Star statistician Nate Silver wants to find the best burrito in the country, so he's done what any stats-genius sports fan with a blog would do: He's designed a Burrito Bracket modeled after the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Silver announced the project last week on FiveThirtyEight.com, his statistical analysis blog, now owned by ESPN.
Naturally, California is currently predicted to sweep this thing. California is home to so much of the nation's burrito riches that our state is its own “region” in Silver's contest – the four regions represented in the burrito championship are Northeast, West, South and California.
Los Angeles has three players in the fight: El Chato Taco Truck, Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe and La Azteca Tortilleria. But La Taqueria and El Farolito in San Francisco are the favorites to win. Of course, the bracket system also leaves open the chance for a dark horse from Iowa or Florida to take it all.
In addition to Silver, the burrito team includes Anna Maria Barry-Jester, a journalist who will eat the burritos and determine the winner in each playoff round, and a Burrito Selection Committee of four experts representing each region. California's representative is OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, whose writing includes the weekly syndicated column “Ask a Mexican.”
The Selection Committee has already agreed on the nation's 64 top burrito restaurants (and food trucks) that will have their shot in a burrito-battle death-match. One notable difference between the NCAA games and the Burrito Bracket is that Silver's plan pits four burritos against each other at a time, instead of two teams at a time. So the 64 burrito contenders will be reduced to one winner in just three rounds.
To plan the contest, Silver's team has had to answer questions such as “What is a burrito?” and “How can Yelp reviews be turned into numerical data?” They've come up with official acronyms like VORB (Value Over Replacement Burrito), a factor based on baseball's Sabermetrics, designed to weigh the quality and quantity of Yelp reviews for each BSE (Burrito Selling Establishment). While the project is definitely lighthearted, Silver does hope that the Burrito Bracket will help further explore the value of crowdsourced data collected by companies like Yelp.
As news of the Burrito Bracket has spread, there's been a fair amount of grumbling about the methodology Silver and his team are using. Complaints have been made about everything from their depending too much on Yelp to determine the 64 finalists to Barry-Jester having too much power to decide the winners of each taste test by herself.
There's also the fact that “burrito selling establishments” have been identified for the competition, and not specific burritos. Silver writes that he and Barry-Jester have agreed on some ground rules, including that she should try to identify the house-specialty burrito at each place she visits. But choosing a restaurant that will be entered in the contest instead of a particular menu item could mean that even the act of ordering the burrito leaves a lot to chance.
Yet all the criticisms actually reveal just how closely Silver's Burrito Bracket mirrors college basketball playoffs. When March Madness rolls around, there are always doubts about the accuracy of the team seeding, and each team's fate rests on a single game. There's no series of games, no average of scores; sometimes the best players are injured, and sometimes there are bad referee calls.
What can seem like a lack of level-headed fairness is part of what makes the playoffs so dramatic and what makes the final champions so impressive. Any winners under such circumstances have to have a lot of things go their way.
Trash-talking amongst the burrito regions, disputing who can truly claim “burrito awesomeness,” has already begun in the comments on FiveThirtyEight. Now that the seeding for each region has been announced in several posts this week, the elimination rounds can begin. Barry-Jester has already begun the taste-testing and has come up with five factors she'll use to rate burritos, which she disclosed this morning: tortilla, main protein, other ingredients, presentation and overall flavor profile. Each category will be worth 20 points, which will give each burrito a possible high score of 100. This burrito battle is about to get real, y'all. Place your bets.