Posted November 15, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

My Favorite Topic – Burritos

November 10, 2004

The wrap that ate L.A.
It’s not just rice and beans anymore. These days, burritos are positively stylin’.
By Carolynn Carreño, Special to The Times

Armchair authorities on Mexican cuisine are fond of saying that burritos aren’t really Mexican. It means “little donkey,” they argue. It’s not little, it’s not a donkey — so it couldn’t possibly be auténtico. As if we care.

Like pizza, which supposedly comes from Naples, or that all-American phenomenon, the hamburger, invented, so they say, by some fancy-pants in Germany, burritos have transcended their roots, real or supposed. And unlike the chile relleno, the enchilada, or even the soft taco, which, if made “correctly” should be pretty much the same wherever you go, burritos, regardless of their origin, are not mired in tradition. The burrito as we know it is puro Californiano and, like all things Californian, a product of innovation and reinvention.

San Francisco’s whopping Mission-style burritos are legendary, of course, giant packages of saucy meat, beans and rice. For San Diegans, carne asada burritos are as integral to the experience of the place as a slice of pie is to a New Yorker — what you grab when you want something cheap, easy to eat, and in the wee morning hours, allegedly capable of reversing the effects of alcohol (and even of curing them the next day).

But though the taco has long eclipsed the burrito’s fame in Los Angeles, we do in fact have a burrito culture, and then some. You’ve always been able to find great burritos here in town — at least as long as burritos have been around. But sometime in the last decade, burritos evolved into something so varied, so delicious and so ubiquitous that it would seem as though the burrito might one day replace the hamburger as L.A.’s signature bite.

Generally speaking, the little donkey we Angelenos know and love is a big, messy, hand-held monster. You find it in every neighborhood, from Boyle Heights to Northridge to Beverly Hills-adjacent; it emerges from colorful, corner burrito joints, from stalwart taco stands, from the trucks that pull up in front of construction sites or pull up in front of parks — even from sit-down restaurants.

What gets handed over the counter at these places is a warm (steamed or quickly grilled) 12-inch flour tortilla, into which any variety and combination of Mexican culinary components — meat, rice, beans, cilantro, onions, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo and hot sauce — might be layered. (Order it con todo, and you’ll get the works.) The sides of the tender, pliable tortilla are folded over the filling and the whole shebang is then rolled in the other direction, creating a nicely sealed, neat and clean log: a self-contained Mexican meal.

That is, except when it’s a burrito mojado, a “wet burrito” that comes on a plate, drenched in sauce. While there are some who insist that a burrito isn’t a burrito unless they can hold it in their hands, these less common hybrids have their fans (the author of this story being one).

A great burrito, as opposed to a merely good one, has a certain gestalt, in which every element adds up to something so delicious it can’t exactly be explained, except to say you know it like you know a good PB & J.

The quality of the ingredients is important, of course, especially for the tortilla. It should be tender, floury and redolent of the salty, almost meaty scent of lard. But even more, a great burrito depends on striking just the right contrast of flavors and textures: spicy meat set off by cool crema or guacamole, the perfect proportion of filling to tortilla, and of rice and beans to the primary ingredient.

But when it comes to burritos, any aficionado knows that god is in the filling, be it the most delicious carnitas, moist chunks of beef in a red chili sauce, or juicy, smoky carne asada.

The classic carne asada burrito is a rare find these days, as the moist chunks of grilled meat are usually replaced with what seems to be stew meat, cut before it’s marinated within an inch of its life, and cooked. But you can still find the real deal in a few taquerías and restaurants, among them El Parian in Pico-Union, which has one of the best carne asada burritos in town. There, the high-quality meat is cooked on the grill.

Creative stuffings

Carnitas, those delicious little morsels of long-cooked pork, also make a mean burrito. Those that fill the burritos at El Diablo and Benito’s Taco Shop are moist and tender with crispy edges, just the way they should be. Slathered with extra shots of salsa verde, there’s nothing like them.

And machaca, a traditional Sonoran specialty of dried, shredded beef that is stewed to make it juicy and flavorful is a draw at Burrito King, the Silver Lake stand that’s been making them since 1969. They’re as compelling as ever.

But more and more, L.A.’s burrito makers have started thinking outside of box. If chicken mole poblano or albondigas are delicious on a plate, why not roll them up in a flour tortilla?

Yuca’s, the ever-popular Los Feliz spot — a tiny free-standing box in which as many as five cooks cram to meet the lunchtime rush — is one of them. Among popular choices is cochinita pibil, a traditional preparation from the Yucatan, where chunks of pork are seasoned, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted for hours until succulent and tender. Here, the tortillas are velvety soft; the burritos folded over only once, so they lie flat on the plate and require a knife and fork to dig in.

At ¡Lotería! Grill in the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, you’ll find some of the most adventurous — and delicious — burritos around. Some are filled with traditional regional dishes, like chicharrones (fried pig skin) in salsa verde, or tinga (chicken stewed with chipotle peppers and chorizo).

Others are more modern takes on classic dishes, like albondigas (meatballs) in chipotle sauce or corn and squash succotash. In any case, the burritos are large, and come with a corner of them “wet” — just enough sauce to require a knife and fork, but not so much as to be considered a hybrid.

Lately the most popular kid on the block is the chile relleno burrito. Although it sounds somewhat redundant — something stuffed inside a wrap — the flour tortilla blanket is actually a nice way to eat a chile relleno. Because it doesn’t have the customary tomato sauce, you can really taste the relleno’s roasted poblano and gooey melted cheese inside the burrito. Tere’s Mexican Grill in Los Angeles makes a great one, but you can find them in taquerías all over town.

For some burrito fans, a transcendent burrito experience is as much about what’s on top of the burrito as what’s inside it. If you’re a fan of the wet burrito, you can ask for one served mojado just about anywhere. Depending on what’s inside, you might find your burrito drenched with enchilada sauce, salsa verde (tomatillo sauce), mole, chile colorado, or chile verde sauce.

But certain burritos mojados stand out. At El Nopal, a popular hole-in-the-wall in West L.A. known as “the home of the pregnant burrito,” the name that drew the moniker is a heifer of a creation, a whole plateful, filled with shredded chicken, sliced avocado and minced white onion, all smothered in enchilada sauce and melted cheese.

Casa Diaz, a cheerful, bright red and yellow spot in Hollywood, is known for its chicken mole loco burrito. Filled with shredded chicken, smothered in rich mole poblano sauce, topped with slices of avocado and giant scoops of sour cream, this rich mountain redefines the burrito altogether.

Is this a good thing?

So is it possible for the burrito to go too far? Since the fish taco craze, which traveled north from Baja California via surfers and Rubio’s, seafood is now fair game in Burritoville. But is it right? Do we really want shrimp in there with our beans and rice?

The answer is, it depends. The whole point of fish tacos is fish that’s battered and deep-fried. Thus, in the burrito tradition of using the flour tortilla to fold up traditional Mexican ingredients, the fish for fish burritos must be batter-fried. Lobster burritos? Think Puerto Nuevo, to go. It could be great.

This may sound overly radical even to an Angeleno, but hey — so did the albondigas burrito until, er, 10 minutes ago. In San Diego, the guacamole gateway to the U.S., these are just a part of breezy, laid-back, burrito-eating life. San Diegans have lately moved on from carne asada to Philly Cheesesteak burritos and “California burritos” — carne asada, guacamole, sour cream and, you guessed it, French fries. Maybe they should have dubbed it a steak-frites burrito.

¡Ay, caramba!

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog