In Search of America’s Best Burrito

Nate Silver:

It’s a little crazy, but we think it needs to be done. And we think we’re the right people to do it. One reason is that narrowing the field to 64 contenders is a massive problem of time and scale. It perhaps couldn’t be done adequately if not for a little data mining and number crunching. In 2007, I was able to sample every burrito restaurant — in one neighborhood, in one city. But there are 67,391 restaurants in the United States that serve a burrito. (I’ll tell you how we came up with that figure in a moment.) To try each one, even if you consumed a different burrito for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, would require more than 60 years and run you close to 50 million calories.

We need some way to narrow the list of possibilities. Fortunately, Anna and I were able to enlist some help. The past seven years have produced explosive growth for crowdsourced review sites like Yelp. Yelp provided us with statistics on every burrito-selling establishment in the United States.

The Yelp data was the starting point for FiveThirtyEight’s Burrito Bracket, which will officially launch early next week and whose solemn (but not sole) mission is to find America’s best burrito. There are three major phases in the project, each of which I’ve already hinted at:

Step 1: Data mining. Analyze the Yelp data to create an overall rating called Value Over Replacement Burrito (VORB) and provide guidance for the next stages of the project. (This step is already done, and I’ll be describing the process in some detail in this article.)

Step 2: Burrito Selection Committee. Convene a group of burrito experts from around the country, who will use the VORB scores and other resources to scout for the nation’s best burritos and vote the most promising candidates into a 64-restaurant bracket — 16 contenders in each of four regions: California, West, South and Northeast. (The committee has already met, and we’ll reveal the 64 entrants in a series of articles later this week and this weekend.)

Step 3: Taste test. Have Anna visit each of the 64 competitors, eat their burritos, rate and document her experiences, and eventually choose one winner in a multi-round tournament. (Anna will be posting her first reviews early next week. She’s worked as a documentary photographer and multimedia journalist, and as a producer at ABC News and Univision, where she’s spent years reporting on Hispanic-American culture.)

I am unable to decide if this lengthy, lengthy article (1,500 words of footnotes?!), which really only serves as an introduction to the project, represents either the apex or the nadir of American culture.

And I think that says it all, really.