Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Questions of Our Time

We hope that you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoy drinking beer and eating ice cream!

These experiments aim to shed light on the great gastronomical questions of our day. Like, "To what do we owe the old proverb where a young gentleman goes to Mexico City and orders a Corona, thus casting himself to the entire community as ripe for an easy pickpocket?" Or, "Is it really worth waiting an hour to be seated at Beretta when Pi Bar is two blocks away?" We cede the floor to you, noble blog readers and future taste testers. What are the greatest gastronomical quandaries of our time? Some ideas so far - if any others seem worthy of a random Thursday night, let us know!
  • Chocolate chip cookies (Specialties vs. Hot Cookie vs. La Boulange...)
  • Croissants
  • Mission burritos
  • Locally brewed beers
  • French fries
  • PIzza (varieties both drunk and fancy schmancy)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

One Man's Take on the SF Burrito

The following is a guest post by our culinary correspondent E. Buehmann. Though it isn't based off of the results of a rigorous, objective gastronomic experiment, it is a thought-provoking, if not controversial, take on the Mission Burrito. Your thoughts are invited.

First, an introduction to those new to the concept of the taqueria. The San Francisco taqueria is like a museum dedicated to the art of the burrito, except it is a museum where you eat the art. The word burrito means “little donkey” in Spanish. The origin of the name is a mystery. Some say it derived from the resemblance of the wrapped tortilla to its namesake animal’s ear.

Most historical records actually credit the invention of the burrito to the Mayans around AD 200. Rather than deriving its name from the animal, the burrito was named after the cylindrical spaceships that transported munificent aliens to Mayan temples. The Mayan “Gods” would exit their powerful ships and bestow upon the terrified and exhilarated Mayan people marvelous technology. Once they had mated with the Mayan women and granted good luck for the new harvest that year, these Gods would board their white cylindrical sky “donkeys” and ascend to the clouds. The “donkeys” were the primary mode of transportation for the aliens and the primitive Mayan mind knew nothing of air planes of NASA, the donkey was the only vehicle they understood. The Mayans would crush neighboring tribes with the tanks and laser guns they acquired from the Gods. They built large monolithic structures in praise of the Visitors.

Eventually it came to pass that these interstellar guests ceased to arrive. Perhaps they all died out in a galactic superwar. Perhaps they contracted some hideous Mayan disease from their many trips to our filthy little planet. We may never know. At any rate, the crops began to fail, the young women went unmarried. In a panic, the Mayan priests began to indulge in human sacrifice, hoping to call the Gods back to Earth. The Mayans would wrap the human flesh in a flour tortilla, filling the package with rice, beans, and sometimes salsa. All in tribute to the “space donkeys” that their Gods rode from the heavens.

Cast aside thoughts of Q’doba, BTB, or even Chipotle. Don’t even think about bringing Taco Bell into this discussion. All are pretenders. They shiver at the might of the true San Francisco Burrito. When you order a San Francisco Burrito you should get a “superburrito.” This includes rice and beans, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, queso, and your choice of meat. A good burrito will be filled with greasy meat, should pack a spicy punch, and should warm your heart with love. It is important that the fillings of the burrito mix together. The San Francisco burrito’s circumference is so large that it is difficult to get the entire palate of flavor in one bite unless the fillings are intermixed perfectly. This is the most difficult part of burrito making to master. A taqueria should not be like Chipotle. There should only be brushed metal on the counter behind the glass where the burrito is prepared, if at all. There should be pictures of Madre de Dios or, equally inspirational, Gavin Newsom. There should be candles. It should be psychedelic: a dive indulging in vibrant color and ostentatious earnestness.

Taqueria Cancun - Generally acknowledged by all right-thinking people as the Single Greatest Taqueria That Exists and Has Ever Existed, Taqueria Cancun lies but a two block walk from my front door. This is a curse, really. The burrito is warm and extremely spicy. The el pastor and pollo are the titans here. Cancun does not get top marks for ambiance. It is a little too McDonald’s, but it makes up for it with an amazing latin jukebox. Service with excitement, the dudes behind the counter are apparently all wasted or, alternatively, just very friendly and having a wonderful time.

Overall Taste: 10.

Taqueria el buen sabor - Loosely translated as “The Taqueria of the Vengeful Sword.” A little too much rice, which segregates the rest of the filling like a Republican. Also, don’t put lettuce in a burrito, that’s cheating. As for the service and decor, apparently it is a front for a convent, because only ladies work here. For the entire month of December they wore Santa Hats. All of them.

Overall Taste: 8

Taqueria El Farrolito - Perfectly located near 24th Street Mission BART stop for those who are crapulous. The blend in this burrito was unpardonably separated, but I didn’t really mind in my inebriated state. To go to the bathroom you have to have the dude at the register buzz you in. Yes, the door to the bathroom operates like a security door to an apartment building.

Overall Taste: 6

More to come. A burrito is like a girlfriend/boyfriend. What do you like in a burrito? What is your favorite? What was your most romantic burrito experience? Have you ever made love to a burrito? I mean love, man, not just anonymous sex.

(This was originally posted here.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

¿Cuál es la mejor cerveza mexicana?: A Mexican Beer Taste Off

The 2010 David Matthew Horn Mexican Beer Taste Off was held on February, 5th at La Casa de Horn, situated appropriately in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district.

The event consisted of two concurrently conducted experiments: 1) to determine, through a blind tasting, which widely consumed cerveza reigns supreme; and 2) to determine the extent to which the participants could discern the maker in a blind tasting.


Six beers were selected: Corona, Sol, Pacifico, Negro Modelo, Dos Equis, and Tecate.

Over the course of the evening each of ten participants was given a non-descript, shot-glass sized shooter with an unmarked beer in it (each containing approximately 1 oz of cerveza mexicana sans lime). After imbibing, they were asked to rate the beer in terms of deliciousness on a scale of 1 to 10. They were then asked to hazard a guess as to which of the six beers they thought they were consuming. (The six types of beer to choose from were announced before the tasting commenced.) Guacamole and chips were offered as palate cleansers between rounds. The tasting continued in this way through six rounds, lasting approximately 90 minutes.


The rankings from the taste-off are as follows:

1) Pacifico – 72 taste points
2) Negro Modelo - 69
3) Tecate - 53
4) Dos Equis - 46
5) Sol - 43
6) Corona – 39

The results of the identification challenge are as follows:

1) Evan (4 of 6)
2) Benjy, Dave M., Jordan, Willy, Lauren (2 of 6)
3) Dan A., Dave Horn, Derek, Noah (1 of 6)

Confounding Variables:

A few words about the methodology and potential confounding variables are necessary.

First, it is important to note that this tasting sought to rank the most mainstream beers – i.e., those most regularly consumed and widely accessible – in the American market. Consequently, a number of more delicious beers were left out of the sampling. In other words, we sought not to judge the best Mexican beers; rather, we were attempting to rank those that are most familiar to the group (predominantly Caucasian, Jewish Americans).

Secondly, during the experiment a number of participants (read: Derek Vigon) vocalized their opinions regarding the ranking and the identification. As a result, the data collected suffers from this statistical bias, especially towards the misidentification of Tecate in the first round.

Thirdly, some participants drank beer prior to and throughout the duration of the tasting, which potentially diminished the fineness of their palate. A more rigorous examination would have limited consumption to the beers being sampled, and better isolated the potential confounds of mixing beers throughout rounds.

Fourthly, and similarly, tequila shots were consumed twice during the experiment, which undoubtedly affected the blood-alcohol-levels of all participants, and raises the specter of skewed results. As the participants became increasingly inebriated the precision of their judgment (and their overall seriousness) became increasingly dubious.

Fifthly, there was a disproportionate number of males participating. As a result, the male preference for darker beers is starkly evident in the results (with the two darkest beers, Negro and Pacifico, winning by significant margins).

Lastly, it is worth noting that Negro Modelo is a darker beer and is thus easily identifiable - especially when set against the other five lighter beers. It should therefore come as no surprise that every single participant correctly identified Negro Modelo.


A few important observations can be gleaned from this simple experiment.

First and foremost is that there was a severe disconnect between the participant’s confidence in their abilities to correctly identify the beers and their actual performance. Throughout the tasting this taste technician heard confident proclamations – “I got ‘em all right”; “This is 100% Tecate”; “This is fuckin’ easy” – that subsequently turned to silence (or in some cases despondence) shortly after announcing the results.

The performance of Tecate is also worth brief mention, not the least because it is significantly cheaper than the other beers in contention and is sold in a can. Tecate has long been considered the dark horse of Mexican beers and the results of this experiment further corroborate this notion.

The overall range of the data is startling. The point differential between Corona and Pacifico is significant – 33 points – and demonstrates that the participants had a semblance of uniformity in their preferences, save of course for the occasional outlier.

That Sol, a widely overlooked beer, beat out Corona, the mainstay of Mexican beers consumed in America, should cause some pause. Both scores were very close (separated by only 4 points), but the preference is clear.

Your comments and observations are invited.

Bi-Rite v. Mitchell's: The Ice Cream Show Down

Last night we threw a surprise birthday party for my dad and decided to conduct a little bit of an experiment. The guest of honor is somewhat of an ice cream connoisseur and has long debated the merits of Bi-Rite versus Mitchell's. We decided to settle, once-and-for-all, which reigns supreme by having a head-to-head taste off. Naturally, we dubbed it The 2009 Alan R. Fedman Ice Cream Taste Off.

It didn't take long for the participants in this taste off to voice their allegiances, which brought the divisive nature of the debate into sharp focus. One participant declared Mitchells, "the people's ice cream," perhaps in reference to its more affordable price tag or what some perceive to be its laid-back counterpoint to the alleged snootiness of Bi-Rite. Others defended Bi-Rite, lauding its natural ingredients and widespread popularity. The room was ripe with conflict, and it was time to dish out the ice cream.

The methodology:
We started by analyzing the flavors offered by both establishments, looking for an overlap in flavors. We discovered ten:

Cinnamon Snap
Cookies and Cream

In the end, we offered four for the taste-off: ricanelas/cinnamon snap, pumpkin, cookies and cream, and mint chocolate chip.

One obvious flaw with this experiment is that these aren't even close to either establishment's best flavors, nor do they account for the fun, off-the-wall, creative flavors that both places thrive in. But they do provide a sample that allows us to objectively compare.

We had eleven participants. Each was offered two spoonfuls of each sample - labeled either A or B. We took care to ensure that each flavor was served so that it was virtually impossible to discern its maker (with one flawed exception that you will see below). We had four rounds (one for each flavor) and each participant filled in a score card by circling their preference for the round: either A or B. Participants were prohibited from voicing their preference throughout the entire process so as not to influence the opinions of others. They were offered either water or beer to cleanse their palate between rounds.

Whichever ice cream received more votes for each round (out of eleven), received one point. Whichever maker received more points overall was the victor.

The results are as follows:

Round 1 (Cinnamon)
Bi-Rite: 10
Mitchells: 1

Point Bi-Rite.

This, notably, was the most decisive preference in the entire experiment. Bi-Rite's Ricanelas is damn good, and far superior to Mitchells.

Round 2 (Thin Mint)
Bi-Rite: 4
Mitchells: 7

Point Mitchells.

It should be noted that there is a potentially confounding variable with this round in that the color of both selections is different (one green, one white), which could have potentially revealed its maker to the trained ice-cream-ophile. That is, I think a few people (some of whom had strong allegiances to Mitchells) knew which they were eating in this round.

Round 3 (Pumkin)
Bi-Rite: 5
Mitchells: 6

Point Mitchells.

As the results show, this was hands down the closest decision of the entire taste-off. Both were very similar, and both were very delicious.

Round 4 (Cookies and Cream)
Bi-Rite: 4
Mitchell's: 7

Point, Set, Match, Mitchells.

Here, again, it was a close call, but Mitchells decisively prevails once more and thus solidifies its place as the superior ice cream, 3 to 1.

One especially sharp participant pointed out that, interestingly, Bi-rite has the majority of points in the overall voting, but loses to the electoral system of the experiment.

A couple of points of clarification. I acknowledge that we ran the risk of ending up with a tie having offered four flavors, but it fortunately didn't become a problem. Perhaps the most contentious part of the methodology here was that head-to-head nature of this competition. Some participants voiced a frustration with the experiment as overly simplified. They would have preferred a more nuanced criteria based on texture, taste, creativity, and so forth. While I agree that it should be done in the future, it was simply too much number crunching for one night.