Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Food

February 22, 2006

Slab King

Gelf chows down with Charles Hodgkins, San Francisco's burrito guru.

David Goldenberg

The Burrito Eater isn't as intimidating as you'd think. He's skinny, suggesting that the ingestion of 150 tin-foil-wrapped scuds a year doesn't necessarily go to one's gut. He's also severely lacking in the facial-hair department, meaning that his mustache-based rating system must be metaphorical.

Charles Hodgkins
David Goldenberg
The Burrito Eater, posing with the remains of the day.
That Charles Hodgkins is neither fat nor hirsute does not stop him from being one of the world's leading authorities on this specialized niche of Mexican cuisine. He has tucked into slabs at every one of the taquerías, food trucks, and holes-in-the-wall that serves burritos in San Francisco. (His only requirement: no sit-down service.) Hodgkins views his ratings as a societal service. "There are over 165 places in town serving these things," he says. "It's like they're this huge cultural fulcrum."

Hodgkins gauges each burrito he eats on 12 different scales ranging from the obvious (size, meat quality) to the less so (ingredient mix and burstage abatement) and arrives at a score for each visit. He averages multiple visits to the same spots to obtain the final numbers by which the establishments are ranked.

These scores are published on Hodgkins's website, Burritoeater.com, and in his e-newsletter, the Intestinal Apocalypse Monthly. Around 400 visitors a day come to the site to check out how certain joints fared, and to read the ramblings of the Beano Cook, Hodgkins's cantankerous online alter-ego. As the news of his gustatory exploits spreads, Hodgkins' punditry has been featured on Yahoo! and has even graced the pages of the New York Times. ("The Mission is the burrito vortex," he states succinctly.)

When Hodgkins created the site two years ago, he tried to level the playing field by ordering only carne asada (grilled steak) burritos at each place. He soon branched out, though, deciding that a little diversity was necessary to preserve his interest and his intestinal well-being. But he has no plans to expand his empire beyond burritos, despite his love for other foods. Taking notes while dining and critiquing every bite can be exhausting. "Sometimes, I just want to eat," he says.

But when it comes to burritos, Hodgkins is meticulous. "Burritos are their own beast," he declares as we sit down one recent day at La Alteña taquería in the Excelsior District. "They lend themselves to this kind of analysis. They're very clearly defined." A super carnitas burrito from this restaurant scored an impressive 8.5 mustaches on a previous visit, but that was a year ago, so Hodgkins has returned to give the taquería another appraisal. The inside of the store looks like most others I've seen in the Bay Area. There's a jukebox chock-full of Enrique Iglesias discs and soccer jerseys are stapled to the wall next to a painting of the Virgin Mary. Our spicy chicken burritos arrive in the same plastic baskets with tortilla chips and the two types of salsa that are served everywhere else.

Hodgkins removes the slab from the basket and measures it using his outstretched hand. The burrito extends from the tip of his pinkie to the end of his thumb, meriting eight mustaches for size. Not a bad start. But when we break into the foil and start chowing down, the rating takes a nosedive. The man behind the counter seems to have broken the laws of physics; there's more spicy chicken in our tortillas than could possibly exist in the world, and the mounds upon mounds of juicy meat quickly overwhelm the other ingredients. Three bites in, and I'm already on my third napkin. Hodgkins, meanwhile, leans back and speaks like he's imparting some old Eastern wisdom. "Sogginess is not necessarily a harbinger of doom," he notes as he wipes his hands, "but this is a lot of chicken."

He's also not impressed with the slab's spiciness. I would vehemently disagree, but I'm trying not to cry from the wallop of flavor I've just ingested. I'm only halfway through my meal and I've already sucked dry my large horchata. Hodgkins suggests that I must have gotten the bulk of the pepper fire, as his burrito merits a paltry "4" for spiciness on his legendary rating scale.

Burritoeater.com
Even though the rest of his burrito earns high marks for its cheese, temperature, and burstage abatement—somehow, despite the pool of meat-juices the tortilla contained, it did hold together well—the other elements bring down the average to 7.5, a middling mustache score if ever there was one. (Check out Hodgkins's review.)

******

Hodgkins often favors slabs from obscure restaurants and gives mediocre reviews to some of the city's most popular joints. (The mission's Taquería Cancún, for example—this reporter's standby—manages a paltry 7.36 'staches for its award-winning veggie burrito.) He's also not one to mince words about places he dislikes. Take the other La Alteña, on 22nd street in the Mission. "There's nacho cheese everywhere,' he says. "What were they thinking?" This renegade attitude has earned him the enmity of a number of area burritophiles, including many who have sent him blistering emails in the two years he's been running this site.

Here's an example from the February Apocalypse:

Dear Beano: Being the burrito connoisseur you probably aren't, I'm guessing you go for that Mission District crap where they feature ingredients scraped off the bottom of the street-cleaning trucks. Yummy. Take a rigor mortis tortilla, mix in the stuff that washed down the street from the Chinese joint that got shut down for serving Tsingtao beer to 11-year-olds, foil it all up, and get a good review on Burritoeater. You're corrupt!

Though Hodgkins routinely gets feedback from burritoeater readers, he's only received a couple of emails from disgruntled taquería owners. "They're not too web-savvy," he says. (One such email arrived recently from the folks at Miraloma Market, asking Hodgkins to remove an entry in which he describes their slab as a "broken burrito." He declined.) As he sees it, the fact that owners don't know who he is—more because most of them aren't too web-savvy, than because of any concerted effort by Hodgkins to stay hidden—means that he can eat anonymously and review objectively. "I don't like to be pandered to," he says.

But Hodgkins, age 34, has a message for people who take issue with his evalutations. "Bro, it's a food review," he says. "I didn't run over your dog." Though he currently works at the California Culinary Academy, Hodgkins insists he has no formal training as a chef or food critic, and that his ratings—as scientifically grounded as they may seem—are only one man's opinions. "I can't say that a certain place is the best," he says, "but I can say it's my favorite."

Despite the long hours, occasional digestive distress, and sporadic denigration, Hodgkins plans to keep on eating. "It's still fun," he says. "And it's still a cheap lunch."

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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