You Probably Didn't Know THIS About Burritos

Photographed By Molly Decoudreaux.
Oh, beloved burrito. What began as a humble meat and bean combo has easily become one of the 20th century's most iconic American foods. But while Mexico's pre-Columbian peoples and North American's Pueblo Indians have been wrapping their vegetables in tortillas for centuries, it wasn't until much more recently that the burrito began taking on a life of its own.

People are so particular about their favorite burrito style, ingredients, and establishments that even discussing it can end friendships and incite culinary wars. Yet, there's a lot about the burrito that remains shrouded in mystery — and just what constitutes a burrito remains a little up in the air, too. A few things we do know: A burrito is not a sandwich (at least according to one Massachusetts judge); and beans tend to be the most common ingredient — other than the tortilla, which is a given. But just who makes the best burrito? And where did it come from?

The exact origins of the burrito are unknown.

Some say the modern burrito likely originated in Sonora, a northwestern state in Mexico (and the country's wheat-growing region), during the early 20th century. By the 1940s, it became a staple food for migrant farm workers in California's Central Valley. Others believe a man named Juan Mendez invented the portable cuisine around the same time in Mexico's Ciudad Juárez, using a tortilla wrapped in a napkin to keep his food warm as he traveled. As the burrito made its way across the border, it morphed into a hybrid of traditional northern Mexican ingredients and regional tastes, making the dish we know today as varied as the millions of people chowing down on it each year.

However, the name "burrito" first began appearing in U.S. print in the 1930s. L.A.'s El Cholo Spanish Cafe is often credited with being the first U.S. restaurant to market burritos on its menu, though Gustavo Arellano (author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and the syndicated column, ¡Ask a Mexican!) says he's found no real evidence to support the claim — and that the first burrito doesn't appear until the 1970s. Still, burritos do appear as a dish in Erna Fergusson’s 1934 Mexican Cookbook, a book highlighting authentic Mexican recipes as well as New Mexican cuisine. According to Fergusson, burritos, or "little burros," are basically tortillas that are filled with chopped chicharrónes and oven-baked.

There is a big difference between Mission-, L.A.-, and California-style burritos.

It's pretty much undeniable that the mother of all burritos is San Francisco's Mission-style burrito, an oversized, overstuffed assemblage of meat, cheese, whole beans, and rice that is often loaded up with salsa, guac, and sour cream. It's all wrapped together in a large and freshly steamed flour tortilla and foil, which you tear off piece by piece as you eat. But order a regular burrito in L.A. and you get something else entirely: a smaller tortilla filled with refried beans, meat and/or cheese, and maybe a little salsa — a dish that's much more in tune with the food's original form. Then, there's the California burrito, a 1980s creation that turns the burrito into its own personal Happy Meal — packing it so that it's practically bursting with meat, cheese, French fries or potatoes, and guac, sometimes with salsa fresca and sour cream.
Photographed By Molly Decoudreaux.

The Mission-style burrito came about in San Francisco's Mission District in the 1960s...

Durango native Febronio Ontiveros created the first Mission-style burrito at El Faro, on Folsom at 20th Street, in September 1961, by combining two six-inch flour tortillas bursting with ingredients to feed a group of hungry firefighters. However, it was Raul and Michaela Duran of San Francisco's Taqueria La Cumbre who first came up with the idea for its assembly-line production, along with allowing customers to choose each ingredient individually, in 1969.

...but exploded in popularity in the 1980s and '90s...

Though dishes like Del Taco's bean and cheese burrito were becoming slowly known nationally in the 1970s, it wasn't really until the 1980s that San Francisco's Mission-style burritos started becoming a go-to staple for locals. It made perfect sense: They were affordable, portable, and pretty much two meals in one. But it was Chipotle founder Steve Ells who really brought Mission-style burritos to the masses. He opened his first Chipotle Mexican Grill — which utilized the same assembly-line burrito production and choose-your-own ingredients — near the University of Denver in 1993. As Chipotles opened in college towns across the U.S., the popularity of the Mission-style burrito with money-starved undergrads exploded.

...which led to the "invention" of the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel.

Sure, it's a fictional tunnel (albeit one that's been well-planned) but seriously, what could be better for San Francisco transplants than a tunnel that delivers fresh burritos from your favorite taqueria cross-country in 42 minutes flat? In theory, it works like this: people in the New York City area place an order for a Mission-style burrito from one of a few dozen Bay Area taquerias. Once a taqueria receives an order, they assemble the burrito, roll it in foil, and send it through a vast networks of pneumatic tubes across the Bay to a sorting facility in Alameda. Here, the burritos are barcoded and flash frozen with liquid nitrogen, then launched 3,000 miles through a former mail delivery tunnel to the Weehawken side. According to The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Company, one-way delivery to the East Coast runs $266.
Photographed By Molly Decoudreaux.
A breakfast burrito is an entirely different entity...

Because when something is as good as a burrito, you want it all the time. Breakfast burritos combine the ease of the burrito with the comfort of breakfast foods — namely eggs, which are then often embellished with cheese, potatoes, guac, salsa, and various meats, all packed into a tortilla and
sometimes even served with a side of chips. A restaurant in Santa Fe claims to have invented the dish back in 1975. In San Francisco, Bean Bag Cafe along Divisadero Street loads theirs with green onions, black beans, and a choice of meats that include chicken apple sausage and soy chorizo, while Bacon Bacon's breakfast burrito includes both its namesake pork product and pork shoulder. is the smothered burrito.

Now this is where a fork and knife are useful. Also referred to a "wet" or "enchilada-style" burrito, the smothered burrito comes covered in either red or green chili sauce (or both, referred to as "Christmas") and topped with a heap of melted cheese. It's messy, decadent, and oh-so-good. This style of burrito is extremely popular in both New Mexico and Michigan — home to a larger Latino population — where some say it originated. San Francisco's Green Chile Kitchen makes a mean smothered burrito that includes rice and jicama slaw.

And then there's fusion...

Like any iconic cuisine, restaurants and chefs are always looking for new ways to put their own signature spin on the burrito. In the 1970s, L.A.-based Oki Dog came out with a burrito stuffed with cheese, chili, hot dogs, and pastrami. These days, you'll find burritos fused with everything from Filipino fare to sushi. Some of S.F.'s best fusion burritos include Curry Up Now's tikka masala burrito, overflowing with onions, chickpeas, and a choice of chicken, paneer, or gobi cauliflower; and HRD Coffee Shop's spicy pork kimchi burrito, combining Korean and Mexican flavors with spicy rice, kiwi salsa, mung bean sprouts, and 24-hour marinated pork.

Where to find some of San Francisco's most sought-after burritos:

El Farolito
El Toro Taqueria

Dos Pinas
La Palma Mexicatessen

Taqueria Los Coyotes

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