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“People criticize burritos, saying, ‘Oh, burritos are an American invention. Flour tortillas are not eaten by Mexicans,’” says Pati Jinich, Mexican food writer and host of the James Beard Award-winning series Pati’s Mexican Table. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.” So allow me to begin by making an important clarification: burritos originated in Mexico.
Burritos aren’t just Mexican in origin; they’re probably tacos as well. That’s according to Texas Monthly taco editor (and author of the Serious Eats guide to American taco styles) José Ralat, who famously declared burritos a type of taco in 2019, drawing on the work of Mexican food historians Martha Chapa and Alejandro Escalante. Ralat stirred up a fierce Twitter battle; but, more importantly, by contextualizing burritos in this way, he also clarified the way they fit within the canon of Mexican cuisine.
“Whether people argue that the Mexican states of Sonora or Chihuahua are the birthplace of the burrito, the fact is, the food named after a small donkey is from northern Mexico,” says Ralat. “The burritos of both Mexican states share one thing: an affinity for a single guiso, a filling, with an optional schmear of refried beans. But the common denominator is the tortilla: a flour tortilla.”
A Brief History of the Burrito
The origins of the burrito date back to the creation of flour tortillas, possibly as early as the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadores attempted to convert the maíz-based Indigenous cuisine to one based on wheat. Most of Mexico’s climate resisted wheat cultivation, especially in the south, but it adapted well to the northernmost areas colonized by Spaniards (i.e. present-day Guanajuato, Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas).
The earliest written account of burritos appears in the 19th century in the Diccionario de Mejicanismos. According to the legend (and the Encyclopedia of Latino Culture), some time during the Mexican revolution a lone food vendor named Juan Mendez transported the food across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, into what is now the corner where Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. He carried the burritos on the back of his donkey, hence the name.
But the messy reality of history doesn’t always fit into simple narratives involving lone heroes. The truth is burritos have long existed in the borderlands north and south of the Rio Grande. Countless home cooks, vaqueros (cowboys), and braceros (workers) spread the burritos throughout the US and we will never know their names.
If you still insist on a linear story explaining the popularity of burritos in the US, I suppose I could point you to El Cholo Spanish Cafe in 1934 Los Angeles. The restaurant is cited as having the first US menu featuring burritos on its printed menu. In 1952, meat wholesaler Duane Roberts created frozen beef and bean burritos (an idea he’s rumored to have swiped from a Mexican butcher), which found their way to fast food restaurants, school cafeterias, and, eventually, home freezers everywhere. In the 1960s, fast food entrepreneur Glen Bell Columbused the hard-shelled taco from a taqueria across the street from his burger stand, eventually founding the Taco Bell chain. He added burritos to the menu, further popularizing them across the United States. With two Anglo men’s names so prominently attached to the history of burritos, it isn’t any wonder that burritos are considered a gringo invention.
What Isn’t a Burrito
Before we get to the various burrito styles, let’s talk about what’s not included on this list. People love the sushi burrito, but to me it’s more of a maki roll with Mexican-ish ingredients (please see Sushi Y Mariscos Que Rollo in Northridge, CA for example)—no hay tortilla.
Likewise, a burrito bowl is not a “deconstructed” burrito, and please stop using that word around my food. Ceci n’est pas un burrito; the name references the absence of the very thing which would make it so.
Can we classify Bengali kathi rolls and Maharashtrian frankie rolls as burritos? That seems a disservice to Indian cuisine. But then again, I’ve been known to roll up refried beans inside chapati, so who am I to say?
As for those wrap sandwiches we reach for in desperation at airport shops, when I mentioned them to Jinich she diplomatically demurred, “I think a main difference between a wrap and a burrito is that burritos are always hot. The tortilla needs to be pliable and resilient. If they made the wraps with heated flour tortillas…?” But of course, wraps are made from tortillas durable enough to withstand wilting lettuce and watery chicken salad for hours on a refrigerated shelf. So, no: they aren’t burritos.
That isn’t to say this list is complete. You can put just about anything inside a burrito, including Nutella. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and that flour tortilla. But let’s go back to the beginning, in Sonora and Chihuahua.
Common Burrito Styles
Name a guisado (a kind of very thick stew), and it's been wrapped up in a burrito. There’s Jalisco-style vinegary goat birria, Sinaloan pork chilorio, El Paso-style carne con chile, or Sonoran shredded dried beef machaca with potatoes; any of these enclosed within a flour tortilla—and nothing else—makes a diminutive, five-inch-long, two-inch-wide burrito that’s mighty in flavor.
Because there are only two components, quality is crucial. The filling must stand on its own as something you could eat as a main dish, and the tortilla must be freshly made. “The filling has to be so good that when you put it together with a phenomenal flour tortilla you really don’t need much else,” says Jinich.
Mexicans are proud of their flour tortillas. “It has to be freshly made or just bought from a place that specializes in flour tortillas, and it has to have good wheat, good fat, whether that’s pork or beef lard, freshly rendered, or good shortening,” says Jinich. And it should be cooked on a comal (a stovetop-sized steel or cast iron pan) or plancha (a larger steel cooking surface). “Filling and tortilla should complement each other, making something greater out of that union.”
But if you want to spoon over a little salsa or crunchy garnish before each bite, or have some beans and rice on the side as a chaser, no one is going to stop you. One important note: These aren’t the only type of burrito served in Mexico, but they’re a dominant player.
Bean and Cheese Burrito
Like the burrito itself, pinto frijoles refritos originated in northern Mexico and became popular throughout the American Southwest with the arrival of waves of immigrants in the mid-20th century. Growing up in suburban Denver, we scattered grated cheddar cheese over a thick stripe of molten beans in a tortilla hot out of the comal. If you wrapped it quickly, the cheese would melt by the time you got the burrito to your mouth, but you’d have to eat it quick because the window between burnt tongue and coagulated cheese doesn’t last forever.
As with all childhood foods, you’ll never make bean burritos that taste and feel exactly the way you remember your parents making them. Al & Bea’s in Los Angeles makes possibly the most popular bean and cheese burrito with green chile.
Speaking of Los Angeles, there’s a wide range of burrito styles served in the city, but the signature style is a slightly larger version of the classic Mexican burrito: a guisado with stewed or refried beans, salsa or chile, and cheese—and, by the way, you will find this same combination in Mexico. Los Angeles’ first Mexican restaurant, El Cholo, claims to have been the first to put this kind of burrito on their menu, back in the 1930s, although it surely dates earlier than that among street vendors and home cooks in the area.
The burrito filled with scrambled eggs, often combined with fresh chorizo, potatoes, and grated cheese, originates in New Mexico, although Tia Sophia’s, a restaurant in Santa Fe, was the first to call it a “breakfast burrito” on their menu in the 1970s. (Breakfast tacos, on the other hand, may have originated among miners in Northern Mexico, according to Ralat.) Bacon, carne asada, hash browns, fries, salsas, mashed avocado, pickled jalapeños, pico de gallo—any one of these may be included, in any combination. Breakfast burritos range in size from around six inches long by three inches wide, but most (like Tia Sophia’s smothered version) are closer to eight or nine inches long by four or five inches wide. Lately, griddling the burritos with a layer of crunchy fried cheese around the outside, like at the Lowkey Burritos popup in Los Angeles, has become popular.
Dorado-style burritos are burritos that have been seared on a hot, oiled plancha until the exterior is golden and crisp all over. Once supposedly part of the secret menu at La Taqueria in San Francisco, which stole the idea from tacos dorados (“golden tacos”), it’s now pretty much the way everyone orders their burritos at the restaurant. The style is available elsewhere, too: for example, El De Oro: Burritos Dorados in Los Angeles offers it, and even Taco Bell does a version where the burritos are griddled using a sandwich press.
Mission/San Francisco Style
Far on the other end of the burrito continuum from the relatively diminutive guisado-filled burritos, Mission-style burritos, which range from around nine- to 10-inches long to the size of your forearm, are known more for the quantity than the quality of their fillings. That isn’t to say that the Mission burrito is typically filled with garbage; it’s more that you don’t necessarily have to master the more complex parts of Mexican cuisine in order to pull it off. Many a hungry customer has been satisfied with competently seasoned beans and rice, a generous dollop of fresh-made guacamole and/or pico de gallo, cheese, and sour cream.
Those ingredients, give or take, form the foundation of the classic Mission burrito. Sometimes seasoned ground beef is included—sour cream can cover a multitude of sins (though not all of them). Sometimes it’s carnitas, or carne asada. If there’s salsa, hopefully it’s judiciously added and doesn’t render the whole thing soggy. Chopped radishes? Why not? Pickled jalapenos? Don’t mind if you do. The desired effect is a variety of flavors and textures, with none of them dominating any of the others
The Mission burrito got its name because it originated in the Mission District of San Francisco. As Mexican food historian Gustavo Arellano has documented in Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Febronio Ontiveros of El Faro on Folsom invented the gigantic burrito around 1961 to feed the local firefighters around the corner.
They’ve been growing in popularity ever since. Which came first, swaddling a newborn baby in a blanket and calling them a burrito baby, or saying your Mission-style burrito is the size of a human baby? Who’s to say? Their popularity spread throughout San Francisco and beyond, and we reached peak Mission burrito once Denver-based chain Chipotle adopted them and started serving them everywhere. For many Americans with limited exposure to Mexican food, these are burritos.
With the creation of the Mission burrito, tortillerias started producing Mission-style tortillas, larger than the previously standard six inches in diameter. But people in Hermosillo, Sonora, have been pressing tortillas sobaqueras, thin tortillas made from wheat flour that are as long as your arm, since at least the 1700s, grilling them on giant, half-dome planchas, and wrapping them around carne asada, chihuahua or mozzarella cheese, tomato, avocado, and, sometimes, pepperoni slices to make burros percherones. Just when you’re ready to knock Mission burritos for being so “bigly” American, this mega burrito, which can reach 20 inches in length, created by the same people who made the petite guisado burritos we started with, comes along and proves your preconceptions wrong.
Frequently confused with the Mission, Cali burritos are also gigantic and have multiple fillings. But they skip the beans and rice and starch up instead with French fries alongside carne asada, guacamole, pico de gallo, and cheese. The Cali originates from the southern end of California, in San Diego. It is somehow very appropriate to low-key surfer culture that this burrito style has mostly stayed under the radar, and hasn’t ever been taken up by a popular chain in the way the Mission has.
A chimichanga is another gift originating from the Sonora/Arizona region: a securely wrapped burrito, a little larger than the Mexican variety, and usually stuffed with a single filling plus cheese, that’s deep fried or fried in a shallow pan. It’s sometimes covered with salsa or more melted cheese, which sacrifices some of that crunch.
Some say the chimichanga was invented in 1922 when a chef at El Charro restaurant in Tuscon, AZ, accidentally dropped a burrito into a deep fryer. But why would such a good idea happen by mistake when we have flautas (a rolled taquito, fried) as a precedent—not to mention buñuelos, chile relleno, chicharrones? Mexican cooks have been frying things.
This is not a recent brunch invention and, no, the bacon does not replace the tortilla. This is a fully-formed burrito wrapped in flour tortilla, then wrapped in strips of bacon and griddled until crisp on the outside. Ralat told me about a version filled with a cream cheese-stuffed chile found in Hermosillo, Sonora. North of the border, Sonora Grill in Moreno Valley, CA, serves “El Chapo.” It has all the typical Mission-style fillings but in a smaller package, and is also wrapped in bacon and fried. Tuscon, AZ, food truck Percheron Mexican Grill wraps bacon around their giant, Hermosillo-style burritos just to be extra.
The Kogi BBQ food truck rose to fame in the late aughts for serving Korean-style short ribs nestled in corn tortillas. This was the late-night, post-bar-hopping vision of co-founder Mark Manguera, though it was chef-partner Roy Choi who brought it to life in late 2008. While Korean tacos became A Thing (food trucks also became a thing, though Mexican-owned taco trucks had long been a feature in Latinx communities), Kogi and the legion of copycat food trucks have also been filling burritos with Korean-style meats, like those short ribs and bulgogi (marinated, grilled beef or pork), and garnishing with everything from kimchi to hash browns.
Wet Burrito/Smothered Burrito
Whether you say “wet” or “smothered,” this style of burrito is comprised of a 10- to 12-inch tortilla wrapped around refried beans, meat like ground beef or grilled chicken, grated cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sometimes rice, sour cream, and other ingredients, which is then covered in copious amounts of either red or green salsa, or sometimes an enchilada-style sauce, all of it blanketed by a layer of melted cheese (a thick blanket if the sauce and filling aren’t particularly good). Some say the style originated in Michigan (at Beltline Bar in Grand Rapids), others say Texas; I say both. It’s a style that was popularized because of the mid 20th-century migration of Mexican workers from Texas up through the Midwest, including to Detroit and Chicago. Unlike most other burritos, which are wrapped in foil and eaten in hand, the smothered burrito must be served in a dish and eaten with a fork; it’s sit-down food. And while your wet burrito may have spent some time under a salamander or broiler to melt that cheese, it’s typically not baked in the sauce like enchiladas (which are also different in that they are typically made with corn tortillas).
Corn Tortilla Burrito
Finally, a surprising anomaly I had to include: Pancho’s Mexican Taqueria in Atlantic City makes their burritos with corn tortillas. The restaurant was founded by Fabiola Cruz in 2006 with the intention of serving the growing Mexican immigrant population. The restaurant is now owned and run by her son, Joshua.
When I asked Joshua Cruz why his restaurant uses corn tortillas for their burritos, he told me it was a matter of preference for his Mexican clientele. “The biggest thing we did, when we started, was we asked what their favorite foods and ingredients are. We used their ingredients.” And since most of that community are immigrants from Oaxaca in southern Mexico, they prefer corn tortillas to flour. Cruz says they make larger-than-standard size tortillas for the burritos from scratch, to order. This makes them pliable enough for the job.
A burrito wrapped in corn tortilla—is it still a burrito? The way I see it, it’s as if an ancestral indigenous hand has reached out to complicate a Mexican food already complicated by colonialism, migration, and appropriation, not to erase that history or the journey of the burrito, but to remind us that Mexican cuisine isn’t a monolith, that it won’t bend to simple categorization; that it’ll do what it wants.