a very delicious burrito - shrimp, I believe.

On a warm Saturday afternoon this past April, Katie and I went to Pancho Villa with a friend of ours. I had my standard order, as detailed above, and was promptly served a very familiar tinfoil torpedo, nearly identical to the one I have been served at virtually every taqueria I've ever patronized.

Anyone who enjoys a Mission-style burrito as much as I do is aware of the excitement that comes with freeing it from its tinfoil. Whether you are sitting in an unfamiliar establishment in a city you're just visiting, or you are eating at the same taqueria you've eaten at weekly for many years, that anticipation is always there. The feel of the aluminum, hot beneath your fingers. The steam escaping from within as you unwrap it. Perhaps the aroma of what lies within the tortilla. If you can't relate to this, you either don't like burritos, or you have no soul.

Although the exterior resembled every other foil-wrapped burrito I've ever eaten, what lay beneath was, at the risk of resorting to hyperbole, a work of art. As you can see, said artwork was delicious.

The reasons why Taqueria Pancho Villa gets my highest recommendation should be apparent: Quick and pleasant service, festive atmosphere, and above all, delicious food send Taqueria Pancho Villa to the proverbial top of the list. When in the Bay Area, pay them a visit on an empty stomach.

Pancho Villa is located at 365 B Street, San Mateo, CA 94401, and 3071 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.


  1. 1) That's how I felt upon my first visit to The Counter - "simply too much to process."
    2)Cilantro is NOT a mouth-watering scent. I HATE Cilantro...
    3) Chips on request?!
    4) What is a Mission-style burrito? What other styles of burritos are there and how do they differ from said Mission-style?
    5) "...tinfoil torpedo..." That is great imagry!

  2. "a wide selection of meats (fourteen at last count!)"


    Beef, chicken, pork, ostrich, quail, buffalo, komodo dragon, beef the sequel, chicken-esque, pseudo-pork, soylent orange, soylent...


  3. Miss Sassy Pants - excellent point about The Counter. That is exactly how I felt the first time I ate at this taqueria. Of course, I got over it quickly. I had no idea that you disliked cilantro, though. In fact, I had no idea that anyone disliked it. As for the chips on request thing, although I have been spoiled by some of the taquerias here in Roseville, growing up I found that places being stingy with their chips was sort of the norm. Today, the ability to have as many chips as I want is a major criteria for how I rate a taqueria, and the fact that you have to ask for them at Pancho Villa (as well as most of the places I grew up eating at) is at worst a minor annoyance. The food is that good.

    As for question #4, a "Mission-style" or "San Francisco" burrito is essentially any overstuffed, foil-wrapped burrito you get at a taqueria. That particular breed of burrito is commonly believed to have originated in San Francisco's Mission District in the 1960s, hence the nicknames. Although the roots of the burrito itself can be traced back even farther, the particular type of burrito commonly found in California taquerias - as well as nationwide chains such as Chipotle and Baja Fresh - was born in the Mission. That's my understanding of it, anyway.

    Mike - fear not. Soylent Green was taken off the menu in light of the fact that it's not yet FDA-approved for human consumption. As for the fourteen different meats, Pancho Villa will stuff your burrito with carne asada, chicken asada, carnitas, al pastor, chorizo, spicy chicken, chile verde chicken, chile verde pork, chipotle chicken, tofu ranchero, chicken mole, lengua, steak fajitas and chicken fajitas.

  4. That burrito look so good! Will have to try it when we are down in the Bay Area. Though, I don't like the "Chips on Request".

  5. I moved back to Canada last year and have been *dying* for a real mission-style taqueria burrito. Sigh. Just looking at the picture made my eyes tear up; thanks for re-inspiring me to keep looking and/or find a good recipe