Nate Silver and his Burrito Bracket team have spoken. The best burrito in Los Angeles is at … Al and Bea's Mexican Food in Boyle Heights.
The Burrito Bracket arrived in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. We covered this playful, semi-rigorous national burrito contest, run by Silver and the statistical data analysis website FiveThirtyEight, back when they announced their selection process. They’ve since posted an official burrito bracket graphic to make following along at home easier as they choose a single champion “burrito selling establishment” from the 64 restaurants and food trucks selected to compete.
All the L.A. restaurants have now had their chance in Round 1, and only one is advancing in the bracket.
Last week, La Azteca Tortilleria, Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe, and Al and Bea's Mexican Food (a late addition to the bracket) competed in the same group, along with Athenian III in Orange County. All fared well, with scores of 90 or better. But the winner, with a total score of 96, was Al and Bea’s Mexican Food for its bean and cheese burrito ($3.50). Judge Anna Maria Barry-Jester reported that the large burrito with soupy contents “feels like a waterbed when you touch it” and is no less than a “culinary epiphany.”
When El Chato Taco Truck lost out to La Taqueria in San Francisco yesterday, that left Al and Bea's as the only L.A. establishment standing.
Al and Bea's is an unassuming burrito stand with a simple menu, but it's been a popular neighborhood spot for over 50 years and rave reviews are not new to the place. Barry-Jester's excitement, in fact, brings to mind Jonathan Gold's affectionate review of Al and Bea's, “Old-School Bean and Cheese,” published in the Weekly back in 2006.
Al and Bea’s now has a good chance to win its whole quadrant in Round 2 of the bracket, since the burrito establishments it's competing with all received scores lower than 90 points in the first round. (Bell Street Burritos in Atlanta managed to win its group in the South with a final score of only 78.) But anything could happen.
The scores are determined by Barry-Jester — a one-woman system that's triggered some grumbling since the Bracket is supposedly a data-driven contest. She's assessing each burrito in five categories worth 20 points each: tortilla, main ingredient, other ingredients, presentation, and flavor profile. She selects the most popular burrito or house recommended burrito at each place she visits, sometimes trying more than one in order to choose the burrito she thinks has the best shot. She will revisit the establishments that advance to eat again in Round 2, and many game-day variables could shake things up, including whether or not she chooses a different burrito for her second visit.
For the past two months, Barry-Jester has been busy tasting burritos in the other regions represented in the bracket – Northeast, West, and South. She's noted that New York burritos have “come along way;” she's loved a carne asada burrito in Kentucky that “restored [her] faith in Southern burritos;” and she's raved about some “spectacular” adovada in Santa Fe. Having saved what everyone assumed would be the best for last, she’s now evaluating California’s burritos to conclude the first round. The Burrito Bracket team refers to California as a whole as the “group of death,” the burritos to beat.
The three L.A. burritos that were knocked out of round one gave a valiant fight. Barry-Jester noted the “luxurious cheese” in the chile relleno burrito at La Azteca Tortilleria, which received a total score of 90, and the “comical size” of the giant Hollenbeck burrito at Manuel's El Tepeyac, which scored a 94. She even appreciated the “succulent” meat in the al pastor burrito from El Chato Taco Truck, although she suggested it would be better suited to a taco.
As Barry-Jester acknowledged in her wrap-up review after the first competition in California, if it weren’t for the regional seeding in the bracket system, most of the Southern California burritos she's tasted could have bested some of the other burritos she’s had in the rest of the country. But pitted against each other, it was Al and Bea’s that came away with the win.
It's possible the Boyle Heights burrito stand could now win the whole tournament. Al and Bea's — L.A.'s hope is in your hands.