SANDPOINT - Could Joel's Mexican Restaurant feature the best burrito in America?
The country is about to find out, thanks to famed statistician Nate Silver. He and his crew at the blog FiveThirtyEight.com are scouring the states in search of the best burrito the nation has to offer. Included among that list is humble Sandpoint, where local favorite Joel's is in the running for the so-called Burrito Bracket. In the first round of the tournament, Joel's will face Delicious Mexican Eatery in El Paso, Texas, Rancho Bravo in Seattle, Wash., and Kono's in Haleiwa, Hawaii.
"I take it as a huge compliment to be included in something like this," said Joel's owner Joel Aispuro.
Silver's projects are known for including a strong numerical foundation - after all, he was catapulted to fame after correctly predicting 49 out of 50 state election outcomes in the 2008 presidential election and perfectly calling the 2012 presidential election - and the Burrito Bracket is no exception. To select its 64 competitors, Silver and company began with data mining restaurant review site Yelp, which yielded 67,391 restaurant listings with at least one review mentioning burritos. Silver's formula then uses the number and average rating of reviews to assign a ranking within four geographic areas: California, the West, the Northeast and the South.
Afterward, a "burrito selection committee" analyzed the ratings to provide human insight and suggestions into the final lineup. The top 16 contenders in each region were then arranged in a tournament-style bracket, and Joel's made the cut for the West division.
The next phase of the tournament will be a little more hands-on. Silver hired journalist Anna Maria Barry-Jester to travel to all 64 locations and sample each establishment's burritos. Barry-Jester will make an effort to identify and order each establishment's signature burrito and eat at least half of one upon ordering it. She'll then measure each burrito based on the quality of the tortilla, the main protein, the other ingredients, the presentation and the overall flavor profile.
FiveThirtyEight representatives couldn't be contacted for comment by press time, so there's no telling when Barry-Jester will be in Sandpoint to try a Joel's burrito. However, the restaurant's diverse menu and friendliness to all dietary types has already caught her eye.
"Joel's in Sandpoint, Idaho, serves dozens of vegetarian options, including a tofu fajita burrito that gets a lot of love from Yelp reviewers, several of whom claim to be from San Francisco," she wrote for FiveThirtyEight.
For his part, Aispuro isn't sure what burrito Barry-Jester will select to sample for the tournament. However, the restaurant staff will be bringing its top game to hopefully make Joel's the best of the West - or maybe even the nation.
Follow the Burrito Bracket by visiting FiveThirtyEight at www.fivethirtyeight.com/tag/burrito-bracket.