There is almost no corner in the United States where you can’t find a burrito. It’s one of the most recognized staples of Mexican American cuisine. Yet, what is surprising is that the burrito was one of the last Mexican foods to catch on in the U.S.
So how did this Johnny-come-lately gain such widespread popularity? As usual, food history can be murky and the genesis of the burrito is especially so. There are even some food historians that contend that the burrito is not really Mexican to begin with!
I have been a burrito lover for many, many years. In college we had a nickname: “logs.” It was a term of endearment for a delicious food that filled you up without emptying your wallet. And it stayed that way for quite some time. There was a passing fancy in the 1990’s when many burritos became “fusion wraps,” but a bit later on non-Mexican burrito creep seriously got under way.
I can remember a day during this time in San Francisco while sampling the fare of a food truck. My order looked like a burrito, it tasted like a burrito, each bite an exemplary melange of ingredients, with morsels of grilled meat melding with pinto beans, rice, and pico de gallo inside a lithe flour tortilla. But the meat in question was sisig (a citrusy, Filipino pork) and the rice was garlic, not Spanish. My thoughts were: Can this concoction from a Filipino food truck rightfully call itself a burrito? And for that matter, do non-Mexican burritos deserve that title or should we be calling them wraps, or hunks, or some other idiom?
The hybrid burrito movement has seen me consume a sushi burrito, a poke burrito, and, in New York City, a “Chinese burrito” made with mapo tofu and salt-cod fried rice. This got me wondering about the process of culinary evolution. Where did the original burrito come from? What did it taste like? Was it anything like what I knew as a burrito? I decided to delve into the burrito story and, as I alluded to earlier, things got a little more opaque, not necessarily any more clear.
First, it is even difficult to define the burrito for a number of reasons, not in the least because everyone has a different idea of an ideal burrito. People can get pretty serious about meat, lettuce, rice, beans, and vegetables. But just maybe that’s what sets the burrito apart….the magic of a food that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s take a step back in history. In 1519, Spanish conquistadors arrived in what today is Mexico. They brought wheat flour and pigs (along with guns, smallpox, typhus, and a demanding gentleman named Hernan Cortes). Prior to the Spanish arrival, the native Aztec Indians depended on corn for their diet to which they added turkey, duck, seafood, insects, tomatoes, avocado, chillies, and chocolate for flavor.
Fast forward a few hundred years and a lively, spicy cuisine developed. It was still mainly dependent on corn, but also incorporated other European ideas.
Two areas of Mexico were different: the northern parts of the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua. These are areas where wheat grows well but corn grows poorly. Many Spanish settlers that followed the conquistadors settled in these states and stuck with wheat.
Thus, it stands to reason that some unknown villager of the 19th century living in Sonora or Chihuahua created a flour tortilla. Also, sometime shortly afterward, someone rolled the tortilla with meat. No one knows for sure, but a leading guess is that this food was named for its shape which resembles the bedrolls carried on the backs of burros, the pack animals in this area.
There is also some credence given to the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern U.S. making flour tortillas with meat and sauce fillings mirroring those of the northern Mexican states.
But the word burrito never appeared in print until 1895 in a Spanish language Dictionary where it is described as a “rolled tortilla with meat or other food within.”
That there was a rolled food in 1895 dispenses with the well known folk tale of a man named Juan Mendez, who sold tacos from a street stand during the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1921) in Ciudad Juarez. It is said that he transported his ingredients on a donkey (burro) from his home to the stand. In order to keep the ingredients warm he wrapped them in a flour tortilla and came to realize that this was a better way to serve his homemade food of meat, rice, and sauce. Whether or not Juan Mendez sold burritos on a donkey cart or had something to do with how popular they became, it is unlikely that he created the burrito based on the dictionary entry.
Early versions of a burrito may have appeared in the U.S. in the 1930s due to braceros, migrant workers that came to California’s Central Valley (Fresno, Stockton) to pick produce in the vast growing fields. Many of their bosses gave them burritos for lunch because they were easy to make and pack. But while many braceros (primarily from central and southern Mexico) were ambivalent about the dish, Americans quickly learned to love it.
Burritos were mentioned in a U.S. publication for the first time in 1934. Appearing in The Mexican Cookbook, a collection of regional recipes compiled by a New Mexican historian Erna Fergusan. A re-issued version of this cookbook is available on Amazon.
It was easy for Americans to embrace the burrito because they had no pre-existing ideas about Mexican foods. Was a flour tortilla inferior to a corn tortilla? This was not a part of the conversation for Americans. They just knew what tasted good. People in Mexico were actually more parochial about their food with each region championing their local dishes.
Burritos first appeared on American restaurant menus in the 1930s beginning with El Cholo Cafe (still in existence) in Los Angeles, California. El Cholo is the word used by Mexican settlers in California for field hands.
Though gaining in popularity, burritos were still not part of the culinary mainstream. The first mention of a burrito in the Los Angeles Times wasn’t until 1958, the same year that the term appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. Burritos took even more time to spread north; the first time a restaurant in San Francisco is known to have served a burrito was in the 1960s.
But the burrito was rapidly going to make up for lost time. Mexican food was quickly finding a home in Southern California. Richard Nixon, as vice president, brought tacos to the White House. He even traveled to Tijuana for Mexican food in 1960 while waiting for the polls to close in his presidential contest with John Kennedy.
What made burritos different from most other Mexican dishes was its metamorphosis. From a simple dish of meats and beans, the burrito in America began to take on many different fillings: not only refried (or other) beans and meat, but also rice, lettuce, salsa, guacamole, shredded cheese, sour cream, and vegetables.
The innovation that caught on was the Mission burrito. It was created by El Faro restaurant in San Francisco. Instead of just beans and meat a Mission-style burrito is a supersize meal that packs in beans, meat, salsa rice, vegetables, and countless other ingredients into a large flour tortilla. It is usually wrapped in foil to hold it all together and keep it warm. Legend has it that owner Febronio Ontiveros created a double burrito on September 26, 1961, for hungry firefighters. Their enthusiastic response inspired him to create an even bigger tortilla for even larger burritos. It was a huge hit and the Mission-style burrito (named for a district in San Francisco) became the standard bearer of the American burrito.
To be fair, another restaurant in the district, La Cumbre, also claims ownership. Just like Philly has dueling origin stories concerning the cheesesteak (Geno’s or Pat’s) so does San Francisco with the Mission burrito.
The beauty of a Mission-style burrito is that you have meat dancing with rice and beans yet allowing some flirting from the cheese and vegetables while the construction, sauciness, and spiciness keeps the beat.
What a food! Started in the borderlands (U.S./Mexico) as a food for laborers and, in many cases, just leftovers in a tortilla. It has a lot in common with a Cornish pasty (English meat pie). Both are highly transportable delivery systems of protein and carbs born out of poverty and necessity.
The burrito next had to make the leap from California to the rest of the country and technology played a crucial role. In 1964, Duane Roberts, after success selling frozen burger patties to Mcdonald’s, sold the first frozen burrito. It was a beef and bean combo with red chili powder. They were portion controlled, easy to handle, and had a long shelf life (not sure about the taste). This brainchild helped spread the burrito to unexpected outlets. The frozen burrito was a trailblazer because it was a way for Mexican foods to access schools and the general public. It’s easy to disparage the idea of a frozen burrito, but in places where consumers didn’t have Mexican restaurants or where they didn’t want to visit them, the grocery freezer department provided a new taste and spurred the popularity of the burrito.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Mission district became a great gathering place for gentrified non-Mexicans….helping the burrito reach new customers, especially one future entrepreneur.
A midwestern named Steve Ellis saw the possibilities and instant appeal of a Mission burrito packed with deliciousness and wrapped in aluminum foil. In addition to the food, the assembly line construction of the Mission burrito seemed perfect for export. He brought the idea home to Colorado opening his first burrito spot in 1993 near the University of Denver. This was the first Chipotle Mexican Grill. They have grown to more than 1800 locations and exported the burrito (for better or worse) worldwide.
As with most beloved foodstuffs, the burrito has many regional variations. Though some purists might disagree (we’ll come to that) and say there is only one true burrito (Mexican style) we personally love that the burrito is a platform for creativity.
Let’s break down the essential burrito styles that any fan of Mexican/Tex-Mex/Cal-Mex should know.
Mexican Style – Burritos Crisostomos
Less is definitely more, and bigger isn’t better in the case of the classic Mexican burrito. Small and thin, the burritos are rarely stuffed with more than two ingredients. They are best thought of as an oversized taco with simple fillings such as potatoes, meats, or refried beans paired with cheese. They also are more popular in northern Mexico compared to southern Mexico, where corn tortillas still reign supreme.
5658 North Mesa Street
El Paso, TX
Other locations throughout Northern Mexico and Texas
Mission Style – La Taqueria
This style has become so ubiquitous that it’s what most people picture when you mention burritos. Thanks to slightly profane versions by chains like Chipotle and Qdobu, the overstuffed calorie bombs (often constructed assembly line style) have become part of the American “cheap eats” creed. The classic version starts out with a huge flour tortilla that is steamed to increase its elasticity. It’s then layered with cilantro lime or Spanish style rice (flavored with tomato and jalapeno), plenty of meat, cheese, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, and different types of salsa depending on the restaurant.
2889 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA
San Diego Style – Ortiz’s Taco Shop
This burrito places meat on a pedestal. Not just any animal protein will do, but specifically carne asada (grilled, sliced beef). There are no toppings except a touch of sour cream and guacamole.
Ortiz’s Taco Shop
3704 Voltaire Street
San Diego, CA
(619) 222 4476
L.A. Style – Lupe’s Burritos
The Los Angeles take on these tortilla packages features flour tortillas filled with refried beans (most often cooked in lard) with plenty of meat, salsa, and chile. Usually only found at roadside stands.
4642 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA
California Style – Taqueria Los Coyotes
French fries in a burrito? Yes! Maybe fries aren’t necessary but they do take this burrito to a different level. Deep fried potatoes, carne asada, sour cream, guacamole, and a sprinkling of cheese. Definitely an American creation!
Taqueria Los Coyotes
3036 16th Street
San Francisco, CA
Korean Style – Kogi BBQ
Large flour tortillas are wrapped around Korean style BBQ (instead of carne asada), sticky or fried rice (instead of Spanish-style), plus plenty of kimchi and Korean hot sauce.
Iconic food truck in Los Angeles area.
Wet Style – Beltline Bar
Known as the smothered burrito, its origins are blurry. Different food writers claim it was invented everywhere from Texas to New Mexico to Grand Rapids, Michigan (where there is a high concentration of places offering the style). This is a knife and fork dish thanks to a scrumptious smearing of red chili sauce. Fillings vary but usually involve seasoned ground beef, refried beans, and cheese. The entire burrito is then drenched with sauce, more cheese, and sour cream.
16 28th Street SE
Grand Rapids, MI
Chimichanga Style – El Charro Cafe
Deep fried burritos, what could be better? Considered the “soul food” of the Southwest, namely Arizona and the northern Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora. Wrapped in a flour tortilla that puffs up and turns golden brown when fried, it’s typically filled with cheese, beans, and shredded chicken or carne asada. While most burritos are rolled, these burritos are folded into a rectangle to help contain the fillings during the deep frying process.
El Charro Cafe
311 North Court Street
Breakfast Burrito – Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant
American ingenuity or a slap in the face to tradition? This burrito skips the beans, rice, and seasoned meats in favor of classic breakfast foods. Fluffy scrambled eggs are usually layered with potatoes, onions, and plenty of bacon or chorizo before being rolled in a flour tortilla. Possibly created in Santa Fe in 1975, they are mainstays at Hardees, Sonic, and McDonald’s.
Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant
95 Sheridan Boulevard
Lakewood, CO (suburb of Denver)
Grilled Stuft Style – Taco Bell
Taco Bell is not Mexican or Tex-Mex; it is it’s own version of American fast food. A large flour tortilla stuffed with a choice of meats (grilled chicken, ground beef, or steak), refried beans, a mysterious cheese blend, and salsa. Cooked in a sandwich press. I’ll let you decide.
Spoiler Alert: this is for informational purposes only. Flour tortillas replaced by whole wheat or spinach flatbreads and fillings like chicken salad or tofu. They have a place somewhere between a sandwich and a burrito, but it’s a place that I never want to venture.
So what about the simple burrito? Is the Mexican style the only true burrito and all the embellishments over the years are just a bastardization of the original? Noted food writer Gustavo Arellano, the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, says: “Mexican food is always evolving. Mexican food that was considered authentic in the 1960s is not the same thing we consider authentic today. If people say a burrito of orange chicken is not authentic because orange chicken is not Mexican, my response is that a flour tortilla is not authentic either. The only reason they exist is because the Spaniards brought wheat to the New World.”
The burrito, in all its forms, is Mexican food. It’s eaten in Mexico in Sonora, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana. At almost every point in the burrito’s evolution, there’s been a Mexican behind it. The California burrito was created by Mexican immigrants, the Mission burrito was created at El Faro by a Mexican immigrant from Durango. Mexicans have always been part of the burrito culture. More than anything it’s borderland food. Borderland food is Mexican.
From a food history standpoint there is a “greater Mexico.” The southwestern part of the United States is very much part of a “greater Mexico.” For people living in the Southwest there’s often a greater sense of connection with people living across the border than people living in Washington, D.C., or New York City, or Mexico City, or southern Mexico. In this light, burritos are a northern Mexican food.
Authenticity debates can be boring. Changing trends are just repackaging. Thinking about burritos and all the other items in the “stuff in bread” genre (the sandwich, the pizza, the bao), they’ve all been co-opted by multiple cultures. The real question may not be whether the burrito concept has spread throughout the world, but rather, why it took so long.
Anyway, we should be reserving our judgement for the real menace: bad burritos! And there are plenty! We should be banding together to contest lame salsa, cold spots, and inferior ingredient diffusion, not hairsplitting over vocabulary, authenticity, or historical developments.
In the end, there is always the unfolding nature of cuisine itself which, like language, is always in transformation as people migrate and take their ingredients and dishes with them. There has to be some eye rolling at the Oxford English Dictionary when words like “bitch face” and “garbage time” are added, but it’s the editor’s job to chronicle language not arbitrate it. Cuisine should have the same inclusiveness.
Now that you’re familiar with the various burrito styles, we’ll leave you with our list of the best place to sample each style.
Long may the delicious burrito roll!