By Dan Lieberman, @LiebermanTweets
For residents of the Bay Area, the Mission-style burrito is our birthright. While Mexican in origin, its journey is an American one, starting with humble beginnings as meat and beans held within a tortilla, a utility lunch for hard-working folk. But upon its arrival into America, it was decided it needed an American rebranding, and thus the amalgam of meat, beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole was born. Multiple restaurants claim to have created the first burrito that we know and love; one of them is Taqueria La Cumbre, and you can smell the local branch from the San Mateo Caltrain Station.
Our expedition headed up to San Mateo on the 20th of April, which you could have deduced without needing a calendar shortly after boarding. I have a feeling if we would have announced our intentions over the loudspeaker, we would have had a few dozen folks getting off with us in San Mateo. As we disembarked, the smell of carne asada met us at the platform, and we made haste towards the taqueria located right next to the southbound platform.
Despite our early arrival at 11:15 a.m., we were not alone in line, and the crowd continued to grow during our visit. After ordering at the counter, we assembled our salsas and took a seat outside to enjoy the spring sun. Having missed the bottle opener, I popped the top off my Mandarin Jarritos with a single karate chop against the brick exterior, which is probably the coolest look I have in my arsenal. Within minutes, our numbers were called and we hustled to the counter to get into the good stuff.
My colleagues, who were on their first La Cumbre burrito experience, were quickly relieved of their skepticism. The cheese was melted against the tortilla, providing for even distribution, which was matched by the other ingredients. The refried beans were as smooth as they could be, while the black beans were whole and cooked to perfection. Carne asada came in large chunks, giving an appropriate heft to this king of meats, while the al pastor came with the appropriate balance of sweet against savory, letting the pork work it’s magic. What struck us most was the freshness of the ingredients, as if a garden had wrapped itself in a tortilla and gave itself to us as an offering. The enchiladas had a similar level of quality, with a smoky sauce akin to a good barbecue sauce that paired beautifully with the bold flavors held within. Even the sides were on point, with two red salsas, one of which having a strong flavor of squash, and a smooth guacamole with a strong helping of cilantro. All in all, Taqueria La Cumbre clearly earned the solid line at the counter that had formed by the time we bussed our plates and headed back to the platform.
There’s a good case to be made that Mexican food in the United States is the most American cuisine there is. The exchange between two cultures has resulted in an evolution with many delicious outcomes, making something uniquely American that is still clearly and proudly Mexican. What is right with America can be found wrapped with love in a tortilla, and Taqueria La Cumbre has one worth saluting.
Chew Chew Train is a monthly blog feature highlighting places to eat along the Caltrain line. If you have a suggestion for a future restaurant, please email Public Affairs Specialist Dan Lieberman at email@example.com.