Can Maine’s best burrito hold up in a national competition?

Over at FiveThirtyEight, the website that uses data to tackle questions such as who’s going to win the next election or sports championship, founder Nate Silver has set to use data to help produce perhaps the most consequential journalism of this decade:

What is the best burrito in America?

Silver describes the quest’s humble beginnings:

I’m a burritophile. But of the 19 taquerias within a short walk of my apartment, which was the best? I decided to try them all, comparing them two at a time by ordering the same food item (say, a carne asada burrito) and knocking out the weaker alternative in an NCAA-style elimination tournament. Thus began the Burrito Bracket.

Silver has taken his quest national, with the help of big data and ESPN’s Platinum AmEx card. First, he crawled the business listings of Yelp to find every establishment that serves a burrito in the country (as decided by having at least one review mentioning burrito or burritos). That query produced more than 67,000 results. Then, Silver weighted those results based on the average rating and how many reviews the restaurant had, to correct for large margins of error in establishments with few reviews.

A chicken burrito at Verve Burritos in Orono. (Gabor Degre | BDN)

A chicken burrito at Verve Burritos in Orono. (Gabor Degre | BDN)

To correct for regional variances in the usage of Yelp and standards for Mexican food, Silver compared regional reviews of chain restaurants to further flatten the playing field and “discovered substantial differences in average star ratings between the same chains in different parts of the country. Orlando, Florida, is the biggest outlier; chain restaurants there were rated 0.5 stars higher than the same chains elsewhere in the country. (Reviews of one Baja Fresh location in Orlando, for example, contain the sort of praise that is usually lavished upon restaurants like L’Arpège.) By contrast, the stingiest chain reviews were in the 90021 ZIP code, Los Angeles, where Mexican chains were rated about 0.4 stars lower than the national average. This presumably implies, among other things, that the standards for Mexican food are much higher in Los Angeles than in Orlando.”

From there, Silver brought in a panel of experts,  representing four quadrants of the country, to help whittle the list of 67,000 down to 64. (Maine falls in the Northeast quadrant, “a burrito-sparse region” that stretches to Missouri.)

And now he’s hired a journalist to fly to each of the locations in the bracket and sample the signature burrito.

The list of establishments in the bracket hasn’t been revealed yet, but Silver did drop one hint that piqued my interest:

We wound up with representatives from every corner of the country — Maine, Key West, Florida, Seattle and Hawaii.

Maine? Due respect, but when I try to think of a burrito in Maine that can compete nationally I come up blank.

It bugs me to think there might be a burrito for all of America right here and Maine and I don’t know about it.

So I set out to recreate Silver’s list.

I won’t profess to be nearly as stringent as Silver was, but I started as he did — by querying Yelp for all establishments in Maine with a review mentioning burrito. I weighted the listings based on overall average rating, the number of overall reviews and the number of reviews mentioning burritos (to correct for places that may have a burrito on their menu but it’s not a main feature, such as Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast, which has only 1 of 102 reviews that mention their breakfast burrito).

In the resulting list, I threw out chains, such as Taco Bell, Chipotle and Qdoba, and a few oddballs (a review noting that they ate here because they were looking for Maine food, as opposed to burritos, for example). I should also note: I left a review mentioning burritos on BDN staff favorite Cielo’s Truck so it would show up on the list.

The resulting list is far from perfect (it weights very highly 2 locations that have only one review, a five-star that mentions burritos, even after being heavily penalized for a lack of reviews), but it gives a few indications:

  • Either there’s not a single burrito North of Millinocket, or nobody is using Yelp in The County.
  • Either way, the burrito scene in Maine is not incredibly diverse. Many, maybe the majority, of the establishments on the list are there because they serve breakfast burritos.
  • While I have my favorites, there’s no clear indication of a frontrunner for who might be included in the national FiveThirtyEight Burrito Bracket.

So this is where we ask you: What Maine burrito is most likely to be included on the bracket? Is there a secret killer burrito in Maine I don’t know about? Are there really no burritos in The County?

One other note: Our friends at The Bollard recently toured Portland’s taco joints, in case you like your Mexican-American cuisine more bite-sized.

For journalism.

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