Think of Miguel Jara as the beloved mayor of a reasonably-sized town. La Taqueria, the San Francisco restaurant he's owned and operated since 1973, is his fiefdom. He makes sure everything is working, he greets the public, he knows many guests by name and many more by sight, he literally kisses babies. "I think you're getting better, is that possible?" A customer approaches to compliment Jara even as he's seated conducting an interview. "Thanks, man!" he beams, and then points to a family at a different table, explaining that he served the mother when she was her daughter's age. "I think this place is magical," he says. "If I come with a pain in my leg or I'm upset about something that happened, once I get here, everything goes away."
"It’s my own style — I don’t know what a Mission-style burrito is."
In a city obsessed with burritos, La Taqueria has been attracting crowds for decades. Jara credits the fundamentals — the meat he buys, the salsa he makes, the atmosphere he cultivates — with the burrito's enduring popularity. When La Taqueria opened, the phrase "Mission style" wasn't common parlance. "It's my own style," Jara says. "A lot of people call it a Mission-style burrito, but I don't know what a Mission-style burrito is." A few striking features of his burrito include the lack of rice and a wet interior, the latter owed in large part to the former — plus healthy portions of housemade hot sauce and salsa. And it's been like this since day one. One opening day, Jara's mother had volunteered to make rice, but he said no, inspired by a tasting he had done the day before. "The day before, we put the grill on and the meat tasted so good, like real meat. That's why I decided not to mess around with the flavor or use rice."
That logic has come to be something like a party platform for Jara. His recipes, borrowed from his mother and from several educational trips to Mexico, are exceedingly simple. The devil is in the execution — which these days Jara is leaving more and more to his children and to his staff. He's not in the kitchen too much, but when he is, there's plenty to tweak and to teach, even though in some cases, his staff has worked under his watchful eye for decades. Jara's attention to detail has helped keep La Taqueria a mainstay on the Eater SF 38 and various burrito rankings for years. And while he's scaled back his time in the kitchen, to see him working the room leaves no doubt of his commitment. "I'll retire the same day they put me in the funeral home," Jara says.
Below, the elements of the La Taqueria burrito:
1. The Tortilla
When Jara first imagined opening La Taqueria, he saw himself making his own tortillas. "I was going to make them right here," he says, gesturing to a corner of the restaurant. But his harried first day in business saw him close hours before he had intended because he ran out of so many ingredients. Tortilla-making was just not in the cards going forward.
Instead, Jara has found reliable suppliers who will supply custom tortillas. Where tacos generally get corn tortillas at his restaurant, Jara uses flour tortillas for the burritos. For the past 30 years or so, he's been buying from the long-standing California tortilla makers La Colonial in San Jose. "A 14-inch tortilla is too big, but a 12-inch tortilla is too small," Jara says. "They didn't make a 13-inch, but now they're making them for me." Jara also now has them delivering, too, sparing him the hours he used to spend driving back and forth to San Jose for tortillas.
2. The Beans
The pinto beans at La Taqueria have a story to tell. Normally you'd expect refried beans on a burrito like this, but not here. "When I came to this country, it was my dad and me only. We lived in my cousin's garage," Jara recalls. "My father had a petroleum stove with two burners. He cooked beans right there. He'd boil and fry them; he didn't have anything to smash them. I used to love them." Carrying on his father's tradition, Jara cleans and then boils the beans for three hours, then fries them for an hour, leaving them whole. Jara estimates the shop goes through some 200 pounds of beans a day.
3. The Meat
"Beef [carne asada] has always been the most popular," Jara says, but ever since the carnitas burrito landed the title of America's Best Burrito on FiveThirtyEight's widely publicized national burrito bracket, "carnitas are now neck-and-neck with beef." Here's how the meat gets made:
For Jara, the carnitas cooking process is intuitive — even when describing how it's done, he doesn't get too specific. Chunks of pork butt go into a huge pot with water. "Little by little the water disappears," he says. "Then you add lard. Then you cook them slow, and you turn the fire up a little more and then lower it." The level of heat is critical, he explains, because "too much fire, they get hard; lower the flame and they go soft." The carnitas get seasoned in the pot with orange, garlic, and salt. Beyond "really clean pots," Jara says he has no secret to perfect carnitas. The restaurant usually makes two big batches a day.
Where the carnitas process is a slow and somewhat involved one, cooking the carne asada couldn't be simpler. Before grilling, all Jara adds to the top sirloin is a bit of salt. "I buy the best I can, the meat is better than USDA Choice," he says. "We don't marinate it; it's really good beef and it doesn't need anything. It tastes like meat." There's a little more to it than just good beef and salt, though, and Jara is coy about the details. When the beef hits the hot grill, the cooks brush on the sabor ("flavor"). He won't say what exactly is in the sauce, but there's definitely garlic and beef fat, which keeps the lean sirloin moist on the grill. Jara notes that the cooks only turn the beef once on the grill; any more and it will dry out. "It seems simple, these little things, but if you keep turning it, you lose the juice and the flavor." After the beef comes off the grill, it's chopped and added to the burrito.
4. The Toppings
When it comes to toppings, simplicity rules. Jara uses a hot sauce recipe from his late mother, who he fondly recalls making huge batches of hot sauce on La Taqueria's opening day. It's a pretty standard ingredient list: serrano peppers, tomatillos, garlic, onion, and salt. The restaurant makes two big batches every day. The salsa recipe is also very simple, a combination of tomato, onion, and cilantro made throughout the day. "Nothing to it!," Jara says.
When it comes to guacamole, "I do it differently than everybody," Jara says mischievously before revealing that his guacamole is just avocados. No tomato. No lime juice. No cilantro. Not even a pinch of salt. "The salsa has tomato and cilantro so you don't need it," he assures.
5. The Assembly
The counter is set up like an assembly line, and at the volume they do at La Taqueria, it couldn't function any other way. Along with volume, the counter staff at La Taqueria have to contend with the intricacies of every order — for the most part, Jara will "do anything they want" when it comes to guests' special requests.
After the order comes in, a tortilla is added to the steamer with a slice of monterey jack cheese. Next comes the beans, then the meat.
Next come the toppings as ordered, like the salsa, guacamole, and hot sauce.
Rolling the burrito is something people get better at with practice, Jara says. His seasoned staff members should be able to roll a burrito in about seven seconds. On any given day, his staff members range in years of experience from six to 25.
For many orders, there's a final step. For customers who ask for a burrito dorado, Jara's crew will make it crispy by putting the rolled burrito onto the plancha, searing both sides till golden.
Jara notes that while technically an off-menu order, "everybody does it." And he should know — the mayor of La Taqueria loves talking to his guests.