This post was written by Gideon Brower.
Anna Maria Barry-Jester has one of the most intriguing job titles you’re likely to see; she’s the Burrito Correspondent for data journalism site FiveThirtyEight.com.For three months, she’s been tasting, evaluating and photographing burritos all over the U.S. “I’ve been to 30 states and 50 cities,” she told me. “I started in Key West and worked my way up the Eastern Seaboard, and then across the country and through the West and then up through the Northeast and now to California.”
You may know FiveThirtyEight as the creation of Nate Silver, the celebrated statistician and blogger who applies his data-driven perspective to politics, sports, economics, science and now, it appears, burritos. “I’ve always been kind of obsessed with Mexican food,” says Nate. “Maybe because my parents used to put salsa in my baby food, is how the story is told.”
FiveThirtyEight’s whimsical Burrito Bracket is modeled on the annual NCAA college basketball tournament. Nate tells me he started by compiling a data set of every U.S. restaurant whose Yelp reviews mention the word “burrito” – more than 67,000 places. A panel of Mexican food experts helped narrow the field to 64 contenders, evenly distributed in four regions around the country. That’s when Anna went to work, winnowing the list down to (as of now) 16, and eventually to one supreme burrito.
Anna says she bases her judgments on five criteria: the quality of the tortilla; the protein; the other ingredients; the presentation and texture; and the overall flavor. Here in L.A. she visited four burrito specialists: Al & Bea’s, Manuel’s El Tepeyac, El Chato taco truck and La Azteca Tortilleria. The standard in L.A. is so high, she says, that any of these restaurants would have been the winner in most other cities. Forced to choose, though, she picked the classic bean, cheese and green chili burrito at Al & Bea’s.
“Each ingredient is prepared with the utmost care,” Anna says. “They cook the beans for 18 hours overnight. It’s just perfect for what it is, and part of the way we did the ranking is that each burrito is being judged against what it was trying to be. So this is essentially a perfect bean and cheese burrito.”
Anna says everyone who hears about her unusual gig asks the same two things: “Have you gained any weight?” and “Don’t you get tired of eating burritos?” She says the answer to both questions is no. She describes each burrito-eating adventure in an entertaining post on the FiveThirtyEight site, Her reviews generate a lot of feedback. “People are really, very, very passionate about burritos. More than I even knew, and we chose burritos partly because people are so passionate about them.”
The ultimate winner of the Burrito Bracket will be announced around Labor Day. One thing’s for sure; it won’t be near FiveThirtyEight’s offices in Manhattan. Nate says you just can’t get a decent burrito there. “We would love to lobby the winner of this bracket to open a franchise on the Upper West Side here. But I doubt that’s going to happen.”
All images by Gideon Brower.