In honour of our new Cali-Mex blend, we explore the history and styles of the burrito, one of the most famous Mexican-American foods and the inspiration for this blend.
What is a burrito and why do we love it so? Simply put, a burrito is a tortilla wrap filled with Mexican-inspired ingredients, like beans, cheese, meat, and salsa, or anything really. Think of it as the shish taouk of California. It is the meal of choice in much of the US border region ranging from California to Texas, and well worth a try. Thus we offer a brief primer on burrito history and styles to enhance your future enjoyment of this culinary achievement.
The burrito (which means “little donkey” in Spanish) originated in Mexico. Actually it was invented in America. The burrito’s true origin is hotly debated in terms of time- between the mid 1800s to early 1900s, or perhaps much earlier- and place- either in northern Mexico, southern California, or much farther south. Corn tortillas wrapped with all manner of fillings would have been eaten by Mesoamericans long before Europeans arrived. But burritos are made with larger, stretchy wheat tortillas able to hold many fillings. So while certainly inspired by pre-Columbian bases, today’s burrito really owes its origin to the modern states of Mexico and America, notably California.
One of the burrito’s origin stories describes a humble servant and a lunch-laden donkey delivering much-needed meals in the northern city of Juarez during the Mexican Revolution. Other historical records place its origin further south and much earlier, picturing the burrito traversing the desert in caballeros’ saddlebags. More likely, the carne asada burrito migrated north with Mexican farm workers during the 40’s and 50’s- those who survived the ordeal were able to establish themselves selling burritos to passing motorists- first by the road and then in one of California’s innumerable drive-thrus. Many stories surround the origin of the burrito, ranging from the mundane to the obscene. But it was the grab-and-go lifestyle of California consumer after the 1950s that made the burrito an institution.
California is certainly the most famous terroir in terms of burritos, possibly its birthplace and incubator to many distinct styles. Any guide to this distinctive dish should include a quick review of the most famous favorites in California’s major cities.
San Diego- The California burrito, the pride of San Diego, is usually made with carne asada, french fries, cheese, and beans, along with sour cream and guacamole for a burrito supreme. The origin of the California burrito is said to have been in the 1980s at the small chain of Roberto’s taco shops, which still operate around the city (which is why many taco shops in San Diego have similar -erto names: Alberto’s, Rigoberto’s, Humberto’s). Today it is a wildly popular fill-up available at every taqueria around San Diego, a perfect follow-up to a fun night out or a satisfying day of surfing. Comic-Con attendees sample California burritos the same way celebrities visiting Quebec have opinions on poutine. Carne asada fries, a tortilla-free variant, is actually a kind of So-Cal poutine. They are little available outside the San Diego area, but are catching on at some restaurants in San Francisco.
Los Angeles: LA may be something of a latecomer as a city with a distinct burrito style, but its entry into the field was as spectacular as the entertainment capital deserves. The simple bean and cheese burrito did not originate in LA, but has long thrived there (perhaps a nod to the city’s many health conscious and vegetarian resident). It was not until the brilliantly fused Korean Taco, first sold at the Kogi Taco Truck in 2008, that the LA food scene found its voice. Now Kim Chi burritos are a must-have for anyone visiting LA- they even have them at the airport.
San Francisco: The “Mission-style” burrito refers to the Mission district of San Francisco where the assembly-line style of burrito production was born, reputedly at El Faro in 1961. Around the city, customers are treated to dozens of metal containers filled with meats, beans, cheeses, salsas, and condiments. Carne asada, carnitas (Mexican pulled pork), chicken, tofu, rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, hot sauce, whatever. Selecting whatever combination of flavours fits today’s whim, then watching it wrapped in aluminum foil and pressed, a hungry San Franciscan has a hot, custom meal in about 5 minutes. It is probably the most famous and exported kind of burrito- now available nationwide thanks to chains like Chipotle. Montreal has a fine representation of this style at M4 Burritos. It is also the style that accepts different fillings more liberally, making it easy to make with whatever ingredients are available.
Now you can try it at home- check out our burrito recipe here!