When the U.S. beat England at the 1950 World Cup, overcoming 500-1 odds, it was dubbed the “Miracle on Grass.” For those who hold burritos sacred, similar shock may have hit when they saw a modest Las Vegas fusion restaurant topping a nationwide statistical breakdown.
It’s KoMex, the hole in the wall blending Korean and Mexican flavors for a whopping 4.5 stars (from more than 800 reviews) on Yelp. That rating attracted statistician Nate Silver, overlord of data-driven news and culture site FiveThirtyEight and its official Burrito Selection Committee. The BSC is a key factor in FiveThirtyEight’s search for America’s Best Burrito, along with analysis of Yelp data and a taste test of the 64-snack bracket.
That bracket came from a pool of 67,391 establishments that serve a burrito, whittled down based on the BSC’s own expertise, professional restaurant reviews, best-of lists and VORB, or Value Over Replacement Burrito (like VORP in baseball, as Silver is aiming for a “Moneyball-style experiment”). Silver developed the VORB formula to account for quality and quantity of Yelp reviews and to adjust for the impacts of a restaurant's location on the richness of that data. KoMex’s score is No. 1 in the West and No. 2 in the nation. Even with that statistical firepower, it entered the bracket unseeded and wasn't voted in until the fourth and final round. “Despite the BSC’s incredulousness, it fell in the realm of ‘too high a VORB to ignore,’” explains a June 7 post on FiveThirtyEight.
Maybe the committee's "scouts"—Silver, burrito correspondent and journalist Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Eater's restaurant editor Bill Addison, James Beard Award-winning chef David Chang, author and history professor Jeffrey Pilcher, and OC Weekly editor and nationally syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano—were intrigued by KoMex's Fusion Burrito (bulgogi beef and pico de gallo belong together). More likely they wanted a barometer for the other objective of the great burrito hunt, "to evaluate the reliability of crowdsourced reviews, rather than to take them for granted." In that vein, the BSC picked places with magnificent and crappy VORB scores, because the scouts and the stats don't always agree. And the public, well, Yelp proves how enormously subjective goodness is.
"We’ll eventually crown a national champion burrito, but with no illusions that the bracket can offer a definitive result," Silver wrote in his introductory post. "We hope, nevertheless, that there is some value in our approach of blending analytics and firsthand experience."
Barry-Jester is in the process of gaining that experience by sampling the entire bracket, broken down into regions: California, the rest of the West, the South and the Northeast. In elimination groups of four, 16 burritos from each region will be rated on a scale of 100 based on tortilla, main protein, other ingredients, presentation and overall flavor profile. "We represented as many burrito styles as possible, which presents a challenge when trying to compare them. We decided to judge each burrito against its own aspirations, meaning the simple-yet-elegant bean-and-cheese burrito will not be docked points for a lack of ingredients, and a Mission-style burrito won’t lose points for too much girth, even if I could never eat the whole thing," writes Barry-Jester, who has already chosen a few semifinalists in the South.
Standing between KoMex and the top 16 are three contenders from Arizona ("ground zero of burritoness," according to Pilcher), including the No. 2 seed in the West—Carolina's Mexican Food in Phoenix. Will the Fusion Burrito triumph? A scroll of Yelp shows more love for other dishes (like tacos tantamount to church), and there’s hate, too (it’s Yelp). But with UNLV's Runnin' Rebels missing the NCAA tournament this year after four in a row going out in the first round, it would be so sweet to see an unseeded Vegas burrito give the incredulous a Miracle on Tortilla.