Leland Ware (@48blocks) is the news editor at Ride Channel. He grew up skateboarding and has been a part of the scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. In 2006, he founded 48blocks.com, which he still operates. He currently resides in Brooklyn.
Before San Francisco’s Mission District became the new playground for Google execs and their deep pockets, it was home to a much different kind of crowd. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, “a generation of artists, writers, and college graduates” were drawn to its affordable housing options during the recession, writes Tara Duggan for the San Francisco Chronicle. “There was shelter” for these bohemians, and also cheap food—most notably dispensed by taquerías that lined the corridors of the area, serving massive burritos wrapped in tinfoil.
Around that same time, San Francisco had cemented its reputation as a global mecca for skateboarders. The brick plaza at Embarcadero was featured prominently in early skate videos including Plan B’s Questionable (1992), World Industries’ Love Child (1992), and FTC’s Finally (1993). The tricks that were being developed at EMB were the most progressive of the time, and skaters traveled from far and wide to witness history in the making. But Embarcadero wasn’t the only skate destination in San Francisco. There were the rolling hills of the Avenues, famous schoolyards like Wallenberg, and, of course, the brick banks at the 24th and Mission Bart station—which just happens to be smack dab in the heart of burrito land.
Thrasher Magazine’s monthly food column, “Skarfing Material”
Skaters who made the pilgrimage to the city would return home with epic tales of pro-skater sightings, intel on the latest tricks being perfected, and news of ‘silver torpedoes’ that fueled long days of riding around. As word spread of SF’s skate cred, so did the gospel of the so-called ‘Mission-style’ burrito. Budget-friendly, portable for rides, and bearing an impressive girth, they became the default meal for skaters scraping by.
“Whatever the birthplace of the burrito, California was where it became a religion,” said author and Mexican food scholar Gustavo Arellano. Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco became focal points for burrito innovation, but the Mission District’s version resonated more loudly, thanks to its production-line assembly that packed in fistfuls of rice, meat, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and beans. Long before Chipotle formed the blueprint that people around the world would come to recognize, skaters were the unofficial messengers for the burrito cause, spreading its democratic allure one ollie at a time.
It was easy to carry a skateboard in line to place an order, or stow one away in your backpack, but the relationship runs deeper than mere convenience. The burrito’s place in skate culture was immortalized in 1987 when the Skate Rock pioneer, Skatemaster Tate, recorded “La Cumbre”—an ode to the San Francisco taquería that is largely credited with serving the original Mission-style burrito. The song was used in Doug Smith’s part in Powell Peralta’s Public Domain (1988), and officially put the burrito into skateboarding’s lexicon. Legendary skateboarder John Cardiel even used a La Cumbre t-shirt as one of his early board graphics for Black Label. In the ’80s, Thrasher Magazine’s monthly cooking column, “Skarfing Material,” was another point of intersection. Written by an anonymous author known only as Chef Boy-Am-I-Hungry, the recurring series provided quick and easy recipes for skaters to make before they headed out on their next adventure—including tips for burritos and meals like Piston Returns Springs, a spin on a taco from the December 1985 issue that consisted of corn tortillas, sliced cheese, and veggies.
Given their shared legacy in the San Francisco community, we thought it would be fitting to explore the connection between skateboarding and burritos by talking to a handful of OG skaters and Bay Area natives, including Tommy Guerrero, Mickey Reyes, Bryce Kanights, and Chad Minton. At the very least, we know one thing to be certain: the roll of a burrito and the roll of a skateboard wheel are very much in synch.
Tommy Guerrero is a legend in skateboarding. The San Francisco native went pro in 1986 for Powell Peralta, and is a member of the legendary Bones Brigade that was highlighted in Stacy Peralta’s 2012 documentary The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. Guerrero went on to found Real Skateboards with Jim Thiebaud and is also an accomplished musician who is currently touring the West Coast in support of his latest album, Perpetual.
Guerrero says: “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the Mission wasn’t like it is now. It was all working class families, and predominantly Latino. In the early ’80s, it was still pretty sketchy—it just depended on which block you were on. You had to be aware and watch your back; it’s not like that anymore. The local food was a reflection of the people—mostly Mexicans and South Americans who brought their culture with them. The burrito is really a type of fast food to grab-and-go.
Growing up, we’d skate the Mission a lot. There were a ton of spots, but again, you had to be aware of your surroundings—no headphones or tuning out what was happening at the time, or you’d be an easy mark. We’d hit La Cumbre, El Torro, or Pancho Villa’s when we were in the hood. It was good, cheap, and filling. I do think that skateboarding played a role in spreading the word on the Mission burrito. Skaters love to travel, and most do so on a shoestring budget—which makes burritos even more attractive and financially sensible. Burritos can sustain you for very little money, so they have been, and probably always will be, a staple for skateboarders.”
Mickey Reyes is a native of San Francisco’s Mission district and former sponsored skateboarder. He has overseen team management at Deluxe Distribution for decades, and is so notorious that Vice magazine wrote an article on how he has mellowed out in his old age.
Reyes says: “In the Mission, the ’80s were rad. We would cruise low riders on Mission St. on Friday and Saturday night. There were no crazy fast-food spots, just mom-and-pop shops and fresh produce stands on 24th street. It was an all-around good cultural place back then. San Francisco is like a huge open skate park, which is why skaters come here from all over; the Mission district is a part of that. My personal favorite spots for burritos are La Taqueria and La Cumbre. Every skater that comes through SF gets a burrito, and when they go back home they tell people about it and dream about the next time they can get a Mission burrito. Burritos will always be a part of skate culture in San Francisco because of the price—they’re cheap and filling, what more do you need?”
Bryce Kanights is a San Francisco native and former professional skater turned photographer. He has worked as the photo editor of Thrasher magazine, team manager for Adidas skateboarding, and is the founder of Lifeblood skateboards and Skatedaily.net. He currently resides in Portland, where he continues to shoot and run Lifeblood and Skate Daily.
Kanights says: “The thing about an original burrito in SF’s Mission district years ago was that it was cheap, filling, tasty, and very convenient for us as we rolled around the city on tight budgets. Most of the legit SF burrito spots wrap them in aluminum foil so they are easier to eat both in the restaurant and on the move. The foil also helps to keep the burrito warm and packable, should you decide to save half of it for later. La Cumbre, Taqueria Cancun, Pancho Villa, and El Castilito have always been in the running as the best affordable burritos in town. There is no reason in the world to eat a $10 burrito. Just ask the locals and you’ll discover the real deal.”
Chad Minton is the current executive chef at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. He spent over a decade in San Francisco working at both the Ritz-Carlton and Grand Hyatt Union Square. He was a sponsored amateur skateboarder for H-Street Skateboards in the early ’90s, and he founded a clothing line specifically designed for chefs called True Cooks.
Minton says: “What defines a Mission burrito, in my opinion, also ties in with its relevancy in skateboarding—that it’s a tight conical roll. It’s all in the roll. I think that anybody who’s ever had a burrito before has had a terrible experience where you’re watching the dude roll it, and he just kind of flops it over and doesn’t get the foil tight, and it ends up like a pillow. You’re looking for a tight, conical roll. If you have that sloppily rolled burrito in your backpack, and you’re skating around town because you’re going to eat it later—things can go from rad to bad really quickly. That thing is going to open up in your backpack, in your pocket, or whatever.
You can see the people that take pride in the roll—it’s uniform and the ingredients are well-distributed. Sometimes people put the meat on one side and all of the beans on the other, then when you open it up, it’s half beans until you get down to the meat. The distribution of the ingredients and the tightness of the roll are two things that define what a quality Mission burrito is—and also lends itself to its popularity in skateboarding. Yes, it’s an affordable thing, it’s delicious, it’s fresh, and it’s made to order—but it’s also highly portable. If you’re taking mass transit on the Bart or Muni, or just skating around town, you need something that you’re going to be able to enjoy later.“