Finding the best burrito just got serious

Burrito garbo

Nate Silver, probably best known for accurately predicting the results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, has turned the sights of his analytical website FiveThirtyEight to food. Burritos, to be precise. Yesterday the site announced the creation of a 64-restaurant "Burrito Bracket" to find the best burritos in the U.S.  The impetus for this competition traces to Silver's move to a Wicker Park, a Chicago neighborhood, seven years ago. The traditionally Hispanic area was changing due to the influx of "hipsters and yuppies and its taquerias, some run by Mexican families who had immigrated to Chicago a generation earlier, were finding new audiences." Silver wanted to find the best burrito in Wicker Park, so he devised a method that pitted 19 taquerias against each other in a competition similar to an elimination-style basketball tournament. While he never finished that tournament, the idea stuck with him, and now it's back, but on a much bigger scale. Not content to find the best burritos in his neighborhood, Silver wants to find the best ones in the nation.

Of course, there is more to this endeavor than finding a great burrito. Silver explains that the project "involves a mix of seriousness and whimsy. Anna and I both have a lifelong obsession with Mexican-American food. We also know that burritos are not a matter of great national importance. But the question of how consumers might use crowdsourced data to make better decisions is an important one." 

This data was the starting point for winnowing the list of possible contenders for the burrito championship. According to Silver, the past several years "have produced explosive growth for crowdsourced review sites like Yelp." Yelp provided FiveThirtyEight with statistics for every burrito-selling establishment in the U.S.  Finding the value of these statistics is important, Silver continues, because "Billions of dollars turn upon customer reviews at sites like Yelp, Amazon, Netflix and HealthGrades. How should you evaluate crowdsourced reviews as compared to the recommendations from a professional critic, or a trusted friend? Are there identifiable biases in the review sites and ways to correct for them? When using sites like Yelp, should you pay more attention to the number of reviews, or to the average rating?"

In addition to the number crunching, FiveThirtyEight assembled a "Burrito Selection Committee" and hired an award-winning journalist, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, to be a "burrito correspondent. She's already out traveling the country and sampling burritos from every establishment that made the bracket." The Burrito Selection Committee consists of some heavy hitters in the culinary field: Gustavo Arellano represents California, Jeffrey Pilcher represents the West, David Chang is the Northeast correspondent, and Bill Addison represents the South.

You can read more about the science behind this effort, and follow the competition as it progresses, at FiveThirtyEight.

Photo courtesy of FiveThirtyEight


1 Comment

  • Rinshin  on  6/6/2014 at 9:15 PM

    I don't like burritos. Flour tortilla stuffed with stuff - all mixed up.

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