The outside of La Cumbre. Photo by Emma Neiman.

Taqueria La Cumbre, one of the pioneers of the Mission-style burrito, is celebrating 50 years of  making burritos in the Mission. Mission Local recently spoke to owner Edward Duran on everything from the inspiration for their first burritos to doing business in an ever-changing Mission District.

La Cumbre’s story began in 1967, when Mexican immigrants Raul and Michaela Duran opened a meat market at 515 Valencia Street, the site of a former vaudeville theater built in 1908. Seeing that blue collar workers needed a substantial yet portable meal, the Durans created what is now known as the Mission burrito– served assembly-line style with rice, beans, meat, cheese, and vegetables, and wrapped in an oversized tortilla.

“Back in the ‘70s and ‘60s, people worked a long day with no break,” said Duran’s son and current owner Edward. “So you need[ed] a food you can carry with you, and that would have minimal refrigeration, and that burrito pretty much took care of all that. It was essentially a blue-collar food.”

Containing elements from multiple food groups–protein, fruits, vegetables and beans, dairy and grains–the San Francisco burrito proved a balanced meal on the go.

The Durans served their first burrito on September 29, 1969, and transitioned from a meat market to taqueria in 1972. If you visit La Cumbre today, you will see the words “Birthplace of the Mission Style Burrito” emblazoned in white lettering on a red wall.

However, there is debate as to whether La Cumbre is the originator of the Mission Style Burrito, or if the honor goes to competitor El Faro, who claims to have served their first burrito on September 26, 1961.

Regardless of who created the SF burrito first, La Cumbre was at the forefront of the burrito phenomenon. Edward recalls a young Jorge Santana, musician and brother of Carlos Santana, hand making flour tortillas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, since they weren’t available at the time. The Durans struck up relationships with family farms, relationships that have stood the test of time, guaranteeing a farm to table setting that would set La Cumbre apart from other taquerias, according to Edward. “Those are connections that have come about 50 years, working with the same families and same groups.”

Journalists at publications such as Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal began to pick up on the taqueria’s buzz, helping make La Cumbre a success. Some of this success stems from the fact that this taqueria grills–not griddles– their chicken, in a honey glaze.

“We grill our chicken, all the other taquerias griddle their chicken, like a hamburger, in the fat,” said Duran. “We kind of deviated from that, and we prefer a more healthy approach, and that’s why we have our grill. One, it’s healthier. Two, it tastes better.” In fact, Duran claims that the chicken burrito is probably its most popular, with fans including Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and wife Jennifer, and former Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

La Cumbre opened a second location in San Mateo in 1992. Located in an area surrounded by doctor’s offices, Duran notes that doctors have advised patients needing to lose weight to eat their burritos – one on a whole wheat or tomato tortilla that is also vegetarian with whole beans, rice and salsa – no extra sour cream or extra guacamole. “It’s something we are proud of,” Duran said.

“In an age where people pop pills for health issues,” he said, a wise choice in diet would be the food that has worked for three or four generations back in Mexico, containing healing turmeric, capsaicin from chiles, cilantro, and anti-carcinogens.

Probably the greatest feat La Cumbre has achieved is managing to stay open in such a turbulently changing time in The Mission. Multikulti, just a few stores down, was forced to close after 16 years in business due to rent hikes, and several other Valencia locales have had to move or close as well.

“We have not only lost the neighbors, we lost friends,” said Duran. However, he adds that “you can’t complain about things you can’t change. You can, but who’s gonna hear you and who’ll care? So all you can really do is try to embrace the change and hope that the changes, however they come, will embrace you too.”

While Duran said there is less foot traffic since less people are both living and working in the area, and many who do live in The Mission don’t want to go out and eat after work, he has embraced the change by selling food to Bon Appétit, Google’s café, and campus caterers that supply food to tech workers.

“So in that regard,” Duran admits, “it’s been a wonderful addition, because we have been able to sell a lot of food that way. That’s really been the influence or the effect high tech has had on us.” Appearances on TV shows such as Man vs Food, Food Paradise and a visit by Anthony Bourdain also continue to help push La Cumbre towards 50 more years in The Mission.

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