I have a few favorite questions I love to ask people I’m getting to know, or to argue about with friends. I like to call these my “stock questions.” My favorite, of course, is: Which ten albums would you take if you were going to be stranded on a desert island? This is, in my opinion, a life-defining question.
My second-favorite stock question is also life-defining, or at least it is the way I frame it: You know how prisoners on death row are given one last meal of their choice before execution? Well, I love to ask people, If you were on death row, what would your final meal be?
My answer might surprise some people. I’m a little bit of a casual gourmet, and I love eating at fancy restaurants and drinking really good booze. I’ve done a fifteen-brewery tour of Oregon. I’ve eaten a huge side of beef at Brooklyn’s Peter Luger Steakhouse. I’ve gone wine-tasting at Silver Oak and Stag’s Leap in Napa. I’ve had the omakase at Sebo, maybe the best sushi restaurant in San Francisco (just ask Anthony Bourdain). While moving cross-country, I took a detour so I could go bourbon tasting in Kentucky. Because of my connoisseur inclinations, one of my roommates once called me “the Anthony Bourdain of San Francisco.”
If you couldn’t tell by the multiple mentions in that last paragraph, Bourdain is something of a personal hero of mine. And I think he’d be proud of my last meal on earth, because it doesn’t involve any of that gourmet shit. In fact, it’s a meal you can get for ten bucks at a dive of a taqueria in San Francisco’s Mission District. That’s right: My final meal would be the Burrito Mojado al pastor from Taqueria Cancun, washed down with an ice cold Pacifico.
First, the scene: Taqueria Cancun is on a grimy (though not so much as before the cruel wave of gentrification struck the Mission) block of Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets. It’s an unassuming, almost rickety yellow storefront, set just back enough from the stores on either side that you could walk right past it if you weren’t paying attention.
The floor is a simple red ceramic tile, which evokes terra cotta, and the seating on either side is communal picnic tables (if you seat for any length of time, you’re pretty much assured of being solicited for money by either a mariachi band or a homeless person). The jukebox is almost always blaring ranchero music, though I recall a magical night once when the moment I walked in I was greeted with the opening notes of Samba Pa Ti, one of my favorite guitar instrumentals, by San Francisco’s own Carlos Santana.
The line files past the tables and the open kitchen with its large flat grills on the left, and loops back around past jugs of agua fresca and huge sacks of onions, to the register, where you order. The cashier takes your $10, hands you a ticket, your beer, and a basket of corn chips with one ramekin each of pico de gallo (the Cancun version is finely chopped and laced with jalapenos) and aguacate (a mix of avocado and jalapenos which is basically creamed fire) salsas. You take a seat, and when your number is called, you return to the counter to retrieve this:
Now that you’ve seen it, let me break this bad boy down for you. Cancun starts out with an enormous tortilla (the menu touts this burrito as “a BIG one”), and fills it with Spanish rice, pinto beans, and the meat of your choice. My meat is al pastor, which is pork marinated for hours in chili peppers and pineapple, rendering it slightly sweet, extremely spicy, and incredibly tender. Al pastor is the reason I could never be a vegetarian.
Even with just those ingredients, this burrito, which is roughly equivalent to a junior size football in length and girth, would be a tasty treat. But it’s what happens next that makes this my favorite dish. The geniuses at Cancun plate the burrito and drench it with a smoky red enchilada sauce. Then they melt cheese (jack, I think) over the top of it. Then for, the coup de grace, the slather on equal parts pico de gallo and aguacate salsas and sour cream. Note the topping colors: red, green, and white, the tricolors of the Mexican flag. It’s the most patriotic meal ever (If I weren’t so pale white, I’d swear that there was a mix-up at the hospital where I was born, and my real parents are Mexican).
Once I’m back at the table, I set out to eat this burrito strategically. I cut across it with a knife and fork (plastic, of course), allowing the guts to spill out, spooning the salsas, enchilada sauce, and crema over the top. I scoop up the burrito’s innards with corn tortilla chips until these edible utensils are gone, and then I retrieve my fork and eat whatever’s left inside the tortilla, which is now sodden with cheese and delicious red sauce.
To wash this monster of jalapeno heat and roasted smoke and hearty arroz y frijol down, there’s no choice but Pacifico. It’s a light beer, perfect for the task because it quenches the heat, cleanses the palate, and doesn’t add too much volume to my already severely tested digestive system. I’m also sentimental when it comes to Pacifico–in four years of college, my roommates and I probably drank enough of the stuff to keep the brewery solvent by ourselves.
Afterward I stumble out, so full I can barely move. It’s a perfect meal for the kind of person who needs to get by on one meal a day (as I often have in my life), and it is the ultimate weapon to combat a hangover, either proactively (at 3 a.m., after the bars have closed) or reactively (after you wake up at noon the next day). Either way, you want to be close to home if you’re going to take down a burrito mojado, because you’re going to need to lie down for at least an hour (and probably more) after you’ve cleaned that plate.
So there you have it: My death row final meal. What’s yours?